NFL free agency is a beautiful time — everyone waits for Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport to drop bombs over the course of a few days, eagerly standing by to see which teams make power plays. Some of the acquisitions pay great dividends and some have poor return on investment, causing setbacks for the franchise. That being said, these are the 2020 free agents that carry the most risk:
(All contract projections are provided by our friends at OverTheCap.com)
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Several analysts here at PFF have hammered this one home — Data Scientist Kevin Cole wrote two excellent articles on Derrick Henry: one on how he is teaching the wrong lessons about building an offense and one on projecting his future using PFF WAR. And NFL Analyst Ben Linsey wrote about how Austin Ekeler deserves a bigger contract than Henry. It’s not that we hate Henry, we just recognize the lack of positional value and understand that putting up over $10 million in capital for a running back takes cap space away from positions that matter more.
Henry is an absolute tank and difficult to bring down — he owns the most broken tackles (71), yards after contact per attempt average (4.16) and runs of 10-plus yards (52 — 13 more than any other running back). However, he has seen 85 more carries than any other back and has benefited from having the sixth best offensive line run-blocking for him. The most important part of running back performance is how the player fares in the receiving game, an area that Henry has been poor in. He saw only 28 targets this year and dropped three while producing just one yard per route run, which ranks 37th of 48 qualifying running backs. Twitter blew up over Henry’s Wild Card and Divisional rounds when he rushed for over 180 yards in each contest, but the Titans reached the postseason not because of Henry — but because of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
EDGE Bud Dupree
Rule number one of NFL free agency: never trust the sack totals. Dupree had double the amount of sacks in 2019 than he has had in any of his previous four seasons in the NFL. He made more impactful plays, but generated pressure on a per-play basis that failed to crack the 50th percentile:
|Season||Pressure rate||Pos. rank|
(Regular season only, minimum 200 pass-rushes)
Dupree had a poor pressure rate and was still average in winning rep-to-rep with just a 13.1% pass-rush win rate, ranking tied for 50th. With the handful of big impact plays, Dupree had a career year in 2019, producing a 76.3 pass-rush grade that was 24th at his position. His previous high in his first four seasons sat at just 61.0. That’s not good, folks. Dupree was good in 2019, but the historic play from him is too poor to pay for. Not to mention, sacks are more descriptive than predictive. Never trust the box score.
CB Trae Waynes
Trae Waynes has yet to live up to his 11th overall selection back in 2015. He’s started the past three seasons for the Vikings at outside corner and has produced sub-65.0 coverage grades in every season. Among 64 cornerbacks to see at least 100 targets at outside corner since 2017, Waynes’ 64% catch rate allowed was 57th, and his 1,724 yards allowed were 60th. His speed is elite and up there with the quickest at his position, but it hasn’t helped him any from getting beat consistently. Minnesota has played a zone-heavy scheme, and Waynes is at his worst there — over the past three years, his catch rate allowed in zone jumps to 72.2%, which ranks second worst at outside corner. He has decent man skills and has been better in that aspect, so he certainly fits in better with a man scheme as opposed to zone. A change of scenery might make him a breakout, but be careful with paying for potential.
Jamie Collins started off his career with the New England Patriots in 2013 and was successful until he was traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2016. It was obvious he was not the same player outside of Bill Belichick’s scheme:
|Season||PFF overall grade||Pass-rush grade||Yds per cover snap|
|2016 (W1-8 with NE)||82.9||74.1||0.61|
|2016 (W9-17 with CLV)||54.1||65.0||1.17|
He signed a four-year, $50 million extension with Cleveland, missed most of 2017 due to injury and was subsequently cut after 2018. Belichick brought him back and (kind of) made him the player he once was. Collins was a solid off-ball linebacker in 2019 — he played 324 coverage snaps in coverage and allowed just 25 catches, zero touchdowns and eight first downs while combining for five interceptions and pass breakups. He also picked up 31 pressures on his 179 pass-rushes. If New England is interested in bringing back the 12th most valuable linebacker, it seems like there shouldn’t be much to worry about. For any other team wanting him in their scheme, though, there’s plenty of reasons to worry given his time in Cleveland. In other words, Collins is a risk for any team not named the Patriots.
Former second overall pick Greg Robinson has looked anything but the type of player typically selected at his draft spot. In each of his first five seasons in the NFL from 2014-18, Robinson never cracked the top 30 in PFF grade among left tackles. He ended that streak in 2019 but still ranked just 21st. He signed a one-year contract extension prior to the 2019 season for $6.5 million, and OverTheCap projects him at $7.8 million this go around. In his career, Robinson has had the most penalties playing at offensive tackle, which is eight more than any other player at the position in the timespan and nearly 20 more than No. 3. He allowed a 7.5% pressure rate at left tackle in that period, as well, ranking among the three worst in the NFL.
