We see it every year. NFL free agents haul in huge sums of cash, then fail to justify their contracts with tepid performances.
They’re the fool’s gold of the NFL free agency period.
No player from last year’s crop of free agents typifies this more than Brock Osweiler, who is laughing all the way to the bank after raking in $37 million guaranteed with the Houston Texans.
Not every free agent bust is as horrifying as Osweiler was last year, however. Some end up producing adequately, yet they fall short of living up to the big-money deals they ink.
The following players are all highly risky propositions who could easily turn out to be the 2017’s version of the fool’s gold club.
Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver
When healthy, Jeffery is a tremendous weapon. Even with the likes of Matt Barkley this past year, he showed up big with 52 passes for 821 yards and two touchdowns despite missing four games.
The thing is, Jeffery has a hard time staying healthy. Since being selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft, he has played in just two full NFL seasons.
This past year, hamstring/knee issues plagued him, then he ended up being suspended four games due to PEDs. Jeffery also missed six games and was ineffective in two others due to injury in 2015. Before that, a knee injury caused him to miss six games in his rookie campaign.
While the PED suspension could potentially cost Jeffery some money, and while his past injuries will be another red flag, at least one team will overlook all that because of his potential to produce downfield. In his two healthy seasons, Jeffery caught 174 passses for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns playing with Jay Cutler.
The big question is, will Anthony’s two excellent seasons be what we see going forward or will his three injury-riddled campaigns prove to foreshadow the rest of his career?
Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end
Now this is a tricky one, especially because this scribe loves rooting for athletes who have overcome difficulties. This certainly applies to Pierre-Paul, who lost some digits in a fireworks accident on the 4th of July in 2015.
Just over a year removed from that incident, Pierre-Paul emerged as a force off the edge for the New York Giants until a groin injury derailed his season. Despite missing four games in 2016, he tallied 7.5 sacks, 53 tackles, one forced fumble and even scored a touchdown (watch here). He also earned high marks by the folks at Pro Football Focus, ranking No. 13 among the NFL’s edge defenders.
Not surprisingly, he’s not interested in doing any more prove-it deals like the one he signed for last season. He is reportedly seeking a contract similar to the one the Giants doled out to Olivier Vernon last year (five years, $85 million).
The biggest reason he’s featured in this list is that, while Pierre-Paul has put up some tremendous numbers in his career, he has just as many mediocre campaigns as he does good ones.
Jason Pierre-Paul's production over the years should give teams reason to ponder his true worth. pic.twitter.com/GJHdApg0oL
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) February 12, 2017
We’re convinced the Giants or some other team will bank on Pierre-Paul to reproduce the stats in his best years, rather than looking at his tepid campaigns. Time will tell whether his best years are the outliers or if we should expect him to be consistently outstanding going forward.
Martellus Bennett, tight end
After winning a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, it seems inevitable that Bennett will be headed to his fifth team in 10 years.
The reason we speculate this will happen is that Bennett himself made comments about how players who win Super Bowls get overpaid, indicating he expects to haul in a nice sum for his next contract. And given the way New England negotiates with its players, this likely means he’s headed elsewhere for the upcoming season.
Bennett will be 30 when the 2017 season kicks off. He’s looking for one more big payday before his career is finished, and he’s coming off a rock-solid season that saw him post a career-best touchdown total of seven.
There are a lot of teams that could really benefit from a reliable tight end, including teams that have plenty of cap space like the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts or even the Oakland Raiders.
The only problem is that Bennett isn’t a big-play tight end and isn’t exactly dominant in the run game as a blocker, either. For his career, he’s averaged just 10.6 yards per reception and has a career-long reception of 58 yards. He’s a move-the-chains tight end, which isn’t a bad thing, but in his nine seasons as a pro he has caught five-plus touchdowns just four times.
We’re not saying Martysaurus Rex is going to be a total flop next year, but it’s highly likely he’ll be overpaid for the production he puts out.
DeMarcus Ware, outside linebacker/defensive end
At the age of 34, it’s unlikely anyone will lay out a cash carpet for Ware to walk on heading into team headquarters.
Still, given his status as an impact player in the NFL for more than a decade, it’s a given he’s going to receive some serious interest from teams needing a boost off the edge. After all, it was only two seasons ago that Ware put his stamp on Denver’s Super Bowl-winning campaign by coming through with 3.5 sacks during the Broncos’ postseason run.
Plagued with injuries the past two seasons, including six missed games in 2016, Ware’s production during the regular season has declined. Following eight seasons out of nine in which he tallied at least 10 sacks, he totaled just 11.5 from 2015-16.
