2014 NFL Free Agency: Previewing the Biggest Risks on the Market

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystJanuary 6, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agency: Previewing the Biggest Risks on the Market

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    While the band plays on for eight fortunate franchises after Wild Card Weekend, the league's other 24 teams must now begin figuring out where things went wrong and take the steps to right them.

    The first major step for those teams will come on March 11, when free agency opens.

    However, free agency can be a double-edged sword. For every Karlos Dansby who goes on to do great things with his new club, there's a Mike Wallace who ends up becoming a multi-million dollar boondoggle.

    With that in mind, here's a look at the coin-flips among this year's prominent free agents. There's a chance these pros could blow up in their new homes.

    Of course, they also may just blow.

Michael Vick

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    With Jay Cutler signing a seven-year, $126 million deal to remain in Chicago, Michael Vick vaults to the top of the free-agent class at the NFL's most important position.

    There's a chance the 33-year-old could remain in Philly. As Reuben Frank of CSN Philadelphia reports, Vick has left the door open for a return to the City of Brotherly Love as Nick Foles' backup.

    That is, "if all else fails."

    You see, Vick also still very much wants to start in 2014.

    “I don’t worry about it," Vick said, per Frank. "My skill set is still there, my arm is still there, my legs are still there, I’m still a playmaker, that’s evident. I think at some point, I’ll be playing somewhere.”

    He may well get that chance. After all, there's no shortage of NFL teams desperate for help under center, and Vick's resume will no doubt appeal to some of those squads.

    Vick may have lost the starting job with the Eagles, but he wasn't horrible in 2013.

    For the season, Vick averaged over 220 total yards of offense per game, with seven total scores and five turnovers. His passer rating of 86.5 was close to the 87.9 average he's posted since re-entering the NFL in 2009. That passer rating, by the way, is higher than the last two Super Bowl winners (Joe Flacco of the Ravens and Eli Manning of the Giants) over that same span.

    However, Vick will be 34 in June. He also hasn't played more than 13 games in a season since 2006. Over the past three seasons, Vick has 39 total touchdowns and an eye-raising 38 turnovers.

    That sounds much more like a band-aid "bridge" starter than any sort of long-term solution for NFL teams hurting at quarterback.

Darren McFadden

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    When Darren McFadden is healthy, he's an explosive running back who is capable of taking it to the house every time he touches the ball.

    Of course, the problem is that Darren McFadden is never healthy.

    The 26-year-old's contract year was, by most standards, a disaster. McFadden missed six games with an assortment of injuries, the third straight year in which he's been sidelined for at least a month.

    McFadden's 379 rushing yards were his lowest total since 2009, and it was the second straight season in which the former Arkansas star averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry.

    McFadden ranked 54th out of 55 running backs in the NFL this year, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The year before, he was dead last.

    Yes, McFadden had a great year in 2010, topping 1,100 yards and five yards per carry. However, when looking at his entire career, that season appears to be the outlier.

    It's the injury-marred letdowns that are the norm.

     

Julian Edelman

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    On some level, it may seem odd to call Julian Edelman a "risky" free agent.

    After all, Edelman is coming off a career season. His 105 catches in 2013 were more than he totaled in his first four years combined. Also, for the first time in his career, Edelman topped the 1,000-yard mark, and his 1,056 yards were (once again) more than his first four years put together.

    The 27-year-old also finished fifth in the AFC in punt return average.

    So, what's the problem?

    Well, to begin with, Edelman's season was beyond an outlier. His numbers in 2013 dwarfed anything he'd accomplished in his career to this point.

    Sure, there's a chance that Edelman's big year was the first of many—or it could be a fluke. Or it may well be that Edelman's season had as much to do with his situation as it did his talent.

    There's also the not-so-insignificant fact that Edelman played in all 16 games in 2013 for the first time in his career.

    It's probably all moot anyway. With Danny Amendola once again struggling to stay healthy, the New England Patriots will be hard-pressed to let Edelman walk this offseason.

     

     

Jeremy Maclin

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    As far as contract years go, it doesn't get much worse than Jeremy Maclin's.

    Everything was falling into place before the season began. Maclin seemed to be a great fit for Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense in Philadelphia, and the sky was the limit for him in 2013.

    Until it fell.

    A torn ACL ended Maclin's fifth season before it started, and now the 25-year-old is left staring at a very uncertain future.

    On the bright side, Maclin recently told Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer that his rehab is progressing ahead of schedule, and he expects to be ready for spring workouts.

    With that said, however, the fact remains that Maclin has durability questions, having missed time in four of his five career seasons. Those questions are now amplified.