Throughout his four-year career, Von Bell has shown to be a great box safety against the run as well as when he’s tasked with blitzing. His coverage performance though? No bueno. He’s been exposed when playing free safety, producing the lowest coverage grade at that alignment and allowing the most explosive plays while making very few plays on the ball. Over the past four seasons, Bell has allowed a 108.5 passer rating in coverage and 10 touchdowns with just one interception. The most valuable aspect of a safety is their coverage ability, and Bell hasn’t been able to show he can do that at a high level. Not to mention, he’s performed poorly outside the box. Whichever team signs him will likely limit his role to strictly the box, and box safeties generally aren’t the most valuable.
CB Logan Ryan
While he had five interceptions on the year, Ryan got absolutely worked in the slot. At that alignment during the 2019 season, Ryan surrendered 11 plays that resulted in a gain of 20 or more yards, which was three more than anyone else. In total, he gave up 908 yards in coverage there — over 300 more than anyone else. He did this while posting an average forced incompletion rate. He was great at the catch point on contested targets, but the problem was him getting torched on downfield targets and allowing separation. The Chiefs recognized this and lit him up for 13 catches and over 200 yards with three touchdowns in their two games against the Titans.
EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.
As said previously, never trust the sack numbers. Fowler had the best season of his four-year career in 2019, producing a 73.4 pass-rush grade that ranks 31st among qualifying edge defenders. Fowler has gathered up the sixth most sacks (15) while ranking 38th in win rate and 20th in pressure rate. Not to mention, he had the second most pressures that were cleanups or pursuits. His pressure rate this year was over three percentage points higher than we have seen from him in a single season. Fowler is likely going to get overpaid based on the 2019 sack numbers, but that’s not to say he isn’t a good player — he’ll be a good addition to a pass-rush unit if a team can get him for the right price.
There are some sneaky solid wide receivers who have reliable hands — unlike Agholor — in this free-agent class. Since coming into the league in 2015, Agholor has ranked among the bottom third in percentage of catchable passes caught and been one of the least productive on a per-route basis by gathering just 1.06 yards per route run in that timespan, ranking 86th of 91 receivers. He is coming off a season in which he produced a 54.9 receiving grade, ranking 92nd of 98 wide receivers. An even more concerning part of this is that his 2019 grade was the third best mark he’s had in a single season in his five-year NFL career. He was last in receiving grade at his position in 2015 and second to last in 2016. Agholor will likely have a low cost in free agency, but a team shouldn’t be investing in him to be their starter. His 2017 season that resulted in a 74.0 receiving grade wasn’t terrible, but a team may see that and think they’ll be able to reclaim that for themselves.
CB Ronald Darby
Ronald Darby’s 2019 season was far from his best — he had a 41.0 coverage grade, ranking 127th of 130 qualifying cornerbacks. Darby was the only cornerback to give up over two yards per coverage snap this season and was at fault for eight plays that resulted in a gain of 30 or more yards. Giving up explosive plays is nothing new for Darby, as he has given up the 11th most since entering the league on far fewer coverage snaps than everyone else. He just got burnt a lot more in 2019. He doesn’t commit a lot of penalties and he does have a couple of good seasons under his belt from 2015 and 2017, but Darby has been owned in contested situations for the highest passer rating allowed (146.6). Darby is not someone you want starting at outside corner for your team.
Ifedi has a similar story to Greg Robinson, who was mentioned earlier, except he was taken 31st overall in his draft class and is on the opposite end of the line. After posting a poor 38.4 pass-blocking grade at right guard his rookie season in 2016, Ifedi moved to right tackle and improved but was still poor overall. He has yet to crack a PFF grade above 60.0 in his four-year career and has allowed 171 total pressures — the second most of any offensive lineman, regardless of alignment. Not to mention, he’s been among the bottom three in most penalties accrued in each one of his seasons at his alignment.
EDGE Arik Armstead
For the third time now, never trust the sack numbers. Armstead has had a career year in 2019, producing an elite 90.0 PFF grade that ranks third among edge defenders. His run defense has been admittingly great, as his grade in that facet is the fourth best. His pass-rushing has been good, but not quite as good as some may think. His 76.1 pass-rushing grade is a career-high and ranks 25th in the NFL. Similar to Dupree, his 13 sacks has him on his way to earning a projected five-year, $85 million contract with $45 million guaranteed per OverTheCap. Despite producing the ninth most sacks, Armstead ties for 33rd in pressure rate. He has won on 17.2% of his total pass-rush reps, which ranks 17th, but this shouldn’t justify making him the fifth highest-paid edge defender in the NFL. All this being said, Armstead is not on the same level of risk as Dupree — he has been one of the top 20 most valuable edge defenders in each of the past two seasons, but again, is not worth what he will be paid. If the cost is high for Armstead — like it’ll almost certainly be — stay away.