The Biggest Boom-or-Bust NFL Free Agents

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIMarch 7, 2013

The Biggest Boom-or-Bust NFL Free Agents

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    The feeding frenzy that is also known as NFL free agency begins in earnest on Tuesday, March 12. Hundreds of NFL free agents will be looking to sign on with a new team for 2013, and hopefully beyond. Out of that group, a handful will turn out to be real gems (Boom) or will fall well short of expectations (Bust).

    Predicting the boom and bust free agents of 2013 is rather difficult, since we don't know yet which team will sign them or for how much the players will sign. These predictions are hardly foolproof. You have to be on the lookout for free agents who are just starting to realize their potential, as well as note which players are not likely to perform to the level of compensation they will be paid.

    Agents do their best to drive up the price of the contracts, while the front offices of every team have to be mindful of their salary-cap number and make offers that are competitive yet responsible at the same time.

    Looking back at the 2012 season, we can identify a handful of free agents who had a positive impact on their team (Boom), like Peyton Manning, Jacoby Jones, Vincent Jackson and Martellus Bennett. Then there are the free agents who weren't able to live up to expectations (Bust) for a variety of reasons, such as Mark Anderson, Laurent Robinson, John Carlson and Robert Meachem.

    Here are eight boom and eight bust predictions for the 2013 free-agent class.

Bust: Bryant McKinnie, OT

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    Baltimore Ravens tackle Bryant McKinnie emerged from the bench to wind up playing a key role in the Ravens' run to Super Bowl XLVII.

    Some teams might put on the tape of the Ravens' playoff games, think that McKinnie is a top-tier tackle and be tempted to pay him the going rate.

    That would be a mistake. There is a reason that McKinnie didn't start a single regular season game for the Ravens in 2012. He is infamous for being out of shape during his career.

    Being less than committed to his career and 33 years old to boot, he should instead be signed for less money for depth purposes.

    If McKinnie gets an offer to come in as a starter, the signing team will wind up being disappointed.

Boom: Brandon Gibson, WR

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    St. Louis Rams wide receiver Brandon Gibson had a breakout year in 2012.

    Gibson set new career highs in receiving yards (691), average yards per catch (13.5), touchdown receptions (five) and receptions that went for a first down (43).

    With so many teams looking to add wide receivers in 2013, Gibson will have more than a few suitors. Since he was originally a sixth-round draft pick back in 2009, Gibson stands not only to cash in with a bigger contract, but to continue to build and improve upon his production in 2013.

Bust: David Garrard, QB

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    The New York Jets brought David Garrard in for a workout. Garrard was of the opinion that the two sides were fairly close to reaching a contract, although nothing had been formally announced when this article went to publication.

    While the Jets aren't in the greatest of financial scenarios due to their internal salary-cap mess, the reality is that they really can't afford to sign an expensive quarterback to back up Mark Sanchez. Rex Ryan's idea was to bring in somebody who could challenge Sanchez in training camp and let the best man win.

    But Garrard? He is 35 years old and hasn't started a game in more than two years. To make matters worse, he has been battling knee and back injuries that will continue to hinder his performance.

    With the influx of young quarterbacks who have entered the league and made an impact in the last two years, it is difficult to imagine any NFL team viewing Garrard as a serious or capable backup in 2013.

Boom: Chris Ivory, RB

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    New Orleans Saints running back Chris Ivory has been patiently waiting for his opportunity to become a featured back in the NFL.

    In his three seasons with New Orleans, Ivory has rushed the ball 256 times for 1,307 yards. That amounts to an impressive average of 5.1 yards per rush. He has only appeared in 24 games during the last three seasons due to injuries, which is one of the reasons his overall production has been kept under wraps.

    In 2012, Ivory led all Saints running backs with 5.4 yards per rush and also had the team's longest rush of the year (56 yards). He finished second on the team with three rushes that went for 20-plus yards, and his two rushing touchdowns were also second on the team.

    Ivory committed four fumbles in his rookie season but hasn't fumbled in his last two years, so he appears to have corrected that problem. For a team whose running game needs a shot in the arm, it would be wise to go after Chris Ivory in free agency.

Bust: Sean Smith, CB

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    Miami Dolphins corner Sean Smith wasn't awarded the franchise tag in 2013, so he is now free to test the market as an unrestricted free agent.

    Smith has been seeking a big contract. This story in the The Palm Beach Post by Ben Volin reports that Smith is seeking a new deal that is going to pay him at least $24 million in guaranteed money.

    This is where the bust factor comes into play. To get at least $24 million guaranteed, Smith would have to perform at a top-tier level. Let's take a look at how his play has been graded over at Pro Football Focus.

    In 2012, Smith was ranked as the No. 74 corner out of a possible 113 in the league. He received a majority of negative grades across the board from the staff at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    In 2011, the news was even worse. Smith was No. 105 out of a possible 109 corners. When you are in the bottom five of the NFL at your position and expect to see top-tier money, this has bust written all over it.

