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The 10 Best Free-Agent Deals (So Far)

This isn’t a list of the best players who signed somewhere this offseason, but the players who are most likely to outperform their contracts.

After running down the worst contracts of free agency last week, let’s look at the 10 deals that stand out as the best values. It’s no accident that I did the article on the worst deals first; most of the bad contracts in free agency come during the opening hours of the market, when teams are flush with cash and fall in love with chasing a player as opposed to an archetype. Once the market settles, players get desperate to sign and teams are far more likely to find bargains.

That’s not foolproof, of course. After Thursday’s column, deals were made with DeMarco Murray, Nate Allen, and Eddie Royal that would have been strong competitors for the list of worst contracts. And likewise, there are some bargains on today’s list who went to their teams before free agency officially opened. In general, though, you’ll notice that perennial contenders like the Ravens and Patriots seem to do their business well after free agency begins. That’s not a coincidence.

This isn’t a list of the best players who signed somewhere this offseason, but the players who are most likely to outperform their contracts. You’ll also note that this list mostly ignores skill positions, with nine of the 10 players touching the football only on turnovers. That’s also not a coincidence; there just aren’t many bargains to be had on wide receivers, tight ends, quarterbacks, and running backs. Let’s start with the one bargain who does tote the rock, a running back who finally received his due in 2014 after years of lurking on the bottom of NFL rosters.

Justin Forsett Stays With Baltimore

Contract: Three years, $9 million, $3 million guaranteed

While the Eagles were busy signing Murray and Ryan Mathews to bigger deals on Thursday, the Ravens quietly came to terms with one of the best free-agent signings from last offseason. A perennially underrated player who had spent most of his career in the wrong place at the wrong time, Forsett was cut by the Jaguars last offseason so they could sign Toby Gerhart at three times the cost. Baltimore picked up Forsett for $730,000 and promptly saw him average 5.4 yards on 235 attempts.

The 29-year-old unquestionably wanted some financial security in what is likely to be his only long-term deal, and while he’ll get that, the contract is incredibly friendly to the Ravens. Forsett will cost cap-strapped Baltimore only $1.6 million this year, and his 2015 and 2016 cap hits of $3.7 million each include $3 million base salaries that aren’t guaranteed. If Forsett is a fluke, this can be a one-year deal with Baltimore owing only $1.4 million on next year’s cap. But given how he played across various stops before 2014, I’m not so sure Forsett’s breakout season was a fluke:

Darnell Dockett to San Francisco

Contract: Two years, $7.5 million, $2 million guaranteed

The 49ers have looked roughly like the International Space Station in Gravity for most of this offseason, shedding critical components at a feverish pace. While they’ve brought in Torrey Smith and are agreeing to terms with Reggie Bush to help stem some of those losses, the best move they’ve made was their first signing. Dockett, who signed with the 49ers on March 5, is going to be part of the cast of characters replacing the expected-to-retire Justin Smith at defensive end in a new-look 49ers defense.

Dockett is 33 and coming off a torn ACL, which depressed his market value, but the risk for the 49ers is low. There’s no guaranteed money in his deal after 2015, and Dockett has played at a higher level in recent years than similar rotation linemen who received more guaranteed money, like Tyson Alualu and Ricky Jean-Francois. Also, Dockett will be playing for Jim Tomsula, and while Tomsula’s responsibilities have grown with his ascension to the head-coaching gig, the longtime 49ers defensive line coach has helped elevate the play of veterans like Smith and Aubrayo Franklin.

Perrish Cox to Tennessee

Contract: Three years, $15 million

One former 49ers player who won’t be suiting up alongside Dockett is Cox, who was San Francisco’s best cornerback during his lone season as a starter by the Bay. Cox led the team with five interceptions, but I was more impressed by his versatility; he has the ability to move around and play at any cornerback spot. At 5-foot-11, he’s big enough to play outside, but he’s still quick enough to line up as a slot corner, where he spent most of his time last year.

