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Drew Brees, Eric Ebron deals among '18's top free agency moves

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This week, free agency took off with a blur of activity ... before it officially started. But how will the flurry of agreed-to deals (and the pairings that are made after the league year starts) pan out? Big-name players changing teams: The only developments fans should be tracking?

No. Last year's free agency period was rather quiet as compared to previous years in terms of the noteworthy signings, save for Kirk Cousins receiving a langskip full of silver and coin. (Guaranteed silver and coin, that is.) But much can be gleaned from this period of transactions prior to the draft, now lovingly referred to as the "Free Agent Frenzy," especially when you consider what transpired last year. There are acquisitions worth your discernment besides the ones that involve stars relocating for loads of money, and who gets the Scarlet F of the franchise tag, which is always over-discussed and utterly predictable.

Take Willie Snead, who was an afterthought to an afterthought after the Ravens obtained Michael Crabtree and John Brown. Ask Baltimore fans who was the most consistent of the trio, even though he made less money last year than the other two.

The 2018 NFL free agency period offered a bevy of smaller moves like Snead's signing, several of them unique in nature, that made dollars and sense for team and player. Eleven of the smartest are listed below. All should add more insight to how we view the events of this week's frenzy.

1
Drew Brees
QB
Saints

If you were surfing the Interwebs around this time last year, you might have seen Drew Brees' name pop up. The quarterback didn't agree to his current two-year, $50 million deal until Day 2 of the pre-free agency legal negotiation period, meaning there was a brief time when he was headed for unrestricted free agency and thus, theoretically, available to the rest of the NFL. Don't forget that at least one other team -- the Vikings -- called Brees to gauge his interest in leaving New Orleans. Of course, we saw what happened there -- and what didn't. While it seems Brees and the Saints were never actually faced with the most difficult of decisions, with the Hall of Famer a virtual lock to always return to the Big Easy (especially with a hefty amount of dead money on the line if Brees had been allowed to walk), things could have gone the other way. The main reason he resides atop the list, however, is the fact he settled for "only" $27 million guaranteed, which is a bargain in today's franchise quarterback world. A world where Minnesota's ultimate choice last year, Kirk Cousins, received more than three times that amount ( $84 million) but secured no playoff berth.

2018 stats: 15 games | 74.4 pct | 3,992 pass yds | 8.2 ypa | 32 pass TD | 5 INT | 115.7 passer rating

2
Eric Ebron
TE
Colts

Colts general manager Chris Ballard hit free agency out of the park with the Eric Ebron signing. Remember the guy who couldn't catch anything in Detroit, including the confidence of Lions fans? (In four seasons, the former first-round pick logged 186 receptions on 288 targets -- a 64.6 percent success rate.) Well, that dude is gone. The player Indy obtained was one of Andrew Luck's most reliable assets on offense, catching 66 balls for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns. You know how many other tight ends caught that many scoring tosses in '18? How about zilch? This was the best free-agent treasure plucked from the marketplace trash bin in years.

2018 stats: 16 games | 110 targets | 66 receptions | 750 rec. yards | 11.4 ypc | 13 rec. TDs

3
Denico Autry
DT
Colts

The Colts' turnaround last year -- going from 4-12 in '17 to 10 wins and a playoff berth in '18 -- was remarkable, and Denico Autry was central to that one-year rebuild. Autry raised a few eyebrows (among those who were paying attention, anyway) by seriously contributing after inking a relatively modest deal (three years for $17.8 million, per Over The Cap). Ballard didn't have to shell out too much guaranteed money ($6.5 million) to get nine sacks and 11 QB hits. Not to mention, a player that coach Frank Reich and staff could utilize up and down the defensive front. GMs would pay more than $6.5 million guaranteed for a one-year deal if they thought they could get that kind of production, and right quick, too.

2018 stats: 12 games | 37 tackles | 9.0 sacks | 1 pass defensed | 2 forced fumbles

4
Demario Davis
OLB
Saints

Indy wasn't the only team finding value on the defensive side of the ball en route to mounting a playoff run. Like Autry, Demario Davis was the kind of mid-tier free-agent signing who helped turn around a team's season, albeit under the radar. Davis was paid a robust $18 million guaranteed, but he was worth every penny, stabilizing a New Orleans defense that got off to a lackluster start against the Bucs in Week 1. Over the back stretch, when the games really mattered, Davis was a key piece on a unit that allowed 15.75 points per game from Week 11 on down, including the playoffs (but not including the meaningless Week 17 loss to Carolina). Worth noting: Davis remains one of the league's truly unheralded players. Nice work, Mickey Loomis.

2018 stats: 16 games | 110 tackles | 5.0 sacks | 4 passes defensed | 2 forced fumbles

5
Kyle Fuller
CB
Bears

Kyle Fuller's inclusion here represents another side of free agency, and the decisions that organizations face. GM Ryan Pace decided to place the transition tag on Fuller, meaning that the Bears guaranteed themselves the right of first refusal to retain Fuller's services (while also sneaking a peek at his market value). The Packers made an offer; Chicago matched it. Fuller rewarded Chicago with the best season of his career, posting a league- and career-high seven interceptions while earning a first-team All-Pro nod. To leave him off this list, even when you consider that the Bears paid a steep price (four years, $56 million, with $18 million guaranteed) to keep their own guy, would be a mistake.

