Every single year, executives take risks by bringing in NFL free agents who they believe will significantly help their franchises improve. And every single year, a new crop of NFL free agency busts is sewn.
It sometimes takes a couple years for the crop to show itself as such, but in some cases we know almost instantly that certain players should have never landed their lucrative deals. The most crystal-clear example of this occurred last year when the Houston Texans overpaid quarterback Brock Osweiler and by Week 3 we all knew it had been a huge mistake.
Who are this year’s biggest potential busts?
We start with an offensive tackle who is coming off a major injury and who was never all that good to begin with, yet who also somehow just landed a huge new deal to protect a franchise passer.
Matt Kalil, offensive tackle, Carolina Panthers
If we’re being honest, Matt Kalil has been a pretty big bust since being selected at No. 4 overall out of USC in 2012 by the Minnesota Vikings.
According to our own eyes, he’s been an ineffective pass protector since his rookie campaign. This is why we highlighted Carolina’s move to acquire Kalil (paying him an outrageous amount of guaranteed money) in free agency as a huge loser.
This is backed up by the snap-by-snap evaluations from the people at Pro Football Focus, which notes since then he’s given up “an average of almost six sacks per season, 40 total QB pressures and seven penalties over four years — and one of those seasons was just two games long.”
Making matters worse is the fact that Kalil is coming off hip surgery.
Cam Newton better have his track shoes ready, because he’s going to be running for his life an awful lot unless Kalil somehow recaptures the magic he had in college.
Nick Perry, outside linebacker, Green Bay Packers
The Packers have had a mixed bag of free agency outcomes so far. They landed Martellus Bennett, which was a move Aaron Rodgers most definitely approved of, but they also let guard T.J. Lang head to a division rival, which Rodgers must hate.
Then there was the move to retain pass rusher Nick Perry, which, on paper, makes a ton of sense. Pass defense has been an issue (No. 31 in the league last year), and the best way to combat that is consistent pressure up front.
The USC product had a breakout campaign in 2016, logging 11 sacks and showing up strong against the run. It’s impossible to know if this is just the start of a new trend or the result of being in a contract year, however. The Packers had been waiting four years for Perry to finally break out after selecting him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, but it didn’t happen until he had to show up big to get paid big.
It’s always a bit of a red flag when a player somehow transforms himself into a game-changing player in a contract year after being generally ineffective otherwise. We’ll be keeping a close eye on Perry’s effort and productivity in the next couple of seasons.
Russell Okung, offensive tackle, Los Angeles Chargers
One year after signing what looked like a big-money deal with the Denver Broncos but was essentially a one-year deal without any guarantees, Russell Okung landed a big payday. The Los Angeles Chargers agreed with the left tackle on a four-year deal that pays $25 million guaranteed.
This isn’t all that surprising considering the premium position Okung plays and that the market for offensive linemen is extremely thin.
But Okung wasn’t all that great last season in Denver, and he has a history of struggling to stay healthy. Throughout his tenure in Seattle with the Seahawks, Okung dealt with multiple lower-body injuries and missed half the 2013 season with a torn ligament in his toe.
If he stays healthy, then there is no doubt Okung will be an upgrade over King Dunlap. But that’s about as optimistic as we’re getting about how he’ll impact Los Angeles’ offensive line. Since 2012, his best season as a pro, he has proved to be just above average. He hasn’t been a dominant player at any point in his career aside from that campaign, and we don’t expect this to change now.
Nick Fairley, defensive tackle, New Orleans Saints
Staying motivated to play his best ball has always been an issue for Nick Fairley, who was rewarded by the Saints with a four-year deal worth almost $30 million. He signed a one-year deal last offseason to play in New Orleans and showed up big inside, racking up 43 total tackles and 6.5 sacks.
In 2014, Fairley’s final season with the Detroit Lions, he was largely ineffective during the first half of the season before suffering an MCL injury that ended his campaign. He then signed with the then St. Louis Rams for the 2015 season, proving almost invisible on that defensive line-heavy squad before landing in the Bayou.
In his six seasons as a pro, the Auburn product has had three solid seasons and three that can only be described as disappointments.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that Fairley’s contract wasn’t massive. And it escalates in value every year. So clearly, the Saints are still asking Fairley to prove it. It’s a smart strategy, because given his past it won’t be surprising whatsoever if the defensive tackle ends up disappointing again.
Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver, Philadlephia Eagles
The Eagles signed Alshon Jeffery to a one-year deal, which shows just how little they trust his ability to stay on the field. He reportedly took less security to prove he could do just that and wanted to play with a young star in Carson Wentz, but given his history it’s definitely a stretch to assume he will.
Jeffery has played five seasons in the NFL yet has managed to complete a 16-game season just twice. In those two years (2013-14) he was tremendously productive, catching 174 passes for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns. That’s the player the Eagles hope they’re landing.
However, in his other three seasons Jeffery has missed significant time due to injury (2012 and 2015) and a four-game PED suspension last year.
The Eagles realize Jeffery isn’t a low-risk hire, and his contract bears that out. After it was initially reported as a one-year, $14 million deal, in the end Philly signed Jeffery to a one-year, $9.5 million contract.
It isn’t as big as you’d expect for a player of his caliber, but it doesn’t come without risk. While many teams entered free agency with a glut of cash to spend, Philadelphia was not one of them. This financial commitment to land a big-play receiver keeps the franchise from pursuing other areas of need, so it’s going to be worth tracking this upcoming season.
Mike Glennon, quarterback, Chicago Bears
Okay, so this isn’t Brock Osweiler 2.0, but it’s not nothing, either. The Chicago Bears, desperate to find any answer at quarterback that didn’t involve Jay Cutler, signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract that includes $18.5 million guaranteed.
He was, by default, the prized free agent quarterback of the 2017 free agency class — one devastatingly devoid of any real options at this critical position.
As a third-round rookie out of North Carolina State, Glennon surprised many by throwing 19 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. Unfortunately for him, Lovie Smith didn’t trust him in 2014, benching him for veteran Josh McCown. He’s been relegated to bench duty ever since because Jameis Winston was drafted No. 1 overall in 2015.
A quarterback with a live arm who can certainly make every throw an NFL passer needs to make, many have suggested all Glennon needs to thrive is a legitimate opportunity to start long term.
The biggest problem with this theory is that, even in college, Glennon struggled with accuracy, finishing his career with a completion rate of just over 60 percent. His NFL completion rate, to date, has been under that mark, and it stands to reason that he is basically a 60-percent passer. In today’s NFL, that’s not a recipe for success.