News & Analysis

10 best free-agent signings this season

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 30: San Diego Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward mugs after scoring a touchdown on an interception return in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, October 30, 2016. (Photo by Steve Nehf/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

More money was thrown around this offseason than ever before, but who spent it wisely? That has always been the worrisome side of free agency, spending big money for a player who either doesn’t fit or isn’t worth what you're now paying him. The following 10 guys—all signed during the 2016 free-agency period—are already doing their best to live up to their contracts, however, as they’re making a sizable impact on their new teams.

Note: Only free agents who changed teams this offseason were considered.

1. Casey Hayward, CB, San Diego Chargers

In a bloated cornerback market last spring, the Chargers managed to sign arguably the most productive CB this season for a three-year, $15.3 million deal. Hayward's seven interceptions lead the NFL, and his eight pass breakups rank 10th. What’s been most impressive about Hayward is that his production has come split wide, as opposed to in the slot, where he was pigeonholed for most of his time in Green Bay.

2. Kelechi Osemele, G, Oakland Raiders

Osemele has done as much as a guard feasibly can do to live up to a $10+ million a year deal this season. He's currently Pro Football Focus' second-highest-graded guard and has only allowed seven total pressures all season long, with no sacks. At only 27 years old and locked up for four more seasons after this one, the Raiders would make this deal again in a heartbeat.

3. Eric Weddle, S, Baltimore Ravens

With Weddle’s extremely productive recent history, this contract was a slam dunk—at least for this season—as soon as the pen hit the paper. At 31 years old, one might expect Weddle to slow down a tad, but he’s nowhere near prohibitively-aged for a safety in the NFL, and Weddle has proven that in Baltimore. He has earned top-five grades in both coverage and against the run, while his seven combined interceptions and pass breakups are third-most at the position.

4. Janoris Jenkins, CB, New York Giants

I mentioned the bloated cornerback market earlier, and Jenkins would certainly qualify as one of the beneficiaries. His five-year, $62.5 million deal is the seventh-highest per-year average at the position, even if though he had never produced a season worthy of a top-10 CB ranking. That is, until now. Jenkins is allowing only 50.6 percent of his targets to be completed this season, and his 10 pass breakups are the third-most in the league.

5. Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons

Center had been a problem spot for Atlanta for quite some time, and instead of continuing to and try develop guys from within, Thomas Dimitroff decided to sign the best center available on the free-agent market. The Pro Bowl center has been everything they could have asked for, grading out among the top-three at the position this season.

6. Jerrell Freeman, LB, Chicago Bears

Freeman’s suspension obviously throws a wrench into things, but prior to that, he was everything the Bears could have wanted for the first 11 weeks of the season. The veteran linebacker was having the best season of his career and was second behind only Luke Kuechly in our position rankings. Freeman still owns the sixth-best run-stop percentage among inside linebackers, and his 18 stops in coverage are fourth-most.

7. Sean Smith, CB, Oakland Raiders

Smith took some considerable lumps early in the season, and at one point, was even benched. Since then, however, few corners in the NFL have been better. Over the first two weeks of the season, he surrendered 250 yards and three touchdowns. In the 11 games since, he’s yielded only 346 yards and one touchdown. The Raiders still have some issues defensively, but they haven’t been because of Smith.

8. Olivier Vernon, DE, New York Giants

Vernon was much maligned early on in his Giants' career after he notched one sack over the first seven weeks. His seven sacks since, though, have started to quiet the critics. Realistically, Vernon has been consistently productive in PFF's grading all season long; his 72 total QB pressures (sacks, hits, and hurries combined) are the second-most among edge defenders, and only one behind league-leader Khalil Mack.

9. Damon Harrison, DT, New York Giants

Damon Harrison is the third Giants defender to make the list, as New York's offseason fueled one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in league history. Harrison may not be adding much as a pass-rusher, but the Giants knew that when they signed him. What he is, though, is hands down the league’s best run-stuffing nose tackle. Harrison’s 16.5 run-stop percentage is the highest of any defensive tackle by a ridiculous 4.5 percentage points.

10. Zach Brown, LB, Buffalo Bills

If you saw Brown finally emerging as a playmaking linebacker in his fifth season in the league, congratulations, you’re smarter than just about every GM in the NFL. Brown was signed for a measly one-year, $1.25 million deal this offseason after his career never quite got off the ground in Tennessee. Blessed with immense physical gifts, Brown was never quite able to translate them to the football field until Rex Ryan got ahold of him. Brown’s 53 total stops are the most of any linebacker in the league, and he’s earned the 14th-highest-grade of any off-ball linebacker this season.

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