2018 stats: 16 games | 55 tackles | 21 passes defensed | 7 INT

6
Adrian Peterson
RB
Redskins

Sometimes it seems like the running back position has been earmarked for extinction, or maybe just undervalued a time or 500 -- Adrian Peterson didn't even sign in Washington until August, after rookie back Derrius Guice tore his ACL. And yet, Peterson provided the Redskins with more quality on the dollar than almost any player on this list. The 33-year-old veteran rushed for over 1,000 yards and over 4 yards per carry for an otherwise uninspiring offense. Before the quarterback and offensive line situation in Washington fell apart, including a gruesome injury to Alex Smith in November, Peterson was rolling. You try rushing for 100 yards behind a makeshift offensive line and the "threat" of Mark Sanchez chucking 'em deep.

2018 stats: 16 games | 251 carries | 1,042 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 7 rush TDs | 20 rec. | 208 rec. yds | 1 rec. TD

7
Avery Williamson
ILB
Jets

Avery Williamson was a real bright spot in an otherwise-sad-sack Jets season. Speaking of sacks, yes, I know that's what many folks want to see from linebackers these days, and Williamson only had 3.0. But that was not Williamson's primary (or secondary) duty in the Jets' defense. He was a throwback to the old-school outside linebacker of the 1970s, making plays all over the field from the middle or outside. Williamson posted 120 tackles, six passes defensed and two forced fumbles for a New York defense that sorely needed the help.

2018 stats: 16 games | 120 tackles | 3.0 sacks | 6 passes defensed | 1 INT | 2 forced fumbles

8
Julius Peppers
DE
Panthers

This is another re-signing -- but, by all respects, it was a quality re-signing. For $5 million (what essentially constitutes a pittance by today's standards), the Panthers retained a franchise legend who also proved to be a pretty effective spot rusher in his 17th NFL season. Peppers failed to equal his 11 sacks from 2017, but he collapsed the pocket often, racking up 11 QB hits, five sacks and two forced fumbles. The pressure he applied to Dak Prescott in the 2018 opener caused an errant throw on the Cowboys' last-ditch attempt in the fourth quarter of a Panthers win. The analytics mavens at Pro Football Focus rated Peppers 28th among edge rushers, despite the 38-year-old being on a pitch count. I've always lamented that younger fans don't get to see their favorite players close out their careers with their original teams. This was that rare deal that worked out for the franchise, the player and the folks who pay for this whole pro football operation.

2018 stats: 16 games | 22 tackles | 5.0 sacks | 6 passes defensed | 2 forced fumbles

9
Teddy Bridgewater
QB
Jets

My colleague Gregg Rosenthal noted the team-friendly nature of the deal Teddy Bridgewater signed with the Jets last March, astutely pointing out that GM Mike Maccagnan shelled out a mere $500,000 to play the wait-and-see game. Well, the Jets wound up drafting Sam Darnold, then turned their modest investment in Bridgewater into a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, shipping Bridgewater to New Orleans in August. All Maccagnan had to do was toss in a sixth. The deal resuscitated Bridgewater's career in a new locale, but from the vantage point of the Jets, this was a free agency bargain.

2018 stats (as Saints backup): 5 games | 60.9 pct | 118 pass yds | 5.1 ypa | 1 pass TD | 1 INT | 70.6 passer rating

10
Tyrann Mathieu
FS
Texans

The Texans signed Tyrann Mathieu to a one-year, $7 million deal, reflecting a less-than-booming market for the safety. Mathieu didn't earn an All-Pro nod -- but Houston didn't pay Mathieu to be an All-Pro, merely to be a steady performer in the secondary, and he was solid. Perhaps Mathieu didn't enjoy the opportunities, or freedom, to make disruptive plays like he did in Arizona. But the Texans filled a glaring need without taking on any risk. Because of his standard of play, Mathieu will be making twice that yearly income in Kansas City.

2018 stats: 16 games | 89 tackles | 3.0 sacks | 8 passes defensed | 2 INT

11
Ndamukong Suh
NT
Rams

Ndamukong Suh impacted few games in the early goings of the 2018 season, generating equally early takes that his signing was much ado about nothing. Funny thing happened along the way to the conclusion of the Rams-paid-too-much-for-a-player-past-his-prime narrative: Suh picked up his game. From Week 10 on, he tallied 35 tackles, an impressive number over seven games for a defensive tackle. Despite only recording 1.5 sacks during that stretch, Suh hit opposing quarterbacks 10 times. He performed even better in the postseason, with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and another five quarterback hits in three games. Suh and C.J. Anderson provided a significant late-season spark for a team that surged to its first Super Bowl in 17 years, with Suh providing some late R.O.I. for the Rams.

2018 stats: 16 games | 59 tackles | 4.5 sacks | 4 passes defensed

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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