A flurry of action gave some veterans new homes — who will have an impact for a winning team?
The second full week of May ended with a flurry of activity as teams went to work signing the best available free agents still languishing among the ranks of the NFL’s unemployed. As rookie mini-camps raged, franchises with cap space and a gambling spirit took to the penny slots of this year’s low-risk, moderate-reward veterans.
The Patriots and Ravens both brought former members of Super Bowl-winning teams back into their folds. The 49ers gave their running game a little extra juice by signing one of the league’s top blocking tight ends. And, outside of the free agent bargain bin, the Chiefs shipped a Day 3 pick to the Adam Gase-led Jets to take a flier on a former first round pick.
But will any of these moves actually matter?
As usual, this year’s headline-making moves were mostly made in March and April at the start of the official league year and at the 2019 Draft. That left slim pickings for the teams that got raided in free agency or failed to pick up a bumper crop of rookies; of our 103 top free agents this spring, only 12 remain who haven’t either signed new contracts or retired. So who were the …well, not big names, but moderately familiar names who signed or were traded in mid-May, and will they make a major impact with their new teams?
LB Jamie Collins signs with the Patriots
Collins was ushered out of New England in 2016 in part because the Patriots didn’t want to pay a talented but limited linebacker top of the market money. After Collins’ two-and-a-half seasons with the Browns, they won’t have to. The former second round pick earned an ignominious mid-season trade to Cleveland after striking out on his own and away from Matt Patricia’s game plan one too many times, but now he’s back with the club who drafted him to play a complimentary role in
Patricia’s Brian Flores’ Bret Bielema’s? defense.
Collins was a productive veteran for the Browns last season, leading the team with 104 tackles and 13 tackles for loss. He could push Elandon Roberts for a starting spot, but he’s flexible enough to handle all three roles in New England’s 4-3 defense. Will he allow Kyle Van Noy to take on more of a pass rushing role along the edge and replace some of the punch the club lost when Trey Flowers left? Will he lead one of the league’s deepest second units in a rotation-heavy attack? The veteran has never quite been as good as his numbers suggest, but he’s another versatile piece for a defense that just allowed three points in a Super Bowl.
Will he matter?: Not as much as he did in his first go-round in New England, but he adds versatility to a deep Patriots’ linebacking corps. There’s a chance he plays fewer snaps than Ja’Whaun Bentley or Christian Sam, but he gives whomever is calling the defensive sets in New England the flexibility to experiment.
QB Geno Smith signs with the Seahawks
Seattle only had Paxton Lynch behind Russell Wilson, which seems like a bad contingency plan for a quarterback who gets hit so often all his game-worn jerseys look like rejected props from Tide ads. Smith was a passable backup for the Giants in 2017 (enough to send Eli Manning to the bench, for reasons only Ben McAdoo understands) but only threw four passes with the Chargers last fall. History says he’s better than Lynch, but the former Bronco has the higher upside after languishing as one of John Elway’s famously overhyped tall quarterbacks.
Will he matter?: The Seahawks are praying he won’t.
DT Pernell McPhee, DE Shane Ray, and WR Michael Floyd all sign with the Ravens
Baltimore’s defense was plundered this spring in free agency, losing key players like C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, and Brent Urban. While luring Earl Thomas over from Seattle helped the Ravens’ defense look like the Ravens’ defense, major gaps in the club’s pass rush remained. McPhee and Ray will fill those gaps with their edge rushing prowess, though neither is a perfect solution.
McPhee returns to the club where he started his career and had 17 sacks over four seasons as an edge rusher, but he’ll turn 31 this winter and only recorded 11 tackles last fall — though he also had eight QB hits for a disheveled Washington pass rush. Ray has the lighter resume but higher upside. The 2015 first round pick had eight sacks as a part-time starter in his second year in the league, but has failed to live up to that billing in the two years since and was effectively replaced by 2018 No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb in Denver.
The soon-to-be 26-year old Ray is an intriguing fit for the Ravens, where he’ll have to shake the bust label that followed him over his last two years (where he had two total sacks) with the Broncos. The club is relying on young veterans Matt Judon and Patrick Onwuasor to continue their upward trajectories (and for 2019 third round pick Jaylon Ferguson to prove his prolific collegiate production isn’t limited to his time at Louisiana Tech) to lead the Baltimore pass rush. An unlocked Ray could be a bigger weapon than any of those guys — but the fact he languished in free agency for so long in a league where “edge rusher” is a position only eclipsed by quarterback atop NFL wish lists is a testament to how teams view his potential in 2019.
Michael Floyd also signed with the club this week. He had 849 receiving yards in 2015 and has had 666 total in the three years since, which is all you probably need to know about him at this point.
Will they matter?: McPhee is a savvy veteran who knows the Ravens’ system and fills a position of need. Ray will get the opportunity to maximize his potential with one of the league’s most consistently punishing defenses. Both help answer the biggest non-Lamar Jackson related question facing Baltimore this season.
Floyd becomes the latest washed-up veteran wideout to wear purple. If he didn’t help a Washington club that badly needed someone — anyone — to stand out at receiver last fall, he’s not going to help here.
TE Levine Toilolo signs with the 49ers
Toilolo hasn’t traditionally brought much as a receiver — he has 95 catches across 95 career games — but the 6’8 veteran is a skilled blocker who graded out as Pro Football Focus’s top pass blocking tight end in 2018. Despite finishing last season on a high note (15 catches for 203 yards and a touchdown in his final five games), Toilolo found limited interest on the free agent market before San Francisco came calling.
He’ll slide into an offense that relied heavily on its tight ends in 2018. Last season saw George Kittle rise to stardom as the consensus top option among the Niners’ injury-plagued quarterback carousel. Now they’ll get another useful target — Toilolo has a catch rate of nearly 87 percent over his last two seasons — and a player who can keep Jimmy Garoppolo upright while clearing a path for Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman. And he’s a guy Kyle Shanahan knows he can rely on; Shanahan was Toilolo’s offensive coordinator in 2015 and 2016 (where he averaged more than 20 yards per catch) with the Atlanta Falcons.
Will he matter?: More than his stat line will suggest. Toilolo gives Garoppolo an extra blocker on passing downs, a valuable safety valve on short routes, and an extra tight end to reduce Kittle’s responsibilities and allow him to feast downfield. This under-the-radar signing could pay off dividends for Kyle Shanahan.
Jets trade LB Darron Lee to the Chiefs for a 2020 sixth round pick
Why wouldn’t Kansas City make this deal? The Chiefs’ defensive rebuild got a former first round pick for the cost of a Day 3 selection. While Lee disappointed in his first two years with New York, his third season as a pro saw him finally trend toward expectations by developing into a reliable coverage linebacker who has the speed to stay glued to tight ends up the seam. It’s not hard to see why Andy Reid might find that useful:
Lee is also only 24 years old, so it’s very possible he continues to grow as an NFL linebacker over the next couple years.
The Jets didn’t need Lee with the aforementioned Mosley now on board (thanks to an $85 million contract). Rather than allow him to depart with no compensation after his contract expires next spring, interim general manager Adam Gase sold him off to Kansas City in exchange for a pick that will hover around the 200 range next year. It’s a bold first move in an interim position of power, but it probably won’t have much effect on New York’s level of play in 2019 and beyond.
Will he matter?: For Kansas City, sure. Lee will compete for a starting role and add strength to an inefficient passing defense, and he cost very little to acquire.
For the Jets? Well, at least it gives us something to bring up when we’re talking about Adam Gase besides his hyper-focused eyes.