Free-Agent Roundup: Why Suh’s Contract Will Drown the Dolphins

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Give NFL teams an inch and they’ll take a mile. Organizations have previously used the three-day “legal tampering” period, first granted in 2013, to quietly come to terms with players before releasing news of the signings in a flurry of Adam Schefter tweets at the end of the signing period. No more. Free agency broke in a big way over the weekend, as more than $300 million of guaranteed money was handed out in all-but-official deals before the clock struck midnight on Sunday. LeSean McCoy received a contract extension from the Bills despite the team not having actually acquired him yet from the Eagles. That’s where we are in 2015.

The premier signing of the weekend, though, saw the unquestioned top free agent on the market pick his new destination. I can’t blame Miami for wanting Ndamukong Suh. I’m just not sure it’s the best thing for the Dolphins as they’re currently constructed.

Suh Are You

You don’t normally get a chance to sign players like Suh in free agency because players of his caliber simply don’t hit the market this early in their careers. It just doesn’t happen. Guys this good who make it to free agency are either flawed in some meaningful way that affects their future or have some other problem that creates uncertainty and forces their team to push an irreplaceable asset into the marketplace.

Put it this way: In Suh’s five years in the league, he has made the All-Pro team three times. Here’s a list of the offensive and defensive players since 1990 (per who pulled off the same feat and how long they lasted with their first NFL team:

Do you know how many of those guys left at the end of their rookie contracts for a new team in free agency? Zero. The ones who did depart their original franchise before spending at least 10 years with their original team were forced to retire because of injuries (like Tony Boselli and Terrell Davis) or traded for a first-round pick (like Darrelle Revis and Richard Seymour). When you get one of these players, you generally hold on to them at any cost until they either break down or retire, and then you put them in your team’s Hall of Fame.

You don’t let them leave at 28, like the Lions are doing here with Suh. They’re stuck, as I’ve mentioned before, because of the way the old CBA accelerated the contracts of top-five draft picks. Detroit, bad seemingly for centuries, ended up with three meaningful assets on hefty rookie contracts: Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and Suh, whose deal peaked with a cap hit of $22.4 million last season. Even that came after a restructuring, as the Lions will owe $9.7 million in dead money for Suh on their cap in 2015. Suh will have the largest cap hit of any defensive tackle in football this year in Miami, and his ghost in Detroit will be fourth. That’s how big Suh’s rookie deal was.

As difficult as it would have been to build a winning team with more than $55 million of cap room committed to three players on an annual basis, the Lions reportedly offered Suh a credible deal, hitting $17 million per year with $58 million guaranteed. And they still haven’t given up. A team source told ESPN’s Josina Anderson that they hope Suh “comes to his senses,” like a dumped boyfriend posting an awkward note in front of everyone on Facebook.

Suh, theoretically, could choose to change his mind before free agency officially opens on Tuesday and re-sign with the Lions (or head to any other team), although it’s exceedingly unlikely that will happen. It appears that the Lions chose Stafford and Megatron, who received extensions before their deals expired, over Suh, and Suh responded by choosing to leave Detroit.

Instead, Suh will head for the state-income-tax-free land of Miami on what is reportedly a six-year, $114 million deal that will guarantee him a cool $60 million. The specific structure of the deal remains to be seen, and the $19 million-per-year figure bandied about is simply the average annual value if the deal is played out through completion, which is always unlikely in the NFL. A better measure that teams use is the value of the first three seasons of the deal, for which reports suggest Suh will receive $60 million, which is beyond the deals of most franchise quarterbacks, let alone defensive players.

It blows away Suh’s comparables. Gerald McCoy, taken one pick after Suh in the 2010 draft and with arguably a similar talent level, got $48.9 million over the first three years of the new deal he signed in October. J.J. Watt, meanwhile, received just less than $47 million over the first three years of his new contract. Watt is a more productive player than Suh, but because he was on a rookie deal under the current CBA, the Texans had the leverage of both a fifth-year option on Watt’s rookie deal and the ability to franchise him in 2016 (and even 2017) at a price that’s still well below Watt’s market value. That gave Houston GM Rick Smith the ability to convince Watt to take a long-term extension before he was ever close to free agency. Detroit GM Martin Mayhew, who would have had to give Suh $26.9 million1 with the franchise tag this year, had no such leverage.

