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Buyer Beware
deep dive

Buyer Beware

Fans love the flurry of free agency. Unfortunately, so do some teams. But if you think that shiny free agent signing is too good to be true, it probably is
Joe Robbins, Evan Pinkus, Scott Boehm/AP

Free agency is an exciting time, and that’s the problem. Amidst the excitement, fans and media overvalue unsigned players. Worse yet, so do coaches and general managers.

The NFL system is not set up for great players to hit free agency. The last thing a team wants is to invest draft picks, coaching hours, practice reps and game time in a player only to see him prosper elsewhere. A player the team thinks can truly prosper isn’t allowed to go elsewhere; he gets tagged or re-signed. With financial whizzes employed to help manage the salary cap, an NFL front office can almost always find a way to retain a vital player.

So, it reasons, a player who reaches free agency all but promises to have a flaw. For example, in 2009 Albert Haynesworth had all the big ones: work ethic issues, poor character, susceptibility to injury, limited position versatility and, most common of all, an inflated price tag. The fact that the Titans let their All-Pro hit free agency in his prime was a dead giveaway that his flaws were worse than outsiders could imagine. 

This isn’t to say that free agents are bad; it’s merely to say that free agents are complex and must be considered with caution. Football’s complexity and team-oriented nature leaves players at the mercy of factors beyond their control. The schemes and systems vary more from club to club, and one’s playing style must mesh with that of those around him. For stars, this isn’t a problem. But for flawed players, it can be.

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This can be a two-way street. A free agent’s style might prove to be a better fit on his new team than on his old team. The best example is probably Justin Smith, who was a mundane 4-3 defensive end in Cincinnati and became a perennial All-Pro after signing with San Francisco, where he transformed into a 3-4 two-gap end (a five-technique). But cases like this are rare, and the majority involve either middle-class free agents who blossom in a new role or environment (like Michael Bennett, who moved to a three-technique in Seattle last year) or upper-middle class free agents who thrive while playing on a one-year deal (like Aqib Talib or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie last year). Most of these guys have flaws, but unlike the exciting upper-class free agents, they’re not the type of significant financial risk that can really harm a franchise if things go bad.

The flaws can be difficult to spot, as things like character and injuries are hard to grasp by those who are not inside the building or around the player every day. But, as Washington overlooked with Haynesworth, there are indicators:

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    Durability Flag: Missed multiple games in multiple years due to injury. 

  • Contract Year Flag: Underachieved until his contract year. Short-term memory often registers these guys as having potential but, more often, they have potential that’s destined to go unfulfilled

  • Character Flag: Has multiple off-field incidents or persistent rumors about character concerns. Something to consider: whenever you hear stories about the recent maturation of a guy who’s 26 or older, chances are he deserves a character flag. Adults aren’t supposed to be patted on the back for finally acting like adults. 

  • Role Flag: Performed a very specific role for his previous team, and especially if he did so with a lot of talent around him. In Haynesworth’s case, he was strictly a three-technique in a good one-gap Titans defense. He proved far less adept as a nose tackle in Washington’s 3-4. 

  • Inconsistency/In-Decline Flag: Haynesworth ran hot and cold over his first four years, but even guys who run hot and cold for just one or two years should be flagged. Reason being, that players’ previous team, having known what the player was supposed to do on each play, usually knows that the inconsistency was even worse than it appeared on film. Or, the team knows the inconsistency stemmed from the player being in decline, which they witnessed only occasionally on Sundays but regularly during the week. 

  • Overpriced Flag: A Ford Taurus might be a fine car, but not if it costs as much as a Cadillac. And paying Cadillac money for the Taurus doesn’t make the Taurus a Cadillac. The same principle applies to football players. By March, every NFL team has a decent idea of what the market will be like. The players that teams allow to hit free agency are the ones that the team senses will be overpriced. 

Having one of these flaws does not mean a player won’t succeed. In fact, the majority of NFL players have one. But for the players allowed to hit free agency, the flaws are generally worse than people realize. Teams that spend big at the start of free agency often fail to recognize this. Some recent examples:

  • The Dolphins with Mike Wallace. Wallace is a classic Role Flag. He had a specific job in Pittsburgh as a deep threat. He also served as one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite improvisational targets when things broke down. That made him dangerous and prolific, but not a true No. 1 receiver. The Steelers knew he couldn’t run a full route tree. The Dolphins found that out shortly after signing him, and especially later in the year when opposing defenses focused their coverage primarily on Brian Hartline or Charles Clay. Now the Dolphins have a de facto No. 2 weapon who makes more guaranteed money ($30M) than every wide receiver except for Calvin Johnson ($48M).