Boom: Andy Levitre, OG

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    With so many NFL teams in need of help protecting the quarterback, free-agent guard Andy Levitre is bound to make a new quarterback very happy in 2013.

    Levitre has played in and started all possible 64 games so far in his NFL career. When the Buffalo Bills lost left tackle Demetress Bell to injury, Levitre stepped up and did more than an adequate job as a left tackle.

    He hasn't made any Pro Bowl or All-Pro teams yet, but that doesn't mean he isn't deserving of the honor. Levitre has graded out in the top 10 for each of the last two years at Pro Football Focus. He was ranked No. 6 overall in 2011 and then was No. 9 overall in 2012. He is considered to be very strong in pass protection and is closer to average in run-blocking.

    Andy Levitre isn't a household name yet around the country, as Buffalo has not been a popular choice for TV networks in recent years. But he has been receiving more attention during free agency and rightfully so.

Bust: Aqib Talib, CB

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    Many football fans will be surprised to see New England Patriots corner Aqib Talib popping up on this presentation with a bust rating, but that is where I have him pegged.

    Talib's history of off-field issues should already have teams leery about investing big dollars in him, even though he was instrumental in helping shore up the Patriots secondary when he arrived midseason.

    But the reality is that Talib was below average as a performer in 2012. Pro Football Focus ranked him as only the No. 93 overall corner out of a possible 113 corners in the league. The most troubling grade was his negative score for coverage skills, which pulled his overall grade to that of a bottom-20 performer in the league.

    Due to his reputation and the subsequent supply and demand of free agency, Talib will no doubt get a much higher contract than what he is capable of delivering on. He will get paid at the level of a shutdown corner, but teams will discover that he can't match that level of expectations.

Boom: Dannell Ellerbe, LB

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    Baltimore Ravens free-agent linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is assured to be a starting linebacker somewhere in 2013. It could be in Baltimore, but a number of other teams were happy to see that the Ravens opted not to give Ellerbe their franchise tag.

    Ellerbe played a key role down the stretch in the regular season and in the playoffs for Baltimore. Despite starting in only seven games, Ellerbe was second on the team with 92 tackles. He also stepped up with 4.5 sacks and forced two fumbles.

    Sitting behind a legend like Ray Lewis required Ellerbe to show some patience. But when he did get his opportunity, he seized it and ran with it. Expect him to do the same thing in 2013 and beyond.

Bust: Jake Long, OT

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    It must be strange to see a No. 1 overall draft pick potentially leave his team in free agency. It happened last year with Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams. It could very well happen this year to Miami Dolphins tackle Jake Long.

    As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk notes, there hasn't been much talk about Long going around the league, with the start of free agency being right around the corner.

    Part of that might have to do with Long's asking price of $11 million a year.

    When you watch tape on Long, his level of effectiveness has been going downhill. In 2012, Pro Football Focus graded him as the No. 46 overall tackle in the league out of 80.

    In 2011, he was ranked No. 21 overall, and that followed the 2010 season when he was graded No. 2 overall.

    Sure enough, Long's performance last year suffered due to some injuries. But that doesn't mean another team has to step up and overpay. If general managers are skittish about giving Long a big contract, they would have a number of hard questions to answer.

Boom: Victor Cruz, WR

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    One of the most interesting situations in free agency is that of restricted free agent New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. If there is any restricted free agent that another NFL team might be willing to give up a first-round draft pick for, it would be Cruz.

    Cruz has been one of the biggest bargains in the NFL since catching on with the Giants. Part of the reason for that claim is due to being an undrafted rookie free agent out of UMass. The other part is due to his incredible production at a position that usually takes players three seasons to experience a breakout.

    In the last two years, Cruz is the No. 5 wide receiver in the NFL with 2,628 total receiving yards, which leaves him only behind Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker, Brandon Marshall and Roddy White (h/t to NFL Network Total Access for that factoid). I guarantee you that the level of compensation of the other four receivers is nowhere close to the paltry sum that Cruz makes now.

    Cruz has the attitude and desire to be a consistent producer. In a time when many wide receivers have turned into divas, Cruz continues to entertain fans and bring a fresh perspective to the game.

    It will be interesting to see if another team signs Cruz to a sizable deal and whether the Giants decide to match it or not.

Bust: Kyle Arrington, CB

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    New England Patriots corner Kyle Arrington had a rough 2012 season. He rotated from starting corner to the bench to nickel corner and back to the bench again.

    Some teams might look at the free agent and think that he is worthy of a top contract due to playing under Bill Belichick and having all that playoff experience under his belt.

    But upon closer inspection, we see a player who wound up with a negative grade in 2012 from Pro Football Focus in pass coverage, run support and overall grade. He ranked 76th out of 100 corners, which places him in the bottom quartile of the league.

    If a team winds up paying Arrington a big contract and assumes it will get a top corner, it will be in for some sticker shock.

Boom: Danny Woodhead, RB

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    Here is a New England Patriots player whom we like on the "Boom" side: running back Danny Woodhead.

