The Riskiest 2013 NFL Free Agents

Ryan McCrystal@@ryan_mccrystalFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2013

The Riskiest 2013 NFL Free Agents

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    The NFL free-agent signing period begins on Tuesday, March 12, and plenty of big names are going to cash in with some lucrative new contracts. 

    But not all of those big-name free agents are going to pan out. 

    Every year a handful of free agents fall well short of exceptions due to injuries, age or simply a lack of effort.

    Here are 10 players who should be considered among the riskiest free agents in 2013. 

Jake Long

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    Jake Long is a 27-year-old four-time Pro Bowler who has started 74 out 80 possible games in his five-year career. 

    Guys like that don't hit the open market, and yet the Miami Dolphins elected to let him walk.

    Presumably, the Dolphins decided to let Long test the free-agent waters because of his injuries, which have resulted in him ending consecutive seasons on the injured reserve. 

    But Long's decline in production this past season factors into the equation. 

    Had Long been a free agent after the 2011 season, he would have commanded one of the largest contracts for an offensive lineman in NFL history. But just a year later, teams are unsure of his true value. 

    Potential free-agent suitors will need to determine how much of Long's decline in production was a result of lingering injury issues, and how likely those issues are to pop up again. 

    Expected contract: Five years, $50 million ($30 million guaranteed)

Greg Jennings

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    Greg Jennings is a legitimate No. 1 receiver if he's healthy. But over the past two seasons, Jennings has struggled to stay on the field. 

    Jennings was slowed by a groin injury for much of the 2012 season, causing him to miss eight games. He also missed time during the preseason due to a concussion. 

    And in 2011, Jennings missed the final three regular-season games due to a knee injury. 

    Jennings will be signed to play a significant role in the offense of his new franchise, but can he be counted on to suit up for 16 games?

    Three fairly significant injuries in a 12-month span certainly raise some doubts.

    Expected contract: Four years, $40 million ($25 million guaranteed)

Connor Barwin

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    Connor Barwin made a name for himself in 2011 when he stepped into a starting role at outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme and recorded 11.5 sacks. 

    It was an impressive season, but the performance should come with an asterisk attached due to the fact that Barwin led all outside linebackers in pass-rush snaps in 2011. 

    While the 11.5 sacks look nice on the stat sheet, in reality, Barwin ranked in the middle of the road as a pass-rusher.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Barwin recorded a sack, hit or pressure once every 9.2 pass-rush snaps, which ranked 19th out of 31 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers.

    In 2012, that number fell to once every 13.3 snaps, ranking 29th out of 32 qualifying pass-rushers.

    The 26-year-old Barwin is sure to draw significant attention this offseason, but his future employer will likely be forced to overpay for his services. 

    Expected contract: Six years, $45 million ($25 million guaranteed)

Andre Smith

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    Andre Smith, the former sixth overall selection in 2009, has flashed the ability to be a dominant right tackle. But he had never fully lived up to expectations until the 2012 season.

    This past year, Smith finally put it all together and emerged as one of the game's elite run-blockers on the right side. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith ranked as the third-best run-blocking right tackle in 2012.

    As strong as Smith was this past season, there are good reasons to wonder if he was simply motivated by his impending free agency. 

    Smith has struggled with weight issues throughout his career, dating back to his days at Alabama. 

    He's been rumored to weigh anywhere from 370 to 330 pounds at various points in his career. 

    Whoever signs Smith runs the risk that a new contract will deplete his motivation to stay in shape, causing him to revert back to his inconsistent performances from early in his career.

    Estimated contract: Five years, $35 million ($15 million guaranteed)

Brent Grimes

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    Midway through the 2011 season, Brent Grimes was in the midst of establishing himself as one of the premier cornerbacks in the league. 

    Since that time, he's undergone surgery on his knee and missed nearly the entire 2012 season due to an Achilles injury. 

    Now Grimes, who turns 30 in July, is coming off two injuries as he hits the free-agent market, raising questions about his long-term value. 

    If fully healthy, Grimes could provide a significant spark to a team's secondary. But investing in him at this stage of his career is a gamble. 

