2012 NFL Free Agents: Identifying the Riskiest Player at Every Position

Dan Van WieContributor IIIFebruary 29, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agents: Identifying the Riskiest Player at Every Position

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    For the 2012 NFL offseason, free agency begins on March 13. Teams will have scouted every potential free agent and set up priorities of who they want to approach and who they also think that they can afford to add to their roster.

    Every free agent will carry some degree of risk, whether it is through switching over to a new scheme, playing where they aren't very comfortable or by having a history of injury. In some cases, the risk is trying to justify paying millions of dollars to a player that is past his prime.

    What we want to address today is to identify the free agents in 2012 that carry the most risk for their specific position. We will identify what the risk is, and for different positions, there will be different degrees of risk.

Quarterback: Donovan McNabb

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    When I think about the various veteran free-agent quarterbacks that are out there in the market, the two riskiest options that immediately came to mind are Donovan McNabb and David Garrard.

    For one, both of them are approaching the twilight phase of their careers. McNabb is already 35 years old and Garrard is 34. In addition, look at how they were released in 2011. The Jacksonville Jaguars never attempted to trade Garrard or get any kind of value for him—they just flat-out released him. Same thing with McNabb—the Minnesota Vikings just gave him his walking papers.

    With Garrard, it is more of a health issue. After suffering a herniated disc that required back surgery in 2011, teams will be sure to give Garrard a very thorough physical exam. 

    For McNabb, it is more of a performance issue. As a starter for Minnesota, he had trouble holding onto leads in the second half of games. The year before in Washington, he was criticized for not being able to execute the two-minute offense. These are big red flags. 

    It will be interesting to see if either or both of these veteran quarterbacks are signed in 2012, and if so, if either lands a starting job. My guess is that if one of them is asked to start, it will be Garrard. 

Wide Receiver: Braylon Edwards

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    Out of the vast array of free agent wide receivers in 2012, there are six players that carry different degrees of risk, and we will address each one briefly. The six in question are: Braylon Edwards, DeSean Jackson, Roy Williams, Randy Moss, Lee Evans and Steve Johnson. 

    Braylon Edwards: Edwards battled a number of injuries in 2011, so any team that is looking at him as a viable wide receiver will need to do a very thorough medical exam. The Jets are reportedly interested in reuniting Edwards with Mark Sanchez, according to this report from the New York Daily News. Edwards only managed 15 catches for the year, with no touchdowns and a career-low average of just 12.1 yards per catch. 

    DeSean Jackson: It is still not clear if the Eagles want to sign DeSean Jackson to keep him, or to deal him in a sign-and-trade. Either way, Jackson is a risky free agent due to his questionable attitude that he displayed throughout the 2011 season. He is a me-first and team-second kind of player, and there aren't many NFL locker rooms that would welcome a player like that. 

    Roy Williams: This former first-round pick has failed to crack 600 yards in receptions in four-straight seasons and has played for three different teams since he was drafted. Production issues are the risk here. 

    Randy Moss: There are teams interested in checking out free agent Randy Moss. After a less-than-inspired 2010 season that saw Moss wear uniforms of three different teams, one has to wonder how much the former star wideout has left in the tank. He had trouble separating from coverage in 2010, so what has changed in two years to make him any better now? 

    Lee Evans: After many years as the No. 1 receiver in Buffalo, Evans experienced a rough 2011 season with the Baltimore Ravens. Injured for most of the year, Evans only had four catches in the regular season and then had the costly dropped pass in the playoff game against the New England Patriots. Is Evans done, or can he bounce back in 2012? Confidence will play a big role in answering this question. 

    Steve Johnson: Two straight 1,000-yard seasons makes Johnson an attractive free-agent option, but the touchdown celebration antics and key dropped passes break your heart. Consistency and maturity issues are the potential red flags that teams need to be worried about here. 

Running Backs: Peyton Hillis

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    What happened to Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis in 2011? The Madden Football 2012 cover guy had a terrible year that nobody saw coming. The Madden curse lives, and this time, it hurt Hillis with everything from a strep throat to a malady of injuries. According to this article from Shutdown Corner, Hillis believes in curses now as well. 

    Hillis was unhappy with his contract situation with the Browns, and when he aired his feelings in public, a wedge was placed between Hillis and his teammates.

    He started just nine games for the Browns in 2011, gaining 587 yards on the ground and 130 yards in receptions. His rushing average of 3.6 yards per rush and three rushing touchdowns for the season are both sub par. The limited production is why the Browns are seriously contemplating drafting Trent Richardson in the first round to become their featured running back. 

    Over the course of his four-year career, Hillis has averaged rushing only 40 yards per game and 540 rushing yards per season. 

    Hillis probably peaked in 2010, so don't be surprised if he is in a steady downhill decline from here on out. To give you an idea of how far he has fallen, he gained just 30 yards in 10 carries against Pittsburgh in the final game of the regular season, and was outrushed by Seneca Wallace. 

Tight Ends: Visanthe Shiancoe

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    Visanthe Shiancoe has played in the NFL for nine years. At age 31, he has been watching his production steadily decline for the past three seasons. 

    During that time, his receiving yards have gone from 596, to 530, and then all the way to 409 in 2011. The Vikings started to play rookie Kyle Rudolph for more snaps than Shiancoe down the stretch, which was a clear indication of where things are headed. 

    Shiancoe scored a career-high 11 touchdowns in 2009, but scored just five in the last two seasons combined. 