  • The Browns with Paul Kruger. Kruger carried the Contract Year Flag. The outside linebacker admittedly was immature early in his career with the Ravens and never played up to his ability until his 2012 contract year. Last season in Cleveland, a newly rich Kruger was adequate in all phases, but dominant in none. If Barkevious Mingo develops and Jabaal Sheard remains a beast, Kruger this year could be the third best outside linebacker on the Browns and the third highest-paid outside linebacker in the league ($20M guaranteed).

Free agents can be flawed and still succeed as long as their new team fully understands their flaws. Perhaps the best recent example is the Bears with Jermon Bushrod. The Saints allowed the left tackle to hit the market because his limited lower-body strength made him a very average pass blocker. The Bears, having suffered through below average pass blockers for years, signed Bushrod for $11.7 million guaranteed— just enough to merit a small Overpriced Flag. But at least the Bears knew exactly how to get their money’s worth. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer had worked with Bushrod for four years as the Saints offensive line coach. Kromer and Marc Trestman constructed an aggressive pass-blocking scheme that has the tackles attack pass rushers near the line of scrimmage rather than taking the traditional approach of reacting to them off a drop-step deep in the backfield. Bushrod, who can’t anchor but has quick feet, was a perfect fit for this. And his first year in Chicago was his best as a pro.

Fascinatingly, this year’s crop of unrestricted players has a chance to ameliorate the perils of free agency. Let's look at them, grouped by flags:

  • Overpriced Flag: There are several very solid veterans at the top of the class with no major flaws. This includes defensive end Michael Bennett, free safety Jairus Byrd, offensive tackles Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe and Jared Veldheer and strong safeties T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner. The only flag with these guys is that they could be overpriced. But this year, with the salary cap ballooning to a record $133 million and scheduled to jump again in 2015 and 2016, teams have more room for error.

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    Role Flag: The ballooning cap is particularly a blessing to the Role Flag guys. Eric Decker is one. He’s unequivocally a No. 2 receiver who put up big numbers by playing in a Peyton Manning-led offense. If he were anything but "just a guy," the Broncos would retain him. After all, they have almost $20 million in cap space and, with Manning nearing his end, their window is now. Other Role Flag guys include Decker’s former teammate Knowshon Moreno and Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate.

  • Inconsistency/Decline Flag: There’s wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (whose contract value is one of the most difficult to project in recent NFL history), offensive tackles Rodger Saffold and Michael Oher, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and nose tackle B.J. Raji. In Decline Flags, you have defensive ends Jared Allen and Justin Tuck, plus running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

  • Durability Flag: This group—led by tight end Jermichael Finley, linebacker Jon Beason, quarterback Michael Vick, Hakeem Nicks (again), safety Louis Delmas, and cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Vontae Davis—is one of the most challenging to figure. We still hear stories about the 2006 Dolphins passing on Drew Brees and his damaged shoulder in order to sign what turned out to be a permanently damaged Daunte Culpepper (knee).

  • Character Flag: This group includes corners Vontae Davis and Aqib Talib, former Vikings defensive ends Everson Griffen and Jared Allen (regarded as a locker room lawyer, which isn’t great for a team wanting to bring him in as a veteran leader), running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Brandon Spikes and quarterback Josh Freeman.

  • Contract Year Flag: In a lot of respects, these players are the most challenging of them all as they generally are the most tempting. This year’s crop: cornerback Alterraun Verner, outside linebacker Jason Worilds (who has been slapped with Pittsburgh’s transition tag), defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (whose breakout came at age 32 but also on the heels of a switch from 3-4 defensive end to 4-3 defensive tackle, both of which suggest he might not actually deserve a flag) and cornerbacks Rodgers-Cromartie and Talib (who both signed one-year deals last season in order to prove their mettle).

These are mostly stellar players who simply come with some risk. But while this year's free agent crop might be on the safer side historically, smart teams will not underestimate the risk involved with anyone.

 

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