Barnwell grades the biggest NFL deals: Why Josh Norman could fit in Buffalo


NFL free agency kicks off in less than a week — the deadline for teams to franchise tag players is now Monday, and teams can begin negotiating with free agents also on Monday — which means it’s time to start our annual analysis of the notable deals.

Each year in this space, I run through every significant free-agent signing and trade across the first two months of the NFL offseason. Because we’re on the internet, I hand out a grade for each move from the team’s perspective. The grade tries to estimate a player’s chance of outplaying the contract he signed given his history and the track record of similar players, as well as whether the team could have used the money more wisely given its specific situation. To say it is an inexact science would be an affront to science.

Grades come in as ESPN confirms various deals, and they’re subject to change later in March as we find out more specifics about the actual structure of contracts and what really is and is not guaranteed. If you don’t see a grade for a deal that has been reported, check back later.

More on the NFL offseason:
Tracker: Latest signings, news
Top 50 NFL free agents
More NFL free agency

Monday, March 9

The deal: One year, $6 million
Grade: B-

Unplayable for stretches last season, Norman struggled throughout his time in Washington and hasn’t been an above-average corner since his breakout season with the Panthers in 2015. His defensive coordinator there was current Bills coach Sean McDermott, and while Norman’s breakup with Carolina wasn’t pretty, the Bills are unsurprisingly betting that their culture and coaching will be able to unlock something closer to the Norman who was a first-team All-Pro that season.

Incentives can get this deal up to $8 million, but the guarantee number could move this grade around. Already at age 32, there’s a chance that Norman is toast and doesn’t make the Buffalo roster out of camp, which would be a lot easier to swallow on a $1 million guarantee than it would on something closer to the full $6 million. Assuming the true guarantee comes in somewhere between those two figures, Norman is a very reasonable flier for general manager Brandon Beane to take on a one-year deal. Norman will compete with Levi Wallace for the starting job on the outside across from superstar corner Tre’Davious White.

Friday, March 6

The deal: Four years, $24.5 million
Grade: B

The Chargers were a fundamentally better offense in 2019 with Ekeler on the field as opposed to Melvin Gordon, who now seems sure to leave Los Angeles in free agency. The Chargers were more efficient both running and receiving with Ekeler in the lineup. By expected points added on a per-play basis, they were something close to the Packers as the ninth-best offense in football with Ekeler on the field. With Gordon, they were closer to the Bills in 23rd.

Ekeler, who went undrafted in 2017, had been a super-efficient runner in 2017 and 2018, but he wasn’t particularly efficient in 2019. The Western State product made up for that by adding gobs of value in the receiving game, where he averaged 10.8 yards per reception and came within 7 yards of a 1,000-yard season. In terms of value added as a receiving back, Ekeler and Christian McCaffrey were in a pack of their own.

I’m still not sure whether Ekeler can handle 15 carries per game, but he can be valuable in his current role without getting that sort of rushing workload. I’m wary of just about any significant running back contract, but Ekeler is going to get about half of what Alvin Kamara gets from the Saints this summer, and he’s far closer to Kamara in terms of ability than the financial difference will indicate. Philip Rivers‘ instincts and propensity for sniffing out pressure pre-snap likely netted Ekeler a couple of his big plays last season, but he doesn’t need to hit 1,550 yards from scrimmage again to return value on this deal.

Wednesday, March 4

Los Angeles Chargers get: G Trai Turner
Carolina Panthers get: OT Russell Okung

Chargers grade: B
Panthers grade: C-

This one’s curious from the Panthers’ perspective. Last year, Carolina traded away a third-round pick to move up in the second round to draft Greg Little, who seemed likely to take over as the team’s left tackle of the future. Injuries hit Little and most of the Panthers’ offense in 2019, but after just four games, it looks like those plans have changed. Okung was acquired to take over at left tackle, and with Taylor Moton entrenched at right tackle, Little could at least temporarily move inside or spend 2020 as the swing tackle when he badly needs NFL reps.

It would be one thing if the Panthers were expected to contend for a Super Bowl in 2020 or if Okung was going to lock down the position for years to come, but this team is in the middle of a rebuild under new coach Matt Rhule, and Okung has one year left on his deal. The widely respected former Seahawks tackle struggled through a wasted season in 2019, missing 10 games with a pulmonary embolism and a groin injury. A healthy Okung was a difference-maker for the Chargers in 2018, but the 31-year-old is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

I could see it if the Panthers just had to give up a late-round pick for Okung, but trading away a legitimately good interior lineman in Turner makes this difficult to swallow, especially considering how Rhule wants to build a physical team in Carolina. Turner is 5 years younger than Okung, has made it to five straight Pro Bowls and has two years with about $20.4 million in non-guaranteed money left on his extension. He immediately steps in for the Chargers at right guard and gives them an excellent run-blocker as they move to more of a run-first approach with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback (for now).

What happens next for the Chargers will be interesting. Most 2020 mock drafts have them drafting a quarterback with the sixth overall pick, but if they go out and add a passer in free agency, they should be able to come away with either Tristan Wirfs or Mekhi Becton to fill in for Okung on the blind side. Right tackle is still a problem, but Los Angeles could suddenly have an imposing line to protect Taylor — or whoever else ends up under center — in 2020.

Tuesday, March 3

Denver Broncos get: CB A.J. Bouye
Jacksonville Jaguars get: 2020 fourth-round pick

Broncos grade: C+
Jaguars grade: C+

A little over two years ago, the Jacksonville defense carried Blake Bortles & Co. all the way to a fourth-quarter lead against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game before a conservative offense and a terrible call against Myles Jack left the Jags just short of the Super Bowl. With Bouye leaving for Denver, seven of the 11 defensive starters and all five of the primary defensive backs on what was the league’s best defense have left town. If pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, who is likely to receive a franchise tag, gets his wish, that number will soon be eight.