    Shiancoe will be a free agent in 2012, and the Vikings don't plan to bring him back in 2012, according to this article by ESPN Twin Cities

    I will give Shiancoe one thing, however, as he is an absolute gentleman with his teammates. You will have to check out this short video from Deadspin.com to know what I am referring to. 

Offensive Tackles: Marc Colombo

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    Out of the 2012 free-agent tackles that are available, the one that offers the most risk is tackle Marc Colombo of the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins are not believed to be interested in bringing Colombo back for 2012, and for good reason, according to this article from the Palm Beach Post. 

    In an article by Pro Football Focus, Colombo was graded out in the bottom ten of 75 offensive tackles in the NFL, allowing 53 pressures on his quarterbacks over a possible 543 snaps last year. Add in the fact that Colombo is already 33 years old, and you have the makings for a risky free-agent signing. 

    Another risky free-agent tackle is Kareem McKenzie of the New York Giants. McKenzie was a weak link for the Giants in pass protection, and the Giants are unlikely to bring him back for 2012. 

Interior Linemen: Deuce Lutui

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    From the guards and centers of the 2012 free agent class, the one free agent that seems to carry the highest degree of risk to me is free-agent guard Deuce Lutui of the Arizona Cardinals. 

    Lutui only saw action in 45 plays last year despite playing in 15 games. It seems that the Cardinals couldn't trust to play him more than that because he couldn't stay in shape. 

    According to the Arizona Cardinals blog, Lutui could conceivably be brought back to Arizona in 2012 if he makes a commitment to get back in shape, but nobody knows if he will be able to pull that off. It seems that there has been an ongoing weight struggle for the last two years, so this isn't a sudden development. 

    The heavier he is, the slower and less productive he is. Somehow, this still hasn't gotten through to Lutui. 

Defensive Lineman: John Abraham

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    Of the various defensive linemen that are available in free agency, there are several that are going to be commanding extremely expensive contracts.

    Case in point is Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham. Abraham will be turning 34-years-old soon, but he wants to see $12 million a year from his next employer. The inherent risk is that in Abraham's 12 NFL seasons, he has registered double-digit sacks six times and failed to reach double digits six times. So, what will you get for your $12 million, five sacks or 13? 

    Another equally risky pickup is Paul Soliai, a nose tackle with the Miami Dolphins who has been paid quite well over the years. But now, they can't afford to carry his salary, so he will be hitting the free agent market.

    He is hard to gauge because his primary job is to tie up offensive linemen to free up the linebackers to make plays. If the Dolphins were to place a franchise tag on Soliai, it would cost them $15 million, so he expects to be playing elsewhere next year. The question is, how much is he really worth? 

Linebackers: London Fletcher

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    From the group of linebackers that are available in free agency, the one I am most worried about is London Fletcher. For the record, I am a fan of Fletcher's. I like the way that he plays and how he can still fly around the field at 36 years old. 

    But how much longer can Fletcher perform at this level? Fletcher will turn 37 in May, so at some point, the head, legs and heart will be telling him it is time to hang up the helmet. To his credit, Fletcher is seeking top dollar in free agency and isn't willing to give the Washington Redskins a discount. 

    If you wonder how hard Fletcher still hits, ask Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fletcher laid Fitzpatrick out in the game they played in Toronto, cracking four of his ribs and injuring his sternum. 

    If Fletcher hits free agency, and it appears he will, interested parties will either have to step up with more money or a longer term contract where they are willing to guarantee certain amounts of guaranteed salary. That is where the risk comes in. How much money do you want to guarantee to a 37-year-old? 

    Although we could probably debate if we can consider Mario Williams a linebacker or a defensive end, the reality is that Williams is going to be another very expensive free agent in 2012. How much risk is there in signing Williams though? I guess the answer to that question will depend on how much it costs a team to sign him. According to the Houston Chronicle, Williams earned $18 million in 2011, and the offers will only go up from there. 

    Due to the salary cap, if Williams contract comes in north of $15 million per year, then that is going to limit what his new team can do with respect to the rest of their holes. Williams is coming off a 2011 season that saw him go on the IR with a torn pectoral muscle, so there is an injury risk as well. 

Defensive Backs: Aaron Ross

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    Is there anything riskier than giving lots of money to a free-agent defensive back and you're not sure if he can still cover anybody? If you want to check out the number crunching done of cornerback performances from the 2011 season, here is a link to all the categories that were broken down by Pro Football Focus. 

    One of the names that keeps popping up in the bottom 10 groupings is free-agent corner Aaron Ross. As per this article from the New York Daily News, the Giants place Terrell Thomas as a higher priority than they do on Ross, who makes just about every single worst category, according to the Pro Football Focus article we mentioned earlier. 

    Ross will turn 30 this coming September, which might be another factor in his play, especially if he has lost a step since his rookie season. 

    Another player that graded out as a liability in pass coverage in 2011 was Dallas Cowboys safety Abram Elam. 

    Elam is a free agent, and while there is a possibility that he could return to the Cowboys, he isn't the safety you want to pursue if you already are having coverage issues in your secondary. Having said that, it makes me wonder why the Cowboys would even want him back. 

Kickers

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    Of the various punters and kickers that are available in free agency, Dave Rayner (Buffalo) is the least consistent, and therefore riskiest option. 

    Rayner came on for the Bills when Rian Lindell went on the IR. In total, he made only 10 of 15 field goals, giving him the lowest conversion percentage in the NFL.

    He was a threat to miss from any distance, as his 2011 stat line will attest: 20-29 yards (5-of-6), 30-39 yards (3-of-4), 40-49 yards (0-for-1) and 50-plus yards (2-of-4). Bottom line, if you need a kicker, explore other options before you contact Rayner.