    The fact that the Atlanta Falcons allowed Grimes to hit the open market, despite a glaring weakness at cornerback following the release of Dunta Robinson, may be a telling sign as to their view of Grimes' health.

    Expected contract: Four years, $30 million ($12 million guaranteed) 

Danny Amendola

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    After missing nearly the entire 2011 season with a triceps injury, Danny Amendola emerged as Sam Bradford's favorite target early in the 2012 season.

    But injuries derailed what could have been a breakout year for the 27-year-old receiver. Amendola played in 11 games in 2012, but he was twice sidelined with injuries. 

    And when he returned for the final three games, he just wasn't the same. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, Amendola caught 73 percent of the passes thrown his way and picked up an average of 4.6 yards after the catch per reception through his first eight games.

    But in his final three games, Amendola hauled in just 12 of his 25 targets, and he picked up just two yards after the catch per reception. 

    Was this just a rough three-game stretch for Amendola, or have the injuries finally caught up to him?

    Expected contract: Five years, $30 million ($12 million guaranteed)

Aqib Talib

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    Aqib Talib helped solidify a struggling Patriots secondary in 2012, which brought his name up as a possible candidate for the franchise tag. 

    Just months earlier, however, Talib was essentially exiled from Tampa Bay—he was traded in exchange for a fourth-round pick—after four-plus disappointing seasons.

    During his time in Tampa, Talib earned himself two suspensions from the league. One was for a violation of the league's drug policy; the other was for violating the personal-conduct policy.

    Talib, a 2008 first-round draft choice, has always shown flashes of talent, but the off-field issues continue to get in the way. 

    And when a troubled player such as Talib is handed a lucrative new contract, it frequently continues to go downhill from there (Albert Haynesworth, for example).

    Expected contract: Three years, $18 million ($6 million guaranteed)

James Harrison

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    James Harrison, who was just released by the Steelers, remains one of the most efficient pass-rushers in the league, even at the age of 34. 

    But how much longer can he keep it up?

    Harrison was slowed by a knee injury this past season after undergoing surgery in August. He also claims to have suffered at least 10 concussions throughout the course of his career, according to a report by ESPN

    However, the injuries are only part of the concern surrounding Harrison. 

    He's an outspoken personality who has dealt with multiple off-field issues throughout his career. Additionally, he refused to take a pay cut to stay with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it's reasonable to wonder how he'll handle a reduced role when that time comes. 

    The Steelers learned how to handle Harrison over his decade-long career in Pittsburgh, but his new franchise won't necessarily know how to best deal with his difficult personality. 

    It's only a matter of time before he causes some sort of off-field distraction, and some teams may simply not want to bring that into the locker room.

    Expected contract: Two years, $12.5 million ($6 million guaranteed)

Rashard Mendenhall

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    It's not often that a potential feature back hits the open market at the age of just 25 years old, so there are plenty of reasons to be intrigued by Rashard Mendenhall. 

    However, Mendenhall's season has ended with a trip to the injured reserve in two of his five years in the league. And that doesn't even include the 2012 season, in which he played just six games.

    To make matters worse, Mendenhall was also suspended for a game by the Steelers for conduct detrimental to the team when he failed to show up for a game after being ruled inactive. 

    Mendenhall's attitude in 2012 could scare some teams away.

    Due to the injuries, Mendenhall won't be guaranteed a starting job. And the way he handled a reduced role with the Steelers this past season will make teams wonder if he's more trouble than he's worth in a backup role.

    Expected contract: Three years, $9 million ($3 million guaranteed)

Michael Turner

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    The days of Michael Turner as a feature back are in the rear-view mirror, and the 31-year-old running back may not have much left in the tank.

    The issue for Turner is that he simply isn't as powerful as he was three or four years ago at the height of his career in Atlanta. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, Turner averaged just 2.4 yards after contact per attempt, down nearly a full yard from his average of 3.3 in 2008 and 2009. 

    If Turner can't improve upon his ability to be a power runner between the tackles, then he won't offer much help to his new team. 

    Due to his age, Turner won't cost much, but he would be a risky signing if he's expected to play a significant role in the offensive game plan in 2013. 

    Expected contract: Two years, $9 million ($4.5 million guaranteed)