• Dolphins get a steal with linebacker David Long: For just $5.5 million over two years, Long is an excellent scheme fit in Miami's defense.
• 49ers only get better by adding Javon Hargrave: An already elite defensive line is now even more so after San Francisco signed Hargrave to a mega deal in free agency.
• Jimmy Garoppolo a questionable fit in Las Vegas: Garoppolo’s efficiency stats never matched up with his PFF grade, and that’s where the bulk of the concern is.
Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins
The 2023 NFL free agency bonanza is cooling down, so let's look at some of the best and more questionable schematic fits so far. There’s always going to be a monetary aspect to a free-agent signing, but here we are thinking mostly about the player on the field and the team and scheme they are joining. There haven’t been many head-scratching signings, and so there are no “bad” scheme fits — just some questionable ones.
LB David Long, Miami Dolphins
Contract: 2 years $11 million
It's almost hard to believe that one of the better ascending linebackers in the league would sign for this cheap. Long agreed to a two-year, $11 million deal with the Dolphins, putting him at an average annual salary of $5.5 million. The PFF projection was $40 million over four years ($10 million per year) with $25 million guaranteed. Quite the gap.
First, Long has played better each year he’s been in the league since coming out of West Virginia as a sixth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans. He came to the 2019 combine undersized at 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds and benched only 15 reps. That put him in the 25th percentile of all linebackers on the bench press. He did show off his athleticism with a 100th percentile three-cone, a 98th percentile 20-yard shuttle, a 95th percentile vertical jump and an 89th percentile 40-yard dash. The size and strength concerns dropped him all the way down to the sixth round, but interestingly enough, he’s become one of the best run stoppers at the position.
Long’s WAR figure has trended up all four years in the NFL, with his most recent two well above average among linebackers. In 2021, he finished 17th at the position before really exploding in 2022 with 0.33 WAR, which put him eighth among the 91 linebackers in the sample for 2022. His run defense stood out this past season, a facet in which he earned an 89.0 grade that ranked fifth among linebackers.
As the Dolphins transition from the man-to-man and blitz-heavy system they have utilized on defense for a few seasons now, they go out and bring in a linebacker comfortable in zone coverage. No team played more Cover 1 (man coverage) than the Dolphins the past two seasons, while the Titans sit in the middle of the pack at 15th. Vic Fangio — the Dolphins' new defensive coordinator — played a league-average amount of Cover 1 in his three years as the Denver Broncos‘ head coach from 2019-2021.
There were 82 linebackers in the 2022 regular season with more than 150 coverage snaps, and all three Dolphins on the list played less than 70% of their snaps in any sort of zone coverage. Elandon Roberts, Duke Riley and Jerome Baker were 77th, 78th and 80th in this category, respectively. Long placed 53rd at 79.3%.
Signing a linebacker who is getting better each season and can help transition to a new defensive scheme on a cheaper deal is a great move by the Dolphins.
EDGE Marcus Davenport, Minnesota Vikings
Contract: One year, $13 million
The former first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints moves to Minnesota on a one-year, “prove-it” deal, He’ll earn $13 million in 2023 as he tries to bounce back from what looked like, on the surface level, a missed opportunity to cash in big entering the last year of his rookie deal.
After a nine-sack year in 2021, Davenport seemed primed to break out in 2022, but the sack numbers fell off a cliff. He finished 2022 with 0.5 sacks. However, looking deeper into the numbers reveals a rosier telling of the story.
Davenport ranked 11th in pass-rush win rate among edge rushers in 2022 (20.6%) and 19th in pressure rate (15.3%). Those numbers place him around some of the elite pass rushers in the NFL. Davenport just had one of the worst seasons in converting pressure into sacks, maybe of all time. While teammates Carl Granderson and Cameron Jordan were second and 12th, respectively, in the rate at which they converted sacks to pressure in 2022, Davenport was 122nd out of 123 edge rushers in the same stat. Davenport also played most of his snaps on the right side of the defensive line, which could be where he ends up in Minnesota if Za’Darius Smith is replaced.
The low sack numbers are concerning, but the more expansive numbers tell a story where Davenport starts converting all his pressures into sacks and gets a huge payday in the 2024 offseason.
DI Javon Hargrave, San Francisco 49ers
Contract: Four years, $84 million
One of the more underrated interior defensive linemen in the league, Hargrave fills a huge need for the 49ers in a specific way.
