Thursday, March 7, 2013

NFL Free Agency 2013: Beware the Wide Receivers

To all the NFL teams anxiously awaiting the moment they are (legally) allowed to drive a truck full of money to the houses of Greg Jennings, Wes Welker, Mike Wallace, and perhaps even Danny Amendola:

Stop. Breathe. Sit. Think.

All four are terrific football players who would certainly be a wonderful addition, but what do you want to bet the market gets a bit out of hand for at least a couple of those guys? Especially after Dwayne Bowe set a standard, of sort, with the 5yr $56M deal he signed with Kansas City! Already, there are indications Mike Wallace is viewing Bowe’s deal as a “starting point” for his negotiations, and that Greg Jennings is seeking to at least match Bowe’s new annual average.

Again, they’re good football players, and in a vacuum, you’d love to have them on your team. But at those prices? Eh, I’m not so sure.

Historically speaking, spending big dollars in free agency has proven to be fool’s gold. For a variety of reasons, players who were formerly ‘impact’ guys have struggled to maintain a high level of performance after signing big deals, and the teams that signed them often find themselves in a worse place than before they spent the money. Just ask the Eagles what free agency bought them! Granted, the majority of cases aren’t as extreme as Philly’s – basically everyone tanked for them – but it’s been a consistent theme since the very beginning. “Build through the draft” isn’t just some old timey saying coaches and GM’s from the ‘70’s like to repeat. It’s the truth. It’s reality.

For that reason, and because the 2013 free agent class pretty much sucks, I’ve decided to significantly scale back how I write about it, breaking it down into simple “Free Agents I Like” and “Free Agents I Don’t Like” lists. Is there any better way to look at it that doesn’t border on inane? Even within those lists, though, I noticed something. I hated all the wide receivers. All of them! Some because they’re not good players, some because they’re too far past their prime, and some – like the four listed above – because of the dollars they’ll fetch.

Again, Greg Jennings is a good player. Mike Wallace is a good player. I just wouldn’t want to be the guy tossing $10M+ their way, because the wide receiver type of free agent has typically been among the worst types of free agents. Few have failed to even remotely earn the money they’re given, and most are gone from their new team in two or three year’s time.

In the last five free agent periods (2008-2012), I count 17 wide receivers that have changed teams via a significant free agent deal. They are:

Javon Walker (2008) – 6yr $55M contract with Oakland
Walker played in just 11 games over two seasons, catching only 15 passes before being cut.

Donte’ Stallworth (2008) – 7yr $35M contract with Cleveland
Caught just 17 passes in his one season with Cleveland before a 2009 DUI manslaughter incident effectively ended his tenure.

Jerry Porter (2008) – 6yr $30M contract with Jacksonville
One of the worst busts in FA history, Porter managed just 10 games and 11 catches before being cut in 2009.

Bernard Berrian (2008) – 6yr $42M contract with Minnesota
Berrian struggled out of the gate with just 48 catches in his first season, albeit it with 964 yards. He would never improve on that season, eventually finding the bench and bottoming out with just 7 receptions in 2011. Berrian was cut before last season.

Nate Washington (2009) – 6yr $27M contract with Tennessee
3025 yards and 23 TD’s in four seasons despite some of the worst QB play in the league during that time. He’s been a solid weapon and worth every penny of the deal they gave him.

Laveranues Coles (2009) – 4yr $28M contract with Cincinnati
43 catches and 514 yards in one lackluster season in Cincy. As Coles was already 32 and coming off two subpar seasons, this was doomed from the start.

Torry Holt (2009) – 3yr $20M contract with Jacksonville
At 33, Holt managed just 51 catches and had zero TD’s in one miserable season in Jacksonville.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh (2009) – 5yr $40M contract with Seattle
Housh did manage to snag 79 passes, but for only 911 yards and 3 TD’s in his first season. He was so unremarkable, though, that Seattle made sure it was his only season, cutting him in the offseason.

Nate Burleson (2010) – 5yr $25M contract with Detroit
Not a total disaster, but 10.5 Y/C and 45.1 Y/G isn’t the stuff of legends. Or starters, really. Also, Burleson missed the majority of last season with a leg injury.

Antonio Bryant (2010) – 4yr $28M contract with Cincinnati
In one of the more bizarre tales you’ll ever hear, Bryant was cut just months after signing this deal due to continued health concerns. Cincy ate every last dime of the $8M guaranteed him.

