The 2018 free agency class boasted and still boasts an underwhelming crop. The group included some big name quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins. But outside the quarterback position (which NFL media and fans occasionally think about), the options were sparse. That made it difficult to find good options for the right price. But every year, teams find a way to get good value, even in a year when that might be more challenging like 2018.
Here are five free agents who were steals for their new teams.
1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints
The deal: Two years, $50 million ($27 million fully guaranteed)
When the league’s best quarterbacks get new deals, they’re supposed to be the highest-paid players in league history. Brees, who has 70,445 career passing yards and 488 career passing touchdowns, should be the highest paid player in the NFL. Instead in 2018, he’ll earn the fifth-most in the NFL behind Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr.
Brees is guaranteed just 54 percent of his $50 million. Brees seemed to show New Orleans mercy by not entering free agency, where he’d probably have shattered contract records in the open market. The Saints got a huge cap relief thanks to Brees.
2. Nate Solder, LT, Giants
The deal: Four years, $60 million ($34.8 million fully guaranteed)
Solder is going to be featured on most lists as overpaid. But he’s a steal — just wait until the Falcons’ Jake Matthews, the Titans’ Taylor Lewan and the Seahawks’ Duane Brown get new contracts. Among the league’s elite left tackles, they’re set to be free agents in 2019. Their deals will dwarf Solder’s.
Consider the context in 2018: there wasn’t another starting caliber left tackle available. None.
Solder was the only left tackle to hit free agency. There are none in the draft. The trade market is surely dry. So there are probably a number of teams who will head into training camp wishing they’d been able to sign Solder at the value the Giants signed him. Bill Belichick’s Patriots might be one of them.
And frankly, there was no team that needed him more desperately than New York, where Eli Manning got pummeled in 2017.
3. Michael Crabtree, WR, Ravens
The deal: Three years, $21 million ($8 million fully guaranteed)
The Chiefs gave Sammy Watkins a three-year, $48 million deal. Paul Richardson got paid $40 million over five years. And Crabtree, who was long considered the second fiddle to Amari Cooper, has flown under the radar yet again. His targets were down in 2017 because a) he missed two games and b) the Raiders were a mess. But Crabtree has 25 touchdowns in the last three seasons. He has had over 600 receiving yards for the last four seasons.
Crabtree will help the Ravens get back to their semi-functional, pass-happy offense. Joe Flacco will target Crabtree early and often, particularly in the red zone. It’s not unreasonable to think Crabtree could go over 1,000 yards for the second time in his career.
4. Tahir Whitehead, LB, Raiders
The deal: Three years, $18 million (Fully guaranteed figure unknown)
Every NFL Team is looking for a player who can cover tight ends and running backs while also helping in run defense. They need a defensive player who is athletic enough to hang with passing offenses while not being a vulnerability as a run defender.
Whitehead is the modern linebacker. He’s flexible. He may not light up any one statistical category, but he’s good at all of them. The Raiders should be pleased to fill such a big need at a position while getting one of the top options on the market for just $6 million per year.
As a point of comparison, the Eagles had to commit to a five-year, $40 million deal to retain Nigel Bradham. The Raiders should feel good about Whitehead.
5. Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Packers
The deal: One year, $5 million ($1.5 million fully guaranteed)
The Packers signed one of the league’s best defensive tackles on a show-me deal. He was a mess and a locker room cancer in New York, but that’s why the Packers only extended a one year offer.
Meanwhile, Wilkerson has no job security, and huge motivation to play well to earn another big contract when this one expires in 2019. That’s when he can check out again. But for now, the Packers will get the best out of him.
So long as he keeps it together off the field, he’s a huge boon to the Packers defense, and he comes at a low cost. Consider that Dontari Poe got a $28 million, three-year deal while Sheldon Richardson got $8 million for one year. Wilkerson’s production should absolutely match his deal.