You can understand why any team would want Suh. The Dolphins, specifically, must have wanted Suh badly after their defense collapsed during the second half of 2014. Miami had the second-best defensive DVOA in football through Week 9, allowing opponents an average of 18.9 points per game; after that, they promptly posted the second-worst defensive DVOA in the league, allowing 27.8 points per game. That stretch started with a 20-16 loss to the Lions, one in which Suh picked up a sack, three quarterback knockdowns, and three tackles for loss, terrorizing future teammate Ryan Tannehill in the process.

Much of the attention for that drop-off, especially in light of the Suh deal, has been on the sudden decline in Miami’s run defense. After a three-game stretch when they held the Chargers, Lions, and Bills to an average of 2.9 yards per carry, the Miami run defense promptly lost the plot and allowed 661 rushing yards on 115 carries — an average of 5.7 yards per attempt — in the next three games against the Broncos, Jets, and Ravens. The run defense stabilized after that, allowing 3.6 yards per rush the rest of the way, but it’s hard to remember a good defense looking as bad as the Dolphins did against the Jets, of all offenses.

Nabbing Suh makes sense in an attempt to improve the run defense; after all, he was the best player on the no. 1 run defense in the league (per DVOA) last season. If you asked any NFL defensive coordinator whom he would want to add if he had an average defense and needed to improve against the run, Suh would be one of the first five names mentioned. Nobody doubts that.

The idea that Suh is going to single-handedly turn the Dolphins into a dominant run defense, though? That’s tougher to believe. The Lions were incredible against the run last year, and Suh has been an excellent player from the moment he entered the league, but the Lions haven’t always been a great — or even competent — defense against the run with Suh, as their year-by-year DVOA ranks indicate:

Naturally, it’s unfair to pin all or even some of the blame for the mediocre-to-worse subpar run defense from 2010 to 2012 on Suh. I’m sure he was doing great work. Suh obviously didn’t have quite as much talent around him back then, and that’s where I would be concerned about this deal if I were a Dolphins fan. The opportunity cost of giving Suh $20 million per season over the next three years is enormous, and I don’t know that the Dolphins are going to be able to weather that storm.

Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey (and/or new vice-president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum) is fitting Suh under the cap by removing the mistaken excesses of his predecessor, Jeff Ireland. It was Ireland who signed linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler two years ago to eyebrow-raising contracts that failed miserably; Wheeler was benched for most of last season, and Ellerbe missed virtually the entire season with a hip injury. The Dolphins will cut both to facilitate this Suh move,2 saving the Dolphins a combined $8.7 million. They’ve also dumped wideouts Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson, who each received curious deals from Ireland in 2013, to save another $6.5 million. Throw in last year’s $2.8 million cap hit of departing defensive tackle Jared Odrick, whom Suh will replace, and you make it to $18 million.

It’s good, of course, that the Dolphins are taking cap space that previously belonged to underperforming players and reallocating it to a superstar like Suh. The problem, though, is that you still have to replace those guys you’ve put on the street, and you don’t have that $18 million to work with in the process.

You can make up for that by having guys on rookie contracts playing meaningful roles elsewhere on the roster. The Patriots can afford Darrelle Revis because they have Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower and Chandler Jones all playing at a high level for a fraction of their market value. The Eagles can give Byron Maxwell an obscene sum of money (more on that in a moment) because they could very well be starting three linebackers next year (Mychal Kendricks, Kiko Alonso, and — terrifying gasp — Marcus Smith) on rookie salaries.