Brandon Marshall (2010) – 5yr $50M contract with Miami
Marshall was technically traded to Miami, but he was on the market as an RFA and the Dolphins gave him a hefty contract to switch teams. Unnecessary trade to Chicago aside, Marshall was incredibly productive in Miami, posting at least 1000 yards in both his seasons.

Sidney Rice (2011) – 5yr $41M contract with Seattle
Managed just 9 games in his first season. Even more concerning, he managed just 50 catches and 748 yards last year despite playing all 16 games…with Russell Wilson!

Brandon Lloyd (2012) - 3yr $12M contract with New England
Not actually that big of a contract, but Lloyd was a fairly high profile acquisition nonetheless. After just 911 yards in a pass heavy offense, he’s likely to find himself right back out on the market.

Vincent Jackson (2012) – 5yr $55M contract with Tampa Bay
I’ll give it to Vincent and the Bucs, I didn’t think this one would work out, but he seems to have been worth the money. Granted, there’s plenty of time for this thing to tank, but 1384 yards, 8 TD’s and a Pro Bowl selection is a nice way to start.

Robert Meachem (2012) – 4yr $25.5M contract with San Diego
Jackson’s replacement, Meachem never broke into the starting lineup and caught just 14 passes.

Pierre Garcon (2012) – 5yr $42.5M contract with Washington
The jury is still very much out on this one. Garcon struggled with injuries all year, missing 6 games and limping through several others. On the other hand, he was productive when he was able to play, often showing off the big play ability that made him so attractive. We’ll see how this plays out.

Laurent Robinson – 5yr $32.5M contract with Jacksonville
Jacksonville’s third misstep on this list! Robinson played in just 7 games before going on IR. Even worse, he was pretty bad in those 7 games. 24 catches and 252 yards is not what the Jags thought they paid for.

Of those 17 players, only Nate Washington, Brandon Marshall, and Vincent Jackson can truly be considered successes, with the jury still out on Garcon. The rest range anywhere from disappointing to ‘meltdown-at-Cherynobyl’ level failure.

Why this is the case is likely due to several factors. Some failed because they were already past their prime and on the precipice of a steep decline. Others failed because of injuries. Still others failed due to a detrimental change in scheme or a downgrade in QB play.

Which brings us to the four guys I mentioned in the first paragraph. Again, they are good players, but in examining them, there are some very clear red flags. All four fit at least one, if not more, of the reasons for failure I listed above.

Danny Amendola
Rumored Contract Amount: Up to $6M per year
Red Flags: Injury, Scheme

First the obvious – this guy can’t stay healthy! Amendola missed 20 games the past two seasons with some very significant injuries. He could become nothing more than wasted cap space with just one decent sized hit.

Beyond that, it’s also fair to wonder how much of his production is due to his situation. Not so much the actual system or the presence of Sam Bradford, but the complete and utter lack of any alternative receiving option. Amendola is literally all they have! Any time Bradford gets in trouble and needs bailed out, he always looks his way. Would he stand out as much with more talent around him? Tough to say, but fair to speculate.

Fair contract: As long as the years and guaranteed money is low – which I’m guessing they will be – he shouldn’t be too much of a risk. Something in the neighborhood of 3yr $14M seems fair.

Wes Welker
Rumored Contract Amount: Up to $10M per year
Red Flags: Age, Scheme

A guy who has averaged over 100 catches per season in his 6 years in New England would seem to be a safe bet for the rest of the league, but Welker is quite possibly not all his numbers indicate. In fact, I’d say it’s likely he’s nothing more than a very good slot receiver playing in the best possible system for very good slot receivers. A product of the system, more than a transcendent talent. In another scheme, playing with a QB who is not Tom Brady, would he still be a Pro Bowl player?

There’s also an age concern here. Welker will be 32 next year, has suffered one major knee injury , and plays a position that typically does not age well. Even if he could transition to a different type of role, his window of success is fast closing.

Fair contract: It’s doubtful any team, even the Patriots, will get a full return on any kind of long term deal. Welker is just at that age where things start to go downhill quickly. Besides, it’s not a good practice to hand out massive contracts to glorified slot receivers. He will always retain the most value playing in New England, and in an ideal world, a sensible deal would be struck between the two. 3yr $20M is certainly not what he’s hoping for, but it’s about what he deserves.

Mike Wallace
Rumored Contract: At least 5yr $56M
Red Flags: Scheme, Attitude

On the plus side, Wallace is still a young guy at 27 years old. Then again, so were plenty of guys on the list I provided. Relative youth doesn’t guarantee future success; it only guarantees more shock and dismay when things don’t work out. As talented as Wallace is, there’s plenty of chance that happens.