    Woodhead played in all 16 regular-season games for the first time in his career last year. He established new career highs in a number of categories, including pass receptions (40), receiving yards (446), average yards per reception (11.2), seven combined touchdowns (rushing and receiving) and 41 combined first downs (rushing and receiving).

    The diminutive 5'8", 200-pound running back has become both a reliable and dynamic option out of the backfield. He is short enough to hide behind his offensive linemen and quick enough to burst through small holes. He only has 265 carries in his NFL career, so his legs have plenty of tread left.

    He won't be the main running back football fans think about in free agency, but his production makes sense for any team looking to add a change-of-pace player to its roster.

Bust: Connor Barwin, LB

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    Connor Barwin turned down contract extension offers from the Houston Texans in the past two years. He must have been thinking that a really big pay day was waiting for him once he became a free agent. Well, that time is here as of next week, so what kind of market and offers will Barwin receive?

    Part of that depends on which player the teams think they might get.

    There is the 2011 version, where Barwin stepped up to be a dynamic, disrupting force with 11.5 sacks.

    Or the 2012 version, which recorded only three sacks. And the 2012 version couldn't benefit from all of the extra attention devoted to 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

    Pro Football Focus ranked Barwin as the No. 32 overall 3-4 outside linebacker out of a possible 34 players. Barwin has been on the field for 2,076 snaps over the last two years, and during that time he has generated no interceptions, just one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

    With his bottom-three PFF ranking and no evidence of being a guy with a nose for the ball, it will be interesting to see what kind of offers Barwin receives. He looks like a bust right now.

Boom: Delanie Walker, TE

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    San Francisco 49ers tight end and special teams star Delanie Walker is an intriguing free agent. Walker has been excelling on special teams, but he has also been turning heads with his overall strong play at tight end.

    Vernon Davis is clearly the No. 1 tight end option in the San Francisco offense, so any NFL team looking for help at the position will be looking to make a run at Walker in free agency.

    Walker demonstrated in 2012 that he can be a deep threat. Out of 21 receptions last season, nine of them went for 20-plus yards. His average of 16.4 yards per catch led all 49ers receivers last season. He scored three touchdowns, and 14 of his 21 receptions went for a first down.

    Walker could benefit by working on his hands. However, his overall game has so many intangibles—such as big hits on special teams and his blocking as a tight end—that teams shouldn't worry about him not returning enough on the investment.

Bust: Anthony Spencer, DE

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    For the record, we have nothing against Dallas Cowboys OLB/DE Anthony Spencer as an overall player. After all, Spencer led the Cowboys with 95 tackles in 2012 and also added 11 big sacks.

    But the main reason that we are listing him as a bust free agent is that Spencer is being asked to make the move from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end.

    This move has bust written all over it.

    The Cowboys hired Monte Kiffin to replace Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator. Kiffin wants to install his 4-3 defense, so that means Spencer will be asked to help set the edge as a 6'3", 250-pound DE. Based on giving up anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds to much bigger offensive linemen in the NFL, Spencer will have his hands full trying to fight off blocks to establish the edge.

    Per ESPN Dallas, even owner Jerry Jones expressed some concern that Spencer didn't have adequate size to play the position. They want him to start bulking up before the season, but you have to wonder what that will do to his overall physical conditioning, speed and ability to react.

    So not only do you have an undersized defensive end, but you had to release veteran players to be able to clear the necessary salary cap space to be able to give Spencer the franchise tag for the second year in a row. With a 2013 salary of $10.627 million, it wasn't a surprise that trade rumors surfaced shortly after the franchise tag news was announced.

    It is doubtful that Spencer can return over $10 million worth of performance playing in a new position that he is too undersized to play.

Boom: Matt Moore, QB

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    Editor Update—Miami just announced that they signed Matt Moore to a new contract, removing him from free agency.

    We end our presentation with Miami Dolphins free-agent QB Matt Moore. Moore is the only free-agent quarterback in the 2013 class who could be considered as a boom player. He took a back seat in 2012 to rookie Ryan Tannehill, but Moore has demonstrated that he can be an effective starting quarterback in the league.

    During the 2011 season, Moore completed 210 passes for 2,497 yards. He completed 60.5 percent of his passes, throwing 16 touchdowns to just nine interceptions and averaging 7.20 yards per pass attempt.

    For the year, Moore had a 87.1 QB passer rating, which was good enough to be ranked 12th overall in the NFL. His QBR was 56.6, which ranked him 16th in the league. Those stats are nothing to be ashamed of.

    For his five-year career, Moore has 12 starts so far, with a record of 6-6. He has thrown 33 touchdowns to 26 interceptions.

    With so many teams needing help at quarterback, or being open to having quarterback competition at training camp, Moore should be in demand in free agency to come in and compete for a starting job.

    Thanks for checking out the presentation. If you are interested in following me on Twitter, you can do so @DanVanWie, or click here: http://twitter.com/#!/DanVanWie