Ware has reportedly indicated he’s open to returning to the Dallas Cowboys this upcoming season if he doesn’t end up re-signing with the Broncos. As desperate as Jerry Jones is to bolster his defense off the edge (he talked about that here), don’t be surprised if Ware ends up signing a two-year deal with Dallas with more guaranteed money than he’s worth.
Sebastian Vollmer, offensive tackle
There is a tremendous void around the league when it comes to top-notch pass-protecting offensive tackles. This will be even more keenly felt this offseason, as the upcoming draft isn’t exactly loaded with talent at this key position and the free-agency market is equally as barren.
Enter Vollmer, who missed the entire 2016 due to a nagging hip injury and is now entering free agency as a likely New England cast-off.
It won’t be surprising to see a team like the Carolina Panthers, who have plenty of cap space and a dire need to protect Cam Newton, offer a nice sum of guaranteed cash on a short-term deal to land Vollmer. This, of course, is contingent upon him passing a physical.
He was a tremendous player for the Patriots before his injury last year, starting 80 games in seven seasons. The Germany native also has 10 starts in the playoffs, including a tremendous showing in Super Bowl XLIX protecting Tom Brady against the Seattle Seahawks.
That said, there was some chatter that Vollmer could potentially retire this past season as his hip injury kept him from playing. When the season starts in September, he’ll be 33, and at this point it’s anyone’s guess if he can get back to the height of his powers again.
Trumaine Johnson, cornerback
Much like we saw last year when the Oakland Raiders overpaid to land Sean Smith, Johnson has a great opportunity to grab some cash. He wowed us with seven interceptions in 2015, then had a decent go of it as the top cornerback for the Los Angeles Rams this past season after Janoris Jenkins bolted for the Big Apple.
The Rams already know they are in for some tricky contract negotiations with Johnson’s agents after using the franchise tag to retain his services in 2016. The option to hit him with the tag again in 2017 is certainly on the table, which would amount to another expensive one-year rental (right around $15 million).
Incoming defensive coordinator Wade Phillips loves physical cornerbacks, which Johnson certainly is. Knowing the Rams don’t want to let him go, it’s likely he will use this leverage to squeeze the team. Either he’ll land a lucrative long-term deal with Los Angeles, be tagged or will hit the open market, where he’s likely to earn the most guaranteed money.
The biggest problem is that, aside from his monster seven-interception year when he was the No. 2 corner for the Rams, Johnson has effectively been an above-average cornerback. With this in mind it’s a huge gamble to spend top-tier cornerback money on him, despite the fact that he probably will land such a contract.
Kenny Britt, wide receiver
From one Rams player to another, Britt is coming off the best season of his eight-year career. It also happened to occur in a contract year. This begs the question, is he going to be content to rest on his laurels and revert back to the form we saw for seven years if he lands a lucrative deal?
Originally a first-round pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2009, Britt’s talent has never been in question. A big-play receiver who has averaged 15.8 yards per reception throughout his career, he showed off this talent with nine touchdown passes in his second season. Unfortunately, the flower of his potential failed to fully blossom in the years to come, partly due to an ACL injury in 2011 and partly due to off-field issues.
Then Britt finally broke out with his first 1,000-yard season in 2016, playing with none other than Case Keenum and rookie Jared Goff, catching 68 passes for 1,002 yards and five touchdowns — his most touchdowns since that second season.
At the age of 28, Britt could still have some tremendous production in front of him. Then again, nobody knows what to expect from him going forward, though a quick Internet search indicates many believe every team in need of receiver help could benefit from his presence.
Time will tell if Britt has finally turned the corner or if 2016 was just a strong push to land some money in free agency.
Nick Perry, outside linebacker
Sticking with the theme of a player suddenly showing up huge in a contract year, let’s talk about Nick Perry, who exploded with 11 sacks for the Green Bay Packers this past season.
Before 2016, Perry had tallied just 12.5 sacks in his previous four seasons with Green Bay. A hyped player coming out of USC in 2012, Perry underwhelmed as a pass rusher his first four seasons and only started 16 games because of this fact during that stretch. Then suddenly, he turned up the heat last year, starting 12 games and posting his most productive — by far — campaign as a pro.
So does this mean that Perry is suddenly going to become a perennial double-digit sack guy? We’re certainly not convinced. Especially in light of the fact that, in addition to the aforementioned history lesson, Perry earned very low pass-rushing grades from PFF, which ranked him No. 38 in the NFL in 2016.
It will be telling to see what happens during Green Bay’s negotiations with Perry. The Packers are expected to be much more aggressive than normal this offseason (more on that here), but will they aggressively go after retaining Perry?
Pass rushers are premium players in the NFL these days. If the Packers don’t re-sign Perry, he’ll get big offers elsewhere, despite his questionable credentials, much like Olivier Vernon did last year with the New York Giants.