The Dolphins simply don’t have those guys. Look at Miami’s defensive depth chart. There are a few stars in Suh, Cameron Wake, and Brent Grimes. They have a few above-average complementary players in Randy Starks, Koa Misi, and Reshad Jones, each of whom are no longer on their rookie deals. There’s nothing wrong with having those guys at their salaries on the roster.

Elsewhere, it’s a mess. The only above-average player they have in their defensive lineup on a rookie deal is defensive end Olivier Vernon. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins showed some promise after being thrust into the lineup out of desperation last year. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s players like Will Davis and Jamar Taylor, guys who will be forced into meaningful roles because there’s nobody else on the roster and no cap space to do anything about it. They’re missing two starting cornerbacks, a safety, an outside linebacker, and any depth to speak of.

Much of that falls on Ireland’s drafting and decision-making over his final three seasons. He used his 2011 draft to focus almost entirely on offense, and having traded his second-round pick as part of the Brandon Marshall deal, Ireland dealt away three picks to move back up into the second round and nab running back Daniel Thomas. With four of the first 78 picks in the 2012 draft after trading Marshall to Chicago, he took Vernon and Tannehill … and used the other two picks on Jonathan Martin and Michael Egnew, neither of whom is on the roster anymore. And after dealing Vontae Davis to the Colts in 2013 for a second-rounder, he used his original second-rounder to trade up from the 12th pick and draft Dion Jordan with the third pick, which has been a disaster.

That’s why I don’t know whether the Dolphins should have signed Suh. In a vacuum, Suh is a colossus who would make any team better. In this reality, the impact of adding Suh could be countered by how his contract leaves the Dolphins pencil-thin at three or four other spots on defense. Maybe the Dolphins will nail the 2015 draft and come away with two above-average starters in the secondary. Maybe they’ll find that Davis or Taylor will take a leap forward, Suh will make the linebackers look good, and everyone will stay healthy. More likely is that the addition of Suh will be mitigated by how it handicaps Miami elsewhere.

And as much as there was chatter about how Suh was the best player to hit the free-agent market since Reggie White, this is why that’s not the case. As good a player as he is and as important as he can be on the interior of a defensive line, he can’t single-handedly drag a team to competence. It’s exceedingly unlikely that he can be a four- or five-win player on his own in the way that Drew Brees and Peyton Manning were after the Saints and Broncos, respectively, signed them in free agency. Suh may be as good as any non-quarterback to hit free agency since White. He may be getting paid like he’s a franchise quarterback. But unless Suh can get more out of the replacement-level talent around him, all of that may be for naught.

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Echos Byron

The most interesting weekend probably belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles, who had an up-and-down Sunday that seemed to end with a lopsided roster. Their day began with a signing that might even be more daring than Miami’s $60 million bet on Suh.

Byron Maxwell’s career as a starting NFL cornerback consists of 17 regular-season games over the past two seasons. A special-teamer during his rookie season in 2011, Maxwell was fifth on the Seattle cornerback depth chart in 2012, as rookie Jeremy Lane started the final three games of the season across from Richard Sherman after Brandon Browner was suspended and Walter Thurmond injured his hamstring. When Browner went down with a groin injury in November 2013, Thurmond took over as the starter. It was only when Thurmond was popped for a positive marijuana test two weeks later that Maxwell entered the starting lineup, retaining the job for the remainder of Seattle’s run to two consecutive Super Bowls.

And now, 18 months later, Maxwell is about to become one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in football. His deal with the Eagles will pay the 27-year-old a reported $63 million over six years, with $25 million in guaranteed money. It’s a meteoric rise for a cornerback who might have been buried on the depth chart if Thurmond had stayed on the field in 2013 and re-signed with Seattle.