The biggest concern here has to be his attitude, work ethic, or whatever it was that caused last year’s atrocity. Wallace was unhappy about his contract status and, instead of working his tail off in a righteous zeal to destroy his competition and prove his doubters wrong, opted to pout in the corner while the big kids went out and played football. Wallace’s yardage and Y/C plummeted sharply, raising some serious concerns about how he’ll respond after he gets a big deal. Who knows, maybe he’ll ease up and go back to dominating. Or, he might enact some form of working retirement. It’s a pretty clear risk for whoever signs him.

If you happen to be someone who does not believe Wallace had an attitude issue last year, then I’ll kindly refer you to my other red flag, scheme. Last year was Wallace’s first without Bruce Arians running the offense. In Arians’ system, Wallace basically ran vertical routes all day, utilizing his superior speed to win downfield battles. This worked well for him, as he averaged over 1000 yards per season and 18.7 Y/C. He also averaged just 94.3 targets per season, far shy of the number a true #1 receiver would see. The system was built around Roethlisberger keeping plays alive long enough to let his receivers get open down the field. It worked because of the type of receivers they had and the type of QB Roethlisberger is, but it’s a system that was uniquely Pittsburgh’s.

Under Todd Haley, though, a more conventional system was adopted that emphasized shorter, more precise passes. Wallace was expected to shoulder the burden of a #1 –especially after demanding to be paid like one – which meant expanding his route tree. Instead of heading straight downfield all day, he would need to run more precise timing routes and make plays after the catch. This went…poorly. Despite a career high 119 targets, he caught just 64 passes and dropped his Y/C by more than 5 yards. In the end, it was Antonio Brown, not Wallace, who showed potential as a true #1.

Yet, he wants #1 type money. Without #1 type production, or, quite possibly, #1 type skills. Why would any team want to fork over that type of money for a guy to run 20 go routes every Sunday? Unless that team is the Packers or some other team with a giant armed QB, there’s almost no chance they’ll get their money’s worth

Fair contract: It should say something that Pittsburgh views him as expendable. I’d go 4yr $36M and hope he improves his route running a bit. Not a dime more for a glorified deep threat.

Greg Jennings
Rumored Contract: Up to $12M per year
Red Flags: Age, Injury, Scheme

I love Jennings in those creepy/weird/funny Old Spice commercials as the next guy, but he's probably my least favorite high profile free agent this offseason. He fits nearly every profile of a classic flop.

Age - Jennings will be 30 years old in September and has an awful lot of mileage on those tires. 425 catches in 96 career games is not insignificant in the slightest, and it pretty much guarantees Jennings' best football is behind him.

Injury - He missed 8 games last season with nagging muscle injuries and played like a borderline cripple in close to all of the other 8 games. He also missed three games the season before. Perhaps it's a mere fluke he's struggled through injuries in the two seasons prior to turning 30. Or, perhaps it's a developing pattern, one that is all too common in the NFL. Major red flag.

Scheme - Jennings is definitely more versatile and dynamic than Wes Welker, but the truth is that he too works primarily out of the slot. And like Welker, he's had plenty of supporting talent around him, including an all time great caliber QB tossing it his way. Jennings couldn't have found himself in a better situation over the course of his career, and I severely doubt he would have experienced the same level of success playing in Baltimore, Chicago...really, almost anywhere. There's only one Aaron Rodgers, and unless you're playing with Brady, Manning, or Brees; you're slumming in comparison.

Adding another layer of concern is the fact that Green Bay clearly marginalized his role last season, with essentially no drop off. That's partly due to the talent of Randall Cobb, but also due to the fact that Aaron Rodgers makes his receivers look better, and that a slot based guy like Jennings is far more expendable. 

Fair contract: I feel confident he has a couple more solid seasons in him, and there are multiple teams that would benefit greatly from having a player like Jennings, but there's no way he should be getting $10M+. He can't possibly live up to that type of deal. Maybe I go as high as 3yr $24M if I'm Cincinnati, Cleveland, or some with both cap room and a desperate need for a complimentary possession type guy. That's the extent of it, though. Anybody giving him significantly more money or hoping he'll be a #1 type guy is just going to be disappointed.

Again, I'm not saying these are bad players. I'm just saying the history of giving big money to wide receivers is dodgy, at best. These four have more bust potential than people seem to be considering. Just a fair warning, NFL GM's.