Bouye’s play has slipped since that impressive 2017 season, but this is a salary dump for a Jags team that desperately needed cap space. He was sacrificed because virtually every move Jacksonville made after its AFC championship run turned out to be a disaster. Free-agent additions Nick Foles and Andrew Norwell got hurt and didn’t live up to expectations. The team foolishly let Allen Robinson go and chose to pay Marqise Lee, Allen Hurns and Donte Moncrief instead. A decision to re-sign Bortles quickly proved to be a mistake. The team’s toxic culture under Tom Coughlin ran off several key players. A Super Bowl appearance might have smoothed over some of the flaws, but it’s depressing to think about how exciting the Jags looked so recently and how far they feel from that team now.

Corner isn’t really a position of strength for the Jags anymore, and they probably would have kept Bouye if they were in better cap shape, but getting a meaningful pick for a player they would have likely cut is a small victory. At the same time, the Broncos are sending the fourth-round pick they got from the 49ers to acquire Bouye, which means Jacksonville will be getting one of the last picks in the round.

Bouye is nominally coming over to replace Chris Harris Jr., and when Bouye has been good, he has been a reasonable facsimile of the longtime Broncos standout. The difference between the two has been consistency. Harris has consistently been a good-to-great cornerback; Bouye hasn’t. After some early success, the Texans buried the undrafted free agent on their depth chart and only begrudgingly pushed him into the starting lineup once first-rounder Kevin Johnson got hurt in 2016. Bouye was a revelation in the slot and played every bit as well as Jalen Ramsey did in 2017, but he took a step backward in 2018 and a larger step in that direction last season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, Bouye allowed a passer rating of 104.4 as the closest defender in coverage in 2019 with opposing quarterbacks completing 67.4% of their passes against him.

Denver coach Vic Fangio has been able to turn around veteran cornerbacks in the past, with guys like Carlos Rogers and Kyle Fuller reaching new heights. The Broncos have Bouye on what amounts to a two-year, $27 million deal with no remaining guaranteed money. That’s a lot in a cornerback market where the top salary is currently somewhere around $14 million, but it might not seem quite as significant once guys like Darius Slay get paid this offseason.

Monday, Feb. 17

The deal: Three years, $43.8 million
Grade: C-

Humphries parlayed his first healthy, productive season with the Cardinals into a player-friendly extension. The former first-round pick missed 37 games over his first four years, but he started all 16 games on the left side last season and allowed just two sacks by Stats LLC’s measures. Humphries did commit 13 penalties, but the Cardinals were clearly impressed. This three-year deal includes $29 million in guaranteed money over the first two seasons and would allow him to hit the free-agent market again before turning 30, both of which are pluses given his relatively limited history of success.

From the Cardinals’ perspective, you can understand why they would prefer to take the plunge with a lineman they know. The free-agent market at left tackle is limited to veterans such as Jason Peters and Greg Robinson, each of whom have their own flaws. Arizona could be in line to draft a tackle with the No. 8 overall pick in April’s draft, but by signing Humphries, it is free to use that pick on defensive help or to add another weapon at receiver.

The Cardinals should have been able to get a fourth non-guaranteed year on this deal, and I have reservations that Humphries will stay healthy in 2020 and 2021, but unless they thought a franchise left tackle was going to fall to them at No. 8, signing him was likely the best of a few bad options.

Monday, Feb. 10

The deal: Three years, $16 million
Grade: B-

While it was lost in the shuffle amid the breakout season of Lamar Jackson and the return to form of Marcus Peters, Clark’s ascension into the starting lineup for an injured Tony Jefferson was a stabilizing factor for a struggling Ravens defense. An undersized but willing box safety, Clark took over the green-dot helmet from Jefferson and Patrick Onwuasor and served as a key defensive communicator on the field for coordinator Don Martindale. Clark was also a frequent blitzer for the Ravens, although he finished the year with only one sack and three quarterback knockdowns. In another era, Clark would have realistically been classified as a linebacker by his heat map:

After cutting Jefferson, signing Clark and finishing up Jimmy Smith‘s deal, the Ravens have locked in their starting five defensive backs for 2020 with Clark and Earl Thomas at safety and Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Tavon Young at corner. This is a modest deal for a starting safety, but it’s telling that the Ravens were aggressive in locking up Clark in February as opposed to letting the Virginia Tech product play out the final year of his rookie deal. Clark probably won’t push for Pro Bowl consideration, but he should settle in as a solid starter again in 2020.

Wednesday, Jan. 15

The deal: One year, $11 million
Grade: C-

This is tough to grade because the Cardinals are simply going to keep paying the greatest player in franchise history for as long as he’s willing to play. Fitzgerald is worth more to Arizona than he’s worth to any other team, but this is a significant one-year outlay for a team that could desperately use $11 million to spend on filling out the rest of its roster. Nearly 89% of Fitz’s receiving yards came out of the slot last season, and while he’s a security blanket for Kyler Murray, I would much prefer to see Christian Kirk or someone more explosive there in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.

After attracting heavy usage from 2015-17, the future Hall of Famer basically reproduced his 2018 numbers in 2019. Disconcertingly, he produced 100-yard games in Week 1 and Week 2 before averaging just under 42 receiving yards per game over the remainder of the season. Fitzgerald is easy to root for and should remain an institution in Arizona, but as a receiver who profiles to rack up somewhere around 10 yards per catch and 45 yards per game, this deal doesn’t push the Cardinals toward contention.

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