After last year’s Bradley Fletcher fiasco, there isn’t an Eagles fan on the planet who will complain about the Eagles shelling out big money for a cornerback. And as Sheil Kapadia noted in his excellent breakdown of Maxwell last month, the former Seattle corner makes a lot of sense for what the Eagles are trying to do. Philly fans unquestionably remember Fletcher getting matched up against the likes of Dez Bryant in Cover 3 and being stuck on an island without any safety help. It didn’t go well. Maxwell was responsible for exactly that on a regular basis as part of Seattle’s Cover 3 approach, and while he did occasionally get beat — Michael Floyd’s game-winning touchdown from 2013 comes to mind3 — he’s exhibited the size, speed, and nous to hold up downfield against those sorts of routes.

With Sherman on the right side of the field, teams often found themselves throwing to Maxwell’s side, if only because he was the lesser of two evils. In lieu of those deeper routes, they had far more success working Maxwell horizontally and testing his agility. Maxwell moved into the slot during the Super Bowl after Lane broke his wrist and tore his ACL on the same play, and while you’ll remember Tom Brady torching Tharold Simon throughout the game, Brady also had some success getting Maxwell matched up against shiftier wide receivers like Danny Amendola, who juked Maxwell on a flat route for an 11-yard gain. Chip Kelly obviously cherishes Maxwell’s size, and there aren’t many 207-pound cornerbacks out there, but teams will also try to use that against Maxwell.

That’s not why I would be concerned about Maxwell if I were an Eagles fan. A few underneath completions won’t hurt anybody. It’s still not clear whether it’s a good idea to sign defensive backs out of Seattle, especially the ones who aren’t voting members of the Legion of Boom. Maxwell has spent his entire NFL career playing for Pete Carroll, who is an otherworldly defensive backs coach. It’s not a coincidence that Carroll has crafted a legendary secondary from one first-round pick (Earl Thomas) and a bunch of midround picks in Sherman, Maxwell, and Kam Chancellor. Browner was a CFL refugee. Thurmond was a fourth-rounder. Carroll coaches everybody up, and he doesn’t come with Maxwell to Philly.

Neither do the guys he played with. You can imagine that playing cornerback with Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor around is a lot easier than it might be with Earl Wolff, Malcolm Jenkins, and a corner to be named later. The cornerbacks who left the Seattle cocoon last offseason ended up with incomplete grades. Thurmond, who signed with the Giants, missed 14 games with a torn pectoral muscle. Browner returned from a four-game suspension and was very solid in coverage, but he committed a staggering 15 penalties in nine regular-season games, and he had Revis, Devin McCourty, and Bill Belichick around. That’s not quite the Legion of Boom, but it’s a lot better than the uncharted waters Maxwell is about to enter.

The size of this contract doesn’t leave any margin for error, either. Browner was signed to a three-year, $16.8 million deal that paid him just $2.9 million last year. The specifics of Maxwell’s deal aren’t yet public, but he’s going to dwarf those figures by the end of his first season in Philadelphia. That $25 million guarantee is the fifth-largest figure for any cornerback, ahead of the likes of Chris Harris, Joe Haden, and Vontae Davis, each of whom would widely be regarded as superior corners. Maxwell will probably have a bigger cap hit in 2015 than Sherman, whose four-year, $56 million deal had $40 million guaranteed.

The best-case scenario is that Maxwell matches Philly’s expectations and lives up to this deal. It’s close to impossible to imagine a scenario in which he outplays this contract. Historically, that’s been the mark of a bad free-agent deal. If Philly’s bet on Maxwell as a no. 1 cornerback is wrong, this could become a disastrous contract.

The Eagles added to their offseason restructuring by agreeing to a deal with LeSean McCoy’s replacement. Reports say Frank Gore will end his long tenure with the 49ers by signing a three-year deal with Philadelphia, where he’ll presumably be the primary back in a rotation that will include Darren Sproles and Chris Polk.

If Kelly was really dissatisfied with McCoy’s propensity for getting horizontal in the backfield and trying to improvise, it’s no wonder he went after Gore. Unquestionably the most patient running back in football, Gore’s ability to meander in the backfield while waiting for his blocks to open up before suddenly shooting into a gap should provide some reliability and consistency to the Philadelphia rushing attack. And for whatever injury concerns Gore might have exhibited after a seemingly cursed career at the University of Miami, he hasn’t missed a game in the past four seasons. Nothing about his rushing numbers suggests that he’s toast or anywhere close.

