We’ve written before about the dangers of NFL teams “winning in March.” Shelling out the biggest contracts for premium free agents does not necessarily lead to wins on the football field come September. In general, there’s an onus to overpay for the top players available each offseason as several clubs vie for their services, and more often than not those players have a hard time living up to their lofty new deals.
Still, it’s of course impossible — or impractical — to fill out a full 53-man roster simply through the draft. Clubs need to supplement their core of players with help from the outside, and quality pro scouting can go a long way in identifying the best fits for a particular team. The best additions can often be low-cost, one-year fliers on players coming off an injury, a down season or those who haven’t quite reached their potential. Maybe a player doesn't fit a particular system, or a simple change of scenery is necessary.
Every offseason, a handful of near-minimum signings end up making huge impacts, and this season was no different. Look no further than the four teams that just played in the Conference Championship games:
Kansas City Chiefs: CB Bashaud Breeland signed a one-year, $2 million contract for the 2019 season and followed that up with a one-year, $3 million contract for this season. Among all outside cornerbacks who saw at least 15 playoff snaps over 2019-20, Breeland’s overall grade of 82.2 ranks third, and his 84.7 coverage grade ranks second.
Buffalo Bills: RT Daryl Williams signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract for the 2020 season. Among all right tackles with at least 100 snaps in the 2020 regular season, Williams’ overall grade of 79.4 ranked ninth, his pass-blocking grade of 80.0 ranked fourth and his run-blocking grade of 76.9 ranked 11th.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: He’s not so cheap this season playing on the franchise tag, but ED Shaquil Barrett signed a one-year, $4 million contract with Tampa prior to the 2019 season. Barrett has the most pressures in the NFL (157) among all edge from 2019-20. In 2019, he led the NFL with a staggering 19.5 sacks.
Green Bay Packers: Another right tackle in Rick Wagner was a smart, shrewd move for Green Bay. While he was not a true bargain-bin signing, Wagner signed a reasonable two-year, $11 million deal with the Packers. The key is they let longtime stalwart RT Bryan Bulaga walk, and he signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the the Los Angeles Chargers.
Wagner’s overall grade of 75.6 was exactly 14 points higher than Bulaga’s 61.6, and his pass blocking grade of 78.3 was over 13 points higher. He also outperformed Bulaga in run-blocking grade by 13 points.
The are several other examples around the league in recent years of low-cost signings that made a big impact. Here are just a handful from 2020:
- Washington Football Team TE Logan Thomas (two-years, $6.145 million)
- Washington Football Team CB Ronald Darby (one-year, $1,047,500)*
- San Francisco 49ers CB Jason Verrett (one-year, $3 million)
- Indianapolis Colts CB Xavier Rhodes (one-year, $3 million)
- Arizona Cardinals T Kelvin Beachum (one-year, $1,187,500)*
- Las Vegas Raiders WR Nelson Agholor (one-year, $1,047,500)*
* Veteran minimum
It’s wonderful to look back in hindsight and appreciate these moves, but how do we identify them beforehand?
First, there’s the very important context of NFL learning curves by position. PFF's Timo Riske investigated how each position adjusts to the NFL, and notably, edge rushers and tackles tend to have the steepest learning curves. A rough first year or two could lead to a decrease in snaps. Then a player is fighting just to get back on the field — but the talent could still be there.
Let’s start with Shaquil Barrett, a picture-perfect example of the value of PFF’s grading system.
Over the 2017-18 seasons, Barrett only recorded seven total sacks. However, his 55 total pressures on just 425 pass-rush snaps produced a higher rate of pressures per pass-rush snap than Cameron Jordan, T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, J.J. Watt and several other notable edge rushers.
The example of Ezekiel Ansah demonstrates the other side of this opportunity cost. Ansah had 398 pass rush snaps and 57 total pressures over the same sample, but he more than doubled Barrett's sack count with 15. Ansah signed a one-year, $9 million deal with Seattle.
Of course, being a first-round pick compared to the undrafted Barrett also influenced the value, but the two players produced more or less exactly the same, except Ansah got home with twice as many sacks. As a result, he got more than twice the contract. Ansah has 2.5 sacks since then, while Barrett has 27.5 (both had dealt with injuries in recent years as well).
