Combine the copious amount of salary-cap space across the NFL with a shallow free-agent class, and it's easy to envision some bloated contracts materializing this month. With free agency opening at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 14, Gregg Rosenthal takes a look at the players most likely to be overpriced.
Sammy Watkins, wide receiver
Speaking at the NFL Scouting Combine, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay largely blamed himself for Watkins' poor production (593 receiving yards) in 2017. McVay said the team could have done a better job scheming plays for the former Bills top-five pick, noted the coverage Watkins drew and felt it was difficult for him to join the Rams with so little time before the season. McVay made a point of expressing that Watkins played a key role in the larger L.A. passing game.
Those are all reasonable points, but Watkins won't be looking to get paid like a role player. Still just 24 years old, Watkins combines the holy trinity of qualities that earn beaucoup bucks in free agency: Youth, speed and draft pedigree. And the wideout did score eight touchdowns over his 39 receptions.
Some team will dig up its old draft profile of Watkins and pay him like a No. 1 receiver. But Watkins was the third-most productive wideout on his own team last year, behind a third-round rookie (Cooper Kupp) and former Bills teammate Robert Woods. Watkins has only combined for 1,023 yards over the last two seasons, yet he could get a contract that ranks among the top five NFL receivers because it's so rare for a player with his profile to hit free agency. That's a recipe for outsized expectations.
Nate Solder, offensive tackle
Listing Solder is not a knock on his ability. It's a matter of simple supply and demand. Solder is easily the best starting free-agent tackle available in a league thirsty for pass protectors.
Turning 30 years old next month, Solder remains a better-than-average blind-side starter, even if he's coming off an uneven season. The next-best option in free agency is probably one of his Patriots backups or Pittsburgh's Chris Hubbard. And this draft class doesn't appear to be one loaded with instant-impact tackles. So Solder could get paid a premium of $12-$15 million per season.
Solder took a below-market deal to stay in New England last time around, an option that could be tougher to swallow this month, with so much money dangled in front of him.
Jimmy Graham, tight end
Graham's red-zone chops have helped to mask a decline in the rest of his game. Russell Wilson targeted Graham 96 times last season, with only eight resulting in gains of 20-plus yards. The former college basketball player was once one of the most breathtaking athletes in the league, but injuries have eroded Graham's ability to separate from defenders at age 31. He saw the most targets of his Seahawks career, but only ended up with 520 yards and a 9.1 yards-per-catch average, both easily career lows for him as a starter. Players like Jason Witten, Ben Watson and Jared Cook were all more efficient turning targets into yards last season.
Never an asset as a blocker, Graham helped to evolve the tight end position at the start of this decade. But a wave of "move" tight ends have hit the league since, and teams would be better off trying to draft the next Graham or signing a younger free agent like Trey Burton. This could wind up being Graham's last NFL contract and it still threatens to be expensive.
Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle
Designated run stoppers aren't nearly as coveted in today's NFL, especially ones who aren't that dominant. Lotulelei is a strong candidate to get a generous contract because he was part of a stout Carolina defensive line and has a first-round pedigree. But the Panthers know better; he's not Damon Harrison or Linval Joseph. Lotulelei graded out as a negative run defender over the last two years, according to Pro Football Focus. He's a solid rotational player who is set to get paid like a star.
Case Keenum, quarterback
"Is Case the guy that he was last year or two years ago?"
That's a question I'd expect to hear from a fan, not the man who coached him last year. The Vikings have remained publicly suspicious of Keenum's breakout season right through Mike Zimmer's press conference at the combine last week. It's as if the Vikings don't quite trust what Keenum accomplished, possibly because his outstanding season came with an inordinate amount of dropped interceptions and throws that make conservative coaching staffs cringe.
The Vikings surely would've been tempted to pay Keenum big dollars if coordinator Pat Shurmur had remained in place, but instead, Keenum could be joining his fifth team in as many seasons. He can absolutely upgrade a quarterback depth chart and hold the fort as a starter, but the Vikings already maxed out his value signing him for $2 million last season. He could cost nearly 10 times that much now.
Offensive linemen coming off injury
This could be extended to "offensive linemen with any starting experience." A year after Matt Kalil signed for $55 million with Carolina and Rick Wagner picked up $47.5 million from Detroit, the free-agent market on the offensive line figures to offer even fewer bargains.
A host of talented players coming off serious injuries could get signed as if they don't have durability concerns. The list includes Giants guard Justin Pugh, Colts guard Jack Mewhort and Giants center Weston Richburg. All three have potential to shore up interior lines, but I suspect there won't be any discounts despite their injury-plagued 2017 seasons. The O-line shortage is reaching epidemic proportions and teams simply aren't allowing quality, healthy young players to hit the market. Free agency is a time for risk-taking, even though history says most of the high-risk bets don't pay off.