And yet, you have to wonder whether Gore can do this forever. The list of running backs who served as their team’s primary back in their thirties isn’t very long. Gore turns 32 in May, and just nine backs since 1990 have carried the ball 200 times or more during their age-32 season. Just three — Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen, and Ottis Anderson — have carried the rock 200 times or more in a season after turning 33. Even if the Eagles don’t ask Gore to carry the ball 200 times, you can see just how unlikely it has been for a back of Gore’s age to be the primary weapon. And Gore has pretty much lost all effectiveness as a receiver, which was once one of his subtly valuable attributes; after averaging four receptions and 41 yards per game in 2010, his receiving figures have dropped down to an 11-catch, 111-yard season last year.

The money here is also disconcerting. The early reports suggest Gore will see $5 million per year with $7.5 million guaranteed over the first two seasons. That’s the ninth-largest guarantee for any running back. In a market that’s been buyer-friendly for years, with DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, and Justin Forsett around and Adrian Peterson likely to join them, could there really have been so much interest in Gore that the Eagles had to guarantee him that much money?

It feels like the Eagles are targeting a few specific players and doing whatever it takes to get them, a view supported by their attempts to sign Devin McCourty away from the Patriots. That’s not necessarily a bad move, and it’s usually better to shop at the top of the market than it is to pay a premium for middling talent. But you’ve also got to get those guesses right. The moves for Maxwell and Gore are riskier than most of the decisions teams will make over the rest of the week.

Having found a running back and investing heavily in their defense, the Eagles were surely disappointed to find that their top wide receiver had become Riley Cooper. Philadelphia lost star wideout Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City under as-yet undisclosed terms.

It’s a surprise the cap-strapped Chiefs were able to find the sort of money Maclin was surely looking for on a long-term deal, but this must also indicate the end of Dwayne Bowe’s tenure in Kansas City. The Chiefs, themselves a cautionary tale for a top-heavy roster, can save $11 million on this year’s cap by designating Bowe as a post–June 1 release.

It also wouldn’t be shocking to see the Eagles consider Bowe as a possible replacement for Maclin. Even if the Eagles plan on drafting a wide receiver, their current core consists of Cooper, Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, and Zach Ertz. That simply isn’t going to fly. What’s the point of trading up for Marcus Mariota if he doesn’t have anybody to throw to? The Eagles would surely consider the 6-foot-2 Bowe, with 6-foot-3 Kenny Britt a logical buy-low candidate.

The Mariota question still looms over much of what Philadelphia is planning this offseason. The decision to re-sign Mark Sanchez on Sunday shouldn’t affect any potential trade to draft Mariota; Sanchez’s two-year deal is for less than $10 million, which is actually a decent price for an above-average backup quarterback.4 It seems like the Eagles are using this offseason to shift their spending and their developmental focus from the offense to the defense, which makes some sense given how Kelly is rightfully regarded as an offensive genius. With the wide receiver corps stripped of its top talent in consecutive offseasons and the team’s top running back traded, are the Eagles going to be able to surround Mariota with talent if they do trade up for him?

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Re-Signings Lightning Round

• I don’t understand Buffalo’s move to rip up LeSean McCoy’s contract at all. Part of the benefit Buffalo enjoyed from making that trade was retaining all of the leverage with McCoy’s financial future; if McCoy struggled, suffered an injury, or complained, the Bills could move on with no long-lasting cap repercussions, because the bonuses on McCoy’s deal accelerated onto Philadelphia’s cap when he was traded.

That’s no longer the case after news that McCoy will sign a five-year, $40 million extension that guarantees him a whopping $26.5 million. The move reduces McCoy’s 2015 cap hit from $10.3 million to $5.5 million, which is nice, but the Bills aren’t so cap-strapped or desperate for assets that they needed to clear out the cap room, even after they followed this up by re-signing defensive end Jerry Hughes. Buffalo is now guaranteed significant dead money if it moves on from McCoy any time before 2019.