Who could be this year’s Shaquil Barrett? Another undrafted free agent edge rusher — Detroit Lions ED Romeo Okwara — performed quite similarly in PFF’s stable metrics in 2020 as Barrett did in 2018, actually outperforming him across the board:
|Player||Pass- rush grade||Pass-rush grade on true pass rushes||Pass-rush grade w/o play-action||Pass-rush win rate|
|Shaq Barrett (2018)||73.3||83.3||76.2||17.3%|
|Romeo Okwara (2020)||85.9||90.9||88.0||19.5%|
Barrett was and is a much better defender against the run. Okwara is a bit of a pure pass-rush specialist, but he could be a cheaper option in 2021 free agency compared to guys like Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon that ends up providing more value for his new team.
Big impact on few snaps/touches
How a player is used can, of course, make a big impact on how well they produce. Certain playing styles can lead to higher-leverage snaps. For example, deep threat WRs can go through a rough patch with drops, like Nelson Agholor in Philadelphia.
An interesting name here who has very little usage thus far in his career is Tennessee Titans WR Kalif Raymond. While Agholor was a first-round pick, Raymond is another undrafted guy, and he’s much smaller at 5-foot-8, 182 pounds. Still, Raymond is one of the true deep threat specialists in football. Over 2019-20, among all wide receivers with a minimum of 10 targets, Raymond’s average depth of target ranks sixth at 17.9 yards. His 19.8 yards per reception also ranks sixth.
Raymond's three drops on 16 targets in 2020 led to a receiving grade of 54.2 on the season, down from 76.8 in 2019, but Nelson Agholor’s 2019 receiving grade was quite similar at 55.1. Again, we understand that Raymond would also need to see a major uptick in snaps and targets, but the value in simply taking the top off a defense cannot be understated. Raymond has to be accounted for deep down the field every time he’s out there.
Betting on positive regression or improved health
Certain positions simply experience more variance than others. Cornerbacks and safeties have the lowest year-to-year correlation in wins above replacement compared to every other position — and by a decent margin.
Injuries can impact this heavily, of course. Washington Football Team CB Ronald Darby is a prime example of the peaks and valleys that occur at wide corner in the NFL. Darby earned a 71.1 PFF grade in 2018, followed by 43.0 in 2019 and 78.3 in 2020. He was recovering from a torn ACL in 2019, which likely impacted his ability to plant, change direction and generally play an athletically demanding position at a high level. He struggled all season long but was back to his old self in 2020.
San Francisco 49ers CB Jason Verrett is another example of a great player held back by injuries, but there are also players like Indianapolis Colts CB Xavier Rhodes that benefited from playing more zone as opposed to man coverage.
There are a handful of cornerbacks that could fit this mold. Here are five notable names sorted by difference in 2019 and 2020 WAR:
|Player||2019 WAR||2020 WAR||+/-|
*Conley missed the 2020 season
Gareon Conley’s absence in Houston was very apparent, as the Texans cornerbacks ranked 25th in coverage grade as a unit for the 2020 season. They also allowed the third-worst expected points added per play in the NFL at .244, only better than the Lions and Jaguars.
In an unprecedented offseason with a decreased salary cap, identifying low-cost players that could make significant contributions in 2021 is more important than ever. The middle-tier of free agency will be most heavily impacted, as the upper echelon of available players will likely still get their due. But after that it’s all about finding surplus value over cheap contracts.
The teams that do the best in this regard could have a serious advantage over the rest of the NFL, especially considering that this was already the case in a normal year.
More 2021 Low-Cost Contributor Candidates
|WR Breshad Perriman|
|WR Kenny Stills|
|WR John Ross|
|WR Kendrick Bourne|
|WR Keelan Cole|
|WR Willie Snead IV|
|HB Marlon Mack|
|TE Anthony Firkser|
|T Cam Obinson|
|T Ty Nsekhe|
|T Ty Sambrailo|
|T Cam Robinson|
|G/C Ben Garland|
|G Denzelle Good|
|G Jon Feliciano|
|OL Matt Feiler|
|CB Cameron Sutton|
|CB Ahkello Witherspoon|
|CB Troy Hill|
|CB D.J. Hayden|
|CB Mike Hilton|
|S Bradley McDougald|
|S Malik Hooker|
|S Deon Bush|
|S Jaquiski Tartt|
|S Rayshawn Jenkins|
|LB Raekwon McMillan|
|LB Eric Wilson|
|ED Samson Ebukam|
|ED Barkevious Mingo|
|ED Tarell Basham|
|ED Kerry Hyder|
|ED Tyus Bowser|
|ED Jordan Jenkins|
|DI Mario Edwards Jr.|
|DI Roy Robertson-Harris|
|DI Christian Covington|
|DI Larry Ogunjobi|