The money flies early in NFL free agency. The numbers are big and bold. Millions — easily more than $500 million in guaranteed money — are handed out within the first hours of the new league year.
However, when you sift through the numbers, it’s hard to see the value in some of these deals for the teams. And remember, the goal in free agency is finding value.
So which players were “steals” for their teams? Here are five deals that jumped out to me.
Bryan Bulaga, OT, Los Angeles Chargers
Deal: 3 years, $30 million ($19.25 million guaranteed)
I was shocked when I saw this number wasn’t higher, because Bulaga has been a stalwart at right tackle for the Packers for years. Injury concerns could be why, as he missed 11 games in 2017 and two in 2018. Still, he’s been an outstanding pass protector, ranking near the top of all tackles in 2014, 2016 and 2018, which is impressive because Aaron Rodgers holds on to the ball forever.
Overall, including his run blocking, Bulaga was ranked 23rd by Pro Football Focus last season, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be ranked that high next season.
The steal for the Chargers is the contract, especially when you consider what the value of his performance should be. His average per season puts him at the bottom range of a quality NFL offensive tackle, regardless of position. When you look at some of the signings in this class — such as Jack Conklin getting $14 million per season and George Fant receiving nearly $10 million per season — this number becomes a bargain. The Chargers needed to desperately upgrade their offseason line and Bulaga, along with the addition of Trai Turner, is just that.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, New Orleans Saints
Deal: 2 years, $16 million
The Saints have been missing a second receiving weapon for years now. Even with Michael Thomas emerging as the next great wide receiver in our league, there are moments in big games when the Saints needed just one more target for Drew Brees. Now, he’s in New Orleans.
The Saints got a playmaker like Sanders so “cheap” because the WR class in the 2020 draft is deep. Teams are passing on signing high-priced wide receivers, instead opting for a young one they can draft.
But Sanders can still be an impact player. He’s fast and he’s able to force defenses to pay attention to him. And when they do, he’s able to split a double team — like he did on third down late in the Super Bowl but was then overthrown by the quarterback.
Todd Gurley, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Deal: 1 year, $6 million
Do not draft running backs in the first round and do not sign running backs to a “big” second contract. Gurley is a prime example of why in both cases.
Gurley had an MVP-worthy 2017 season, his first under Sean McVay. In 2018, even with a knee that bothered him down the stretch, Gurley still finished with 4.9 yards per carry. Last season, fighting through that bum knee, Gurley struggled and rushed for a career-low 857 yards. It’s worth mentioning the Rams’ offensive line was excellent in 2017 and 2018, and wasn’t as good last season.
Atlanta has the makings of an above-average offensive line, but the Falcons are also an offense built to not rely on the run game. They have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and now tight end Hayden Hurst. However, if Gurley is healthy, his contributions to this offense will be well worth over the $6 million he’s being paid.
Chris Harris Jr., CB, Los Angeles Chargers
Deal: 2 years, $17 million
According to Pro Football Focus, Chris Harris was graded as the third-highest cornerback last season, and now he’s making peanuts compared to his counterparts. Byron Jones — formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, now on the Miami Dolphins — got the richest cornerback deal at five years, $82.5 million. Then Darius Slay topped Jones‘ average (three years, $50 million) when he was traded from the Detroit Lions to the Philadelphia Eagles. Harris is making almost as much in two seasons as they are in one.
Harris is a four-time Pro Bowler and he brings a veteran presence to the Chargers. This is a fantastic deal.
Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Deal: 2 years, $50 million
This is a bargain of a contract, when you look at Philip Rivers and Drew Brees with the same average per season of $25 million. Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff, and Kirk Cousins are all making significantly more than Brady.
I know what you’re going to say. “Tom Brady is too old.” Yes, he’ll be 43. Does he look 43? I don’t think so. He’s still moving fine. His arm is good enough. Now he’s got the weapons and a renewed sense of purpose. It’s a good deal for Tampa Bay.