The guaranteed money for Cox’s contract hasn’t been released, but unless the entire thing is fully guaranteed, this shapes up to be a reasonable investment for Tennessee, which endured a disastrous season from second-year corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson last year. (You may remember his crowning achievement, being out-jumped for a touchdown catch by Andy Dalton.) Cox can take over as a starting corner across from the superb Jason McCourty, and if the Titans find a larger corner to play outside, they can move Cox into the slot.

Brian Orakpo to Tennessee

Contract: Four years, $31 million, $13.5 million guaranteed

I’m not entirely comfortable sending this many compliments in Tennessee’s direction, but I can’t find too much fault with what it has done to rebuild its defense. Cox and former Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy were above-average additions to the secondary, and in addition to re-signing Derrick Morgan, the Titans upgraded their pass rush by importing Orakpo. The longtime Washington stalwart is coming off a disastrous season, recording just a half-sack in seven games before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle for the third time in his career.

That all sounds a little worse than it actually was. Orakpo was still an effective pass-rusher, accruing seven hits in seven games. He had 10 sacks and 18 quarterback hits in 2013, which was identical to the totals of Jerry Hughes, who signed a five-year, $45 million deal with $22 million guaranteed in Buffalo. And while the torn pec is concerning, it was his right pectoral, while the first two tears were to his left pectoral. That doesn’t sound much better, you say? Let’s just congratulate the Titans on a moderate-upside signing and move on.

Terrance Knighton to Washington

Contract: One year, $4 million, $3 million guaranteed

The anchor of the league’s third-ranked run defense last season, Knighton revitalized his career as the nose tackle for Denver over the past two seasons. Expected to sign a big deal and follow departing defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to a third stop in Oakland, Knighton’s market never appeared. The Raiders gave $15.2 million guaranteed to former Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams, and while there are plenty of 3-4 defenses in need of a freak athlete like Knighton, whispers suggested that he was out of shape and a bad bet on a long-term deal.

That’s not Washington’s problem. It needed a nose tackle after cutting Barry Cofield and managed to find one without any long-term commitment, adding Knighton for relative peanuts. If Knighton shows up out of shape or isn’t committed, it’s out only $4 million this year. More likely is that Washington gets the version of Knighton who wants to prove he deserves a long-term contract. Ndamukong Suh is a better player than Knighton, but he’ll make more money by the middle of September than Knighton will make all year.

Rahim Moore to Houston

Contract: Three years, $12 million, $4 million guaranteed

Houston has been unsettled at safety for a couple of years, failing to recover after Glover Quin left for Detroit. After that, Ed Reed washed out in 2013 and Chris Clemons failed to even make the team after leaving Miami last year. The Texans eventually settled on Kendrick Lewis, who had been cast out of Kansas City after his debacle in K.C.’s playoff loss to Indianapolis the previous season. Lewis was a competent stopgap, but the Texans were right to let him leave for Baltimore.

Moore, of course, is no stranger to famous playoff mistakes. Look past that one fateful play, though, and Moore has been an above-average safety for the vast majority of his career. He’s a capable center fielder, and that’s exactly what Houston needs. The Texans posted the league’s best QBR against on throws within 19 yards of the line of scrimmage, but on throws 20 yards or more downfield, they fell to 14th. Moore, who just turned 25, should be able to hold down the fort on those rare snaps when J.J. Watt doesn’t get home.

Todd Herremans to Indianapolis

Contract: One year, $2.3 million, $1 million guaranteed

One of Watt’s division rivals took a step toward keeping him away from its star quarterback with this deal. I’ve been critical of Colts GM Ryan Grigson and his moves in free agency in the past, but he’s done a better job this offseason. Herremans is only one year removed from serving as a starting guard on what was the best offensive line in football, the 2013 Eagles, and his torn biceps should be healed in time for training camp. He should still have something left in the tank at 32, and while he’s penciled in at right guard, Herremans’s versatility would allow him to serve as a swing tackle if Gosder Cherilus or Anthony Castonzo went down.

