Why Haason Reddick is the biggest free-agent bargain so far

Looking at the history of edge rusher contracts, the Carolina Panthers signing Haason Reddick for just $8 million could go down as a massive steal.

The COVID-induced salary cap plunge has led to one of the stranger NFL offseasons in recent memory. All around the league, teams are not retaining players they normally would, and deals that would normally break the bank are clocking in well below expectation. In signing Haason Reddick, the Carolina Panthers took full advantage of both of those abnormalities.

The Arizona Cardinals likely would have franchise tagged their 26-year-old edge rusher in any other year. But the cap crunch forced the team to choose between Reddick and the newly signed J.J. Watt.

Of course, Arizona chose the latter and Reddick signed a one-year, $8 million deal with Carolina. The history of edge contracts suggests the Cardinals’ loss could be the Panthers‘ gain.

Finding comparisons for Reddick was easy. The disappointing young pass rusher who breaks out in a contract year is not exactly a new trope in the NFL.

This sort of player signing for peanuts is new, however.

A good reference point is Trey Hendrickson. In his first three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, the third-round pick struggled to find his footing, with just three starts and 6.5 sacks in that time.

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Last year, though, Hendrickson started every game and finished tied for second in the league with 13.5 sacks. His breakout was rewarded with a four-year, $60 million contract from the Cincinnati Bengals.

The career arcs of Reddick and Hendrickson are comparable, yet one fared considerably better in free agency.

That is not the only example, either.

Carl Lawson has been an effective pass rusher from day one. But he has an injury history and never had a season with double-digit sacks.

Yet the player got three years and $45 million from the New York Jets.

A year ago, Leonard Floyd was bordering on bust territory, with a decreasing number of sacks in each of his four seasons with the Chicago Bears. Still, he got a $10 million prove-it deal from the Los Angeles Rams.

Shaq Lawson was in the same boat as Floyd, but he was able to parlay a mini-breakout into a three-year, $30 million contract with the Miami Dolphins.

Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah each got similar average salaries to Reddick despite never approaching the level of his 2020 season.

Reddick may not be the best player of this group, but he is far from the bottom-of-the-barrel option his contract suggests. Compared to the other deals, his $8 million salary looks like a bargain.

How did the Carolina Panthers get him for so cheap?

While the league-wide cap shortage played a role, plenty of other edge rushers cashed in. More likely, Reddick’s low price tag was the result of dumb luck and skepticism about the new Panther.

For starters, the sustainability of Reddick’s breakout season is unclear. After all, he had just 7.5 sacks in his first three seasons combined before posting 12.5 last season.

Much of that is because Reddick was originally drafted to play inside linebacker. Projecting the Temple product as an edge rusher was difficult given his smaller stature.

Another worry is Reddick’s stats are overinflated by his five-sack performance against the New York Giants. Factoring that out, he had a less impressive 7.5 sacks in 15 games.

Also, as this is only a one-year deal, the upside is limited for the Carolina Panthers.

While those are valid concerns, they are minor in the big picture. Sack artists are priceless in the NFL, and young, productive ones are scarcely available, let alone for seven digits.

Plus, Reddick’s inexperience as an edge rusher could point to more room for growth as well as valuable versatility for defensive coordinator Phil Snow. His 34 quarterback pressures – tied for the 13th most in 2020 – do not suggest a flukey sack total.

Health is not a worry for the ex-Cardinal either. Reddick played in all 16 games in each of his four seasons.

While limiting the deal’s upside, a one-year commitment protects the Panthers too. If the signing backfires, Carolina can move on next season at no charge.

Along with the value he brings as an individual, Reddick could take a promising Panthers defensive line over the top. Adding another standout pass rusher will benefit everyone, and the Reddick-Brian Burns tandem could rival the dominant duo of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson if everything goes right.

Given the history of massive contracts for edge rushers, it is hard to look at this as anything other than a home-run signing for general manager Scott Fitterer and the Panthers.