San Francisco could not find anyone to rush the passer from interior alignments and, specifically, from between the guards in 2022. Last year, as a team they earned a 63.0 pass-rush grade from 0, 1, 2 and 2i alignments — any position between the guards. Hargrave was at 90.6 last year while rushing from more difficult alignments. The 49ers' defense is now set across the board on pass-rush downs. There are at least three elite players between Hargrave, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. Armstead had a slightly down year in 2022 but has played elite football in years prior.
The move helps develop a pass rush but there are concerns offenses could keep picking on 49ers in the middle in the run game. As a team the 49ers had a lowly 45.0 run defense grade from the between-the-guard alignments. Hargrave was better at 63.0 last season but came in at 51.6 and 31.5 in 2020 and 2021. Hargrave was a monster run defender as a Steeler where he was drafted and spent his first four years. The 49ers will be hoping for that player again. If he regains that form, this is a truly perfect move for San Francisco.
QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Las Vegas Raiders
Contract: Three years $72.75 million
The Raiders looked at the “QB Wins” and “EPA per play” numbers and figured Jimmy G was worth a whole lot of money. The Garoppolo question is interesting, at least. Who or what was driving his wins with the San Francisco 49ers? Was it Jimmy himself or the surrounding talent and coaching?
Garoppolo’s efficiency stats never matched up with his PFF grade, and that’s where the bulk of the concern is. EPA per play is a team-level stat that can be used to evaluate individual performances, while PFF grade is certainly more of a player-level stat.
A look at how the current AFC quarterbacks stack up using EPA/play from the past two seasons with Aaron Rodgers most likely joining the #Jets pic.twitter.com/OAEeXpv6aX
— SumerSports (@sumersports) March 17, 2023
Those are gaudy efficiency numbers over the past two seasons, but his 75.7 PFF grade ranks 20th of the 40 quarterbacks who played 550 or more snaps.
Garoppolo will pair with the best receiver he’s played with in Davante Adams, but the whole receiving corps is worse than that of the 49ers, and the offensive line is a step below, too. We also don’t have much evidence that head coach Josh McDaniels can elevate his quarterback the same way Kyle Shanahan has.
The flip side is that, at 31 years old, Garoppolo is still young for a veteran quarterback as the quarterback age curve keeps lengthening into the late 30s. He could still have good years in him and has so much playing experience that there may be a potential breakout. That’s the best telling of the situation where the actual outcome is that Jimmy Garoppolo is exactly who we think he is at this point, and giving him close to the same amount of money as Derek Carr got with the Saints is not a good bet.
WR Jakobi Meyers, Las Vegas Raiders
Contract: Three years, $33 million
In a vacuum, Meyers is a good player who certainly deserved the money the Raiders spent on him. He’s just a very specific player and might not round out the Raiders' receiving corps. There is probably too much similarity between Meyers and Hunter Renfrow, and it leaves the team without a true vertical threat on the field. Davante Adams is a Tier 1 wide receiver who can play anywhere and do anything, but providing him more freedom by having a speedster also on the field might have been money well spent. The team did sign Phillip Dorsett, who ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash in 2015, but he just turned 30 and started only four games for the Texans last season.
Now, the team has two slot receivers, one outside receiver and whoever plays tight end for them in 11 personnel, where they threw the ball 78% of the time last season. Meyers had some success lining up outside under Josh McDaniels in 2020 and 2021 as a Patriot, and he will more likely have to be that player for the Raiders than Renfrow. In those two seasons, Meyers’ receiving grade while lined up outside was 79.6.
At $33 million across three years, this is not an expensive deal but is a questionable fit.
CB Patrick Peterson, Pittsburgh Steelers
Contract: Two years $14 million
Peterson played well this past season but is not the best pure fit in Pittsburgh. The Vikings had him play zone 76% of the time he was in pass coverage last season, which was the 12th-highest rate by any cornerback in the league. Cameron Sutton, now of the Detroit Lions, took the top spot for the Steelers last year at 58% and 89th out of 119 cornerbacks.
Going into his age-33 season, Peterson has a lot to offer as a veteran in terms of leadership, but his fifth-highest WAR among cornerbacks in 2022 might just have been a blip as he trends downward in the twilight of his career. Being in a zone-heavy system best suits him at this point. With that said, there’s no reason why the Steelers couldn’t support him schematically to bring out the best in him. The contract isn’t bad, either, as it can be just a one-year deal with limited dead cap if he’s cut after this season.
After a really nice 2018 season with the Arizona Cardinals, Peterson in his next three seasons finished 54th, 73rd and 53rd in WAR among cornerbacks. This past season’s out-of-nowhere fifth-ranked finish was nice to see, but whether he can place even in the top 40 this season is anyone's guess.