I’m skeptical of the Frank Gore signing, but Grigson has been busy adding weapons on either side of the football. Trent Cole, also cut by the Eagles, should give Indy a much-needed pass-rusher even if Robert Mathis can’t make it back from his torn Achilles. Kendall Langford, cut by the Rams, looks far better when he’s not being compared to the elite defensive linemen in St. Louis. And Andre Johnson — this is a hunch — might have a better shot of catching passes when they come from Andrew Luck instead of Matt Schaub or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Like I said, just a hunch.

Sean Weatherspoon to Arizona

Contract: One year, $3.9 million, $1.3 million guaranteed

Atlanta’s defense has collapsed over the past two seasons, when the unit that finished 12th in DVOA during that 13-3 season in 2012 fell to 29th in 2013 before hitting dead last in 2014. Among the reasons why? They’ve been without Weatherspoon, who missed half of 2013 with a foot injury before rupturing his Achilles last June. Having missed 33 of a possible 80 games during his five-year career, Weatherspoon is obviously an injury risk.

When he’s on the field, Weatherspoon is a rangy outside linebacker in the Thomas Davis/Lance Briggs mold. The Cardinals will move him to inside linebacker, where they were stuck using the ancient Larry Foote in nickel packages last season. With Daryl Washington’s status still up in the air, the Cardinals will give Weatherspoon a chance to rebuild his value without having to commit much in the way of long-term money.

Bryan Bulaga Stays With Green Bay

Contract: Five years, $33.8 million, $8 million guaranteed

Ted Thompson is a wizard. After a tackle-heavy class last offseason, Bulaga was the only offensive tackle of note to hit the market this winter. Although he had settled in at right tackle for Green Bay, Bulaga was the only player in this free-agent class who could pretend to have a hope of playing left tackle, which in itself should have pushed his value into the stratosphere. Even after missing 2013 with a torn ACL, Bulaga was going to get paid this offseason.

And then, a couple of hours before the market officially opened, Thompson welcomed Bulaga back into the fold. Consider that the Jaguars gave backup Cowboys tackle Jermey Parnell and his seven career starts a five-year, $32 million deal with a whopping $13 million guaranteed and you realize just how big of a bargain this is for the Packers. Did Bulaga (and Randall Cobb) take a discount to return to Green Bay? Probably. Then again, building a team that’s worth returning to at a discount seems like it’s a good job of squad-building, too.

Jabaal Sheard to New England

Contract: Two years, $11 million, $5 million guaranteed

Let’s finish up with a typical Patriots move. Sheard was an underrated player for the Browns, a pass-rusher who got lost during Cleveland’s endless organizational reshuffles. Despite producing 15.5 sacks across his first two seasons, he fell out of favor after the Browns signed Paul Kruger and drafted Barkevious Mingo during the 2013 offseason. Sheard wasn’t as effective as an outside linebacker when Cleveland moved to a 3-4, and with Mingo moving into the starting lineup last season, Sheard’s role was marginalized.

This, of course, is what Bill Belichick does. When the Patriots anticipated the need to move on from Randy Moss and build a new offensive identity, they naturally weren’t going to be able to find a replacement with Moss’s otherworldly skill set. Instead of heading after an inferior version and forcing the offense to play like it used to with inferior results, Belichick shifted gears and drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Likewise, the Patriots had to move on after losing Darrelle Revis. There’s no other cornerback in free agency with Revis’s skills, and even if there were, the defensive back market is grossly overpriced this offseason. Instead, the Patriots will try to replace Revis by upgrading their defense elsewhere. Belichick saw a 25-year-old player with a history of success rushing the passer and added him on a reasonable deal. He also re-signed Alan Branch, who will give the Patriots an underrated run defender as part of their post–Vince Wilfork rotation. They’ll probably add a low-cost defensive back with some versatility like Dwight Lowery in the days to come. No, they won’t be as good as they were with Revis. With additions like Sheard, though, they can be good enough on defense to keep winning.