It’s impossible to predict the way NFL free agency will shake out in a given year. Sure, it’s easy to say the Jaguars or Browns will spend a lot, knowing their cap situations, but correctly guessing which players they’ll sign is extremely difficult.
That’s often what makes free agency so much fun to follow. You get teams like the Patriots, who come out of nowhere to scoop up a top cornerback and trade for a speedy receiver. Or the Packers signing the best available tight end to a three-year deal.
This year, there were a handful of surprising moves. Below, we’ve put together a list of the most shocking signings and story lines we didn’t see coming.
A.J. Bouye signing the largest contract of any player to change teams
Bouye was expected to be a coveted free agent. He wasn’t, however, expected to be the most expensive on the market. The Jaguars decided to make that happen, signing him to a five-year, $67.5 million deal – the largest of any player to change teams in free agency.
I’m not saying Bouye is overpaid, or that he didn’t deserve that type of money, but that’s a hefty check to give a player who’s been a primary starter for one year. He has tremendous potential, but the Jaguars better hope he continues to rise. If he’s already hit his peak, he won’t be worth his paycheck.
The Patriots signing Stephon Gilmore
We all knew the Patriots had more cap space than they typically do, but few people expected them to spend the way they did. The Gilmore signing came out of nowhere, to the point where he was even surprised by their interest in him. It’s easy to understand why they paid him $65 million for five years now that Malcolm Butler may be on the move, but it was still shocking to see how quickly that deal came together.
In order for Gilmore to live up to his contract’s expectations, he has to stay healthy. Butler is a reliable, durable player for them, while Gilmore has missed 12 games in the past four years.
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Terrelle Pryor and Alshon Jeffery signing one-year deals
The crop of free-agent wide receivers appeared to be strong at the top with Jeffery and Pryor headlining the group, followed by Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. Garcon and Jackson got multi-year deals, but Jeffery and Pryor did not. That’s likely because they both opted for one-year contracts. At least Pryor did, which he candidly said after signing with the Redskins.
Regardless of whether Jeffery wanted a one-year deal, it was still shocking to see two budding star receivers opt for prove-it contracts over long-term security. Perhaps they’re poised for huge seasons with their respective NFC East teams, thus bettering their value for next offseason.
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The Seahawks choosing Eddie Lacy over Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles
With Peterson and Charles on the market, the Seahawks chose to sign Lacy over the two former Pro Bowlers. Seattle made it clear that the running back position was a priority this offseason, which was a bit surprising in its own right, considering the Seahawks have Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise.
Lacy is younger than Peterson and Charles, but he also comes with his own question marks. He hasn’t been able to maintain his weight, and battled an ankle injury last season. It remains unclear if he can stay healthy and in shape. If he can’t he’ll likely find his way on the free-agent market again soon.
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Martellus Bennett signing with the Packers
Packers general manager Ted Thompson is one of the biggest penny-pinchers in the NFL, often shying away from big-name signings. Sometimes, though, he signs veterans if the money is right (Julius Peppers, Charles Woodson). That was the case with Bennett, who will effectively replace Jared Cook.
Bennett signed a three-year deal worth $21 million, which doesn’t even put him in the top 10 of highest-paid tight ends. It was a cost-effective move that gives Aaron Rodgers yet another weapon on offense. This was a surprising move by the Packers, but one that will ultimately benefit them in the passing game and on the ground.
The Browns making Kevin Zeitler the highest-paid guard
Zeitler was undoubtedly the best guard on the market. He’s young, talented, and is equally great as a run blocker as he is in pass protection. It was the perfect fit for the Browns, who were overhauling their offensive line at several spots. Pair him with Joel Bitonio, who also signed a huge extension, and the Browns have a solid front five.
What made this move so shocking was that the Browns made him the highest-paid guard in the NFL … ever. At $12 million a year for five years, Zeitler is the richest player ever to play his position, just barely edging out Kelechi Osemele. He set a new precedence for guards, which will only help guys like Zack Martin and Brandon Scherff in the coming years.
The 49ers paying more for a fullback than any team in NFL history
Kyle Shanahan loved utilizing fullbacks in Atlanta. He used Patrick DiMarco as a lead blocker fairly often, while also swinging him out as a receiver. His infatuation with fullbacks is well documented, but that didn’t warrant the 49ers going out and paying Kyle Juszczyk more than any fullback in NFL history. We’re talking way more.
The 49ers gave him $21 million for four years, or $5.25 million per season. The next closest is Rhett Ellison ($4.5 million), who’s more of an H-back than a fullback. After him, DiMarco is third at $2.1 million per year. That means Juszczyk is making nearly double the next closest (pure) fullback, which is staggering.
Perhaps Shanahan will prove he’s worth it, but when has a fullback ever made an offense explosive? Juszczyk sure didn’t in Baltimore, despite being a versatile player.
Browns signing Kenny Britt over Terrelle Pryor
Let’s get one thing straight: The Browns tried to retain Pryor, their offer just wasn’t enough. Pryor opted to take a one-year deal from the Redskins, taking the place of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. To replace Pryor, the Browns signed Britt, who just posted his first 1,000-yard season in the NFL. And they probably paid him the same amount that Pryor would have commanded.
Britt isn’t a bad receiver, but his ceiling is far lower than Pryor’s. You know what you’re going to get with Britt: 900-1,000 yards and about 50-60 catches, which isn’t going to get him to the Pro Bowl. Pryor, on the other hand, has the potential to be a 90-catch, 1,200-yard guy every year. That’s a big difference for a similar price.
USA TODAY SportsJeff Hanisch
Panthers giving Matt Kalil $55.5 million
Kalil was once an elite prospect out of USC. He was the fourth overall pick in 2012, but turned out to be a bust for the Vikings. He struggled as a left tackle, and this past season, he was forced to undergo hip surgery – an injury that cost him 14 games. So what did the Panthers do? Give him $55.5 million for five years with $31 million guaranteed.
Michael Oher wasn’t a viable starter at left tackle next season, so the Panthers needed to replace him. What they didn’t have to do was pay a player coming off hip surgery $55.5 million for five seasons. This could prove to be a massive mistake for the Panthers, and it’ll impact Cam Newton if Kalil flops.