It would have been one thing if the Bills had used the three-year deal McCoy already had as leverage to negotiate a smaller long-term extension. McCoy had no leverage beyond being able to gripe, and he almost definitely wouldn’t have gotten an extension this big on the free-agent market, even given how Mark Ingram just got $16 million over four years. Buffalo is assuming a far larger risk in the future to keep McCoy slightly happier — and create a small bit of cap room — now.

• I have to admit that I thought Devin McCourty was as good as gone from New England once he hit the free-agent market, so it was surprising to see him return to the Patriots. A late call from McCourty to Belichick convinced the coach to match an offer from an unnamed team. It’s a far cry from the Belichick who let safeties like Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy leave New England; he’s never really invested in a high-value safety before now.

The five-year, $47.5 million deal McCourty is signing guarantees him $28.5 million, topping the record guarantee set for a safety by Jairus Byrd last offseason. The structure of the deal hasn’t been confirmed, but it will surely eat up most or all of the $8.3 million in cap space cleared out by cutting Vince Wilfork last week.

Does re-signing McCourty make it harder for the Patriots to bring Revis back for another season? Strictly in terms of available cap space, it obviously has to, if only because there just isn’t a lot of wiggle room left for New England. Cutting Amendola would free $2.1 million, and if the Patriots knew they could re-sign Revis, they would probably have to consider letting Browner go and saving the $5.5 million owed him. It would be tough, but the Patriots might even have to consider cutting Jerod Mayo, whose role in the lineup could be filled by Jamie Collins next year. New England would save $6.9 million if Mayo was designated as a post–June 1 cut and released.

Given how much money the likes of Maxwell, Kareem Jackson, and Brandon Flowers received this weekend, I have to wonder if Belichick is actually considering picking up Revis’s option. For a while now, we’ve all assumed that the second year of Revis’s deal was basically a voidable year designed to push some of the $10 million signing bonus Revis received last year into the 2015 cap. That’s how the Patriots signed Revis and managed to fit him under the cap for $7 million last year. With a $5 million signing bonus, a $7.5 million base salary, and a staggering $12.5 million roster bonus, Revis’s cap hit for 2015 is an otherworldly $25 million.

The Patriots are on the hook for the $5 million from Revis’s signing bonus no matter what. Belichick has until 3:55 p.m. or so on Tuesday to decide whether he wants to pick up the $12.5 million roster bonus; if he declines, Revis becomes a free agent and the Jets perhaps literally back up a truck full of money to his door. It seems harder than ever to imagine that the Patriots could allow Revis to hit the open market and then match whatever offers he gets from the rest of the league, given how desperate teams are for cornerbacks.

The alternative is to pick up the option and budget accordingly. The Patriots surely won’t want to give Revis $25 million on a one-year deal for 2015, but it might be better than the alternative and it would give them a small amount of time to negotiate a long-term contract that brings Revis’s cap figure down to a more manageable figure. Revis and his agent know all of this, of course, and if the Patriots pick up the option, expect to start reading stories about how Revis is happy to play the one year out and hit the market in 2016 as the highest-profile defensive player available.

Ideally for the Patriots, Belichick and Revis would come to terms on a contract extension before the 2014 league year ends Tuesday afternoon. That would lower Revis’s cap hit without forcing the Patriots to make moves first. The Patriots can’t actually pick up Revis’s option at the moment because that would put them more than $4 million over the 2015 cap. They would need to cut Amendola and likely Mayo to pick up the option, even if it was just to give them more time to negotiate after the league year began.

All of this intrigue, and free agency hasn’t even started yet! Stay tuned for more on this weekend’s deals and whatever else happens as the week goes on and contract details become clearer.

Filed Under: NFL, Ndamukong Suh, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, 2015 NFL Free Agency

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell