Draft Class Heroes: Early NFL Free Agency Winners

Tuesday mornin' means Draft Class Heroes is back, with the five free agent moves I like so far, and my eight scouting observations from this past week. Let's have some fun today.

Draft Class Heroes: Early Free Agent Winning Moves

Most free agency moves are bad. Some are non-impactful in the long run. Still fewer are actually good and helpful to their teams. Spending big money is fine, just don't spend it on average-to-below-average players, older, declining players or players without a big market. This week we've seen teams do all three of those things.

But some teams have played it smart. They've paid for premium positions where the market was thin or the draft wasn't an option, and they haven't broken the bank. Here are my five favorite moves from the opening stanza of free agency.

Ja’Wuan James, RT, Denver Broncos - 4 years, $51 million

So yes, the contract is big, but here’s the thing: James is a good, solid right tackle in a league with very few good right tackles. Having two starting caliber tackles is huge, and James improved every year in Miami, finding consistency over the past two seasons. 

He’s highly athletic with great tools, traits that Mike Munchak will maximize as arguably the best offensive line coach in the NFL. James was good in Miami, but he could and should be even better in Denver. Almost every offensive lineman who has played under Munchak over the past several years in Pittsburgh has improved dramatically. James will too. And Denver didn't pay him Trent Brown money either. So this deal is fine.

Kareem Jackson, CB, Denver Broncos - 3 years, $33 million

Do you want to pay $11 million per year for a 31-year old corner? Probably not, but here’s the reality. This is a bad cornerback draft class and a bad free agent crop. Denver needs two corners, and they badly need an outside cornerback. Vic Fangio has tabbed tackling as a crucial element to playing in his defense, and that rules out a player like Greedy Williams early in the draft. 

The inconvenient truth is that for teams needing a cornerback or two this offseason, the pickings are slim. Jackson’s deal is likely front-loaded over the first two years and would allow Denver to move on easily if he doesn’t play up to par. He may be a little older, but he’s had a very good career and is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. The decline has not begun yet.

Jackson is also an elite run-defending cornerback who will fit well into Fangio’s defense. He brings toughness, physicality and excellent football character to a locker room that needs it with Brandon Marshall moving on. He’ll stabilize one side along with Chris Harris, while Denver looks to second-year player Isaac Yiadom or the draft for a no. 3 cornerback.

Also, filling these needs allows Denver to focus on one of two players at no. 10: the top-ranked quarterback on the board or LSU linebacker Devin White.

Trey Flowers, EDGE, Detroit Lions

I don’t think the full details on the Flowers’ deal are out there yet, but it’s five years at about $16-17 million per year. Big deal for a guy who has never had double digit sacks in a season, but that number doesn’t tell the full story.

Flowers has piled up pressures the past two seasons, consistently impacting the pocket while lining up all over the Patriots’ defensive front. Matt Patricia will use him in the exact same fashion, moving him around the Lions defense to optimize his role as a pass rusher. He’s also an elite run defender, hard worker and versatile player who gives flexibility to the rest of the unit.

If you want good pass rushers, you have to pay for them. Flowers was the best available this offseason, and he won’t disappoint in Detroit.

Jamison Crowder, WR, New York Jets - 3 years, $28.5 million

I really think Crowder is a solid player who needed a new home, and I like the fit in New York. Adam Gase has had “success” getting his slot receiver the ball, and Crowder is a good athlete with a downfield element to his game that could open things up in New York. There could be a little Deontay Burnett-connection with Sam Darnold brewing here. And it’s not like they locked themselves to him long-term either.

Crowder wasn’t productive or healthy last year but I think he could be a strong consistent contributor for the Jets, and $9 million per year isn’t the end of the world. I would guess his presence moves Quincy Enunwa outside even more than he was last year, which will be an interesting development. 

Sheldon Richardson, IDL, Cleveland Browns - 3 years, $36 million

$12 million a year is a decent amount, but Richardson is a very good player coming off a strong season at only 28 years old. Yes, he's had some consistency issues in his past, but the last two seasons have been impressive stuff, and the Browns aren't locked in long term. Like Kareem Jackson's deal, likely an easy out after two years if needed.

Richardson can play all three downs, move around the front and beat blockers 1v1. Those are the kind of guys you pay for. This also gives the Browns flexibility at no. 17 to take the best player available or perhaps focus on cornerback. Or, and I know this will seem crazy, take a top 3 player in the class in Jeffery Simmons because you won't need him to play right away and ACL injuries are basically standard to come back from at this point. At any rate, options are good to have, as are good football players. Browns now have both.

8 Scouting Observations

-Could Quinnen Williams slide? There’s a good chance he’s on the board for Tampa Bay at no. 5, who would have to consider it even if Gerald McCoy does return for 2019. That would surely be his final season with the team, which would leave the Bucs with a need for a pass-rushing presence next to first round pick Vita Vea. Williams would be a BPA available selection, but he could end up being highly impactful down the road when Tampa elects to turn the page on McCoy. If the Bucs don’t take him, his skid might not stop until no. 8 in Detroit or no. 9 in Buffalo. Crazy for a guy who might be the best player in the draft.

-Gardner Minshew is not good at all folks. How did we let this man get hype? He’s a fun personality though, so I will allow it.

-I think both Devin White and Devin Bush are going to be drafted earlier than people think. White has multiple teams interested in the top ten, while Bush’s Combine and strong weigh-in are going to increase his suitors in the teens or early 20s at the latest.

-I like both the Ohio State wide receivers, but Parris Campbell is going to go off the board earlier. It won’t be in Round 1, but he improved a decent amount this past season and NFL teams will fall in love with his athleticism. Terry McLaurin is more pro-ready, but his lack of production might keep him on the board until Round 4 even. By the way, Johnnie Dixon is the forgotten man amongst the group, but he’s alright too. Wouldn’t mind him on day three to a wide receiver-needy team.

-Blake Cashman is good, but I am worried about his lack of length as a tackler. He already misses some stops on his college tape, and having that limited of a radius really impacts you in the NFL. Kwon Alexander is one of the most chronically bad tacklers in the past ten years, and his arms are just a tad longer than Cashman. It matters in a league where you can’t square everyone up and have to tackle outside your frame a decent amount.

-Andy Isabella is frustrating for me. I think his role in the NFL is clearly somewhat limited due to his extremely small frame, and I wish he was a tad more technical as a route runner. Also, his weight-adjusted results for every athletic test outside of the 40 were poor, and some of that tightness shows up on tape. Still, he tore up top competition and has insane speed for the position. I like him in the mid-rounds.

-I welcomed Hakeem Butler into my first round grades this week. There are only 14 of them right now, so he is blessed. I want him on my Steelers so I can be blessed too. Read my report on him right here.

-I’ve avoided it for as long as possible because I’m convinced anyone can produce at the position, but this week I will finally dive into the running back class. Still 22 backs I want to get evals done for, time to bite the bullet. I think. Maybe. We’ll pray about it.