    Also, it's worth pointing out that for all the talk of Maclin's talent, the production hasn't materialized with Maclin, who will enter 2014 searching for his first 1,000-yard campaign.

Michael Oher

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    There may not be a better-known offensive lineman in the National Football League than tackle Michael Oher.

    However, unlike the movie The Blind Side, it doesn't look like there's going to be a Hollywood ending to Oher's tenure with the Baltimore Ravens.

    Simply put, Oher was terrible in 2013, grading out as the fourth-worst right tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. The 27-year-old was even worse in terms of run-blocking, grading out dead last.

    It's not like that was an aberration, either. Oher finished outside the top 50 at his position as a left tackle in 2012, and he hasn't finished inside the top 35 since his rookie year.

    As Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun reports, NFL Network analyst Ross Tucker thinks the issue with Oher is that the fifth-year pro just isn't getting any better:

    My concern with Oher is I'm not sure he's really gotten much better. He's still making the same mistakes. The positives for Michael is he's very aggressive, very physical, very durable.

    Guys with those traits remain right tackles in the NFL for a long time. He'll sign elsewhere and get a pretty good contract somewhere else.

    Tucker's right about one thing: offensive linemen carry a high premium in the NFL, especially tackles. If the Ravens choose not to re-up Oher, there will be more than one team waiting to sign him.

    Whether that team will be getting a solid right tackle or one of those boondoggles I mentioned earlier is much less certain.

Richie Incognito

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    There's never been a free agent quite like offensive guard Richie Incognito.

    Sure, there have been guys who have hit the open market with character issues hanging over them. But we have never seen a player post the "For Sale" sign after being suspended for hazing a young teammate so much that said teammate walked away from the team.

    As Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports, Incognito was paid during his lengthy suspension, but his time with the Dolphins is all but certainly over.

    In retrospect, perhaps it wasn't wise for Incognito to tell NFL Media's Andre Siciliano that he didn't care if other teams felt he was a dirty player (two weeks before he was suspended), per NFL.com:

    I'm not really concerned with what other teams think. I'm really concerned with what guys on my team think. They've seen the growth. They've seen me come in as this physical, aggressive, nasty player, who quite frankly, at one point in my career, was dirty. But I think they've seen the growth; I think they've seen the improvement.

    By all indications, Incognito is not a nice person. He is, however, a veteran guard who made the Pro Bowl in 2012.

    Any competent offensive lineman with a pulse is going to garner interest from NFL teams in free agency, but Incognito doesn't just come with baggage; his baggage has baggage, and it's possible that baggage has baggage, too.

Anthony Spencer

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    Anthony Spencer is a cautionary tale about just how fleeting success in the NFL can be.

    In 2012, Spencer had 95 tackles and 11 sacks as an outside linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. According to Pro Football Focus, no 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL had a better year.

    The Cowboys responded by placing the franchise tag on the 29-year-old for the second year in a row. Then the bottom fell out.

    A knee injury in camp led to season-ending surgery after a single game, one of the big contributing factors to the defensive death-spiral in Dallas this year.

    Given just how awful that defense was in 2013, there's likely at least some interest in bringing him back. However, tagging Spencer for a third straight year would be even more cost-prohibitive than the seventh-year pro's reported asking price.

    If last year's market among pass-rushers was any indication, there won't be a huge pot of gold at the end of Spencer's rainbow, although his experience in the 3-4 could appeal to some clubs.

    Even then, however, there's more than Spencer's knee to take into consideration.

    Outside of that huge season in 2012—which came in a contract yearSpencer has never topped six sacks in a season. In fact, he has only 21.5 total sacks over his other six years in the NFL.

Justin Tuck

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    There was a time when Justin Tuck was one of the most feared pass-rushers in the NFL. Three times in four years, from 2007-2010, the 30-year-old posted double-digit sacks.

    However, injuries gave way to disappointing years in 2011 and 2012. For the first 11 weeks of the 2013 season, it looked like more of the same, with Tuck managing only 1.5 sacks.

    From there, Tuck went on a tear. The ninth-year veteran peeled off 9.5 sacks over the final six games of the season, finishing with 11 on the year.

    Now, with Tuck preparing hit to free agency, a return to the Big Apple appears unlikely, as Tuck told Bart Hubbuch of The New York Post that he isn't interested in giving the team a "hometown discount."

    With that said, though, the market for defensive ends was pillow-soft a year ago, with players like Cliff Avril of the Detroit Lions settling for one-year deals that were below perceived market value.

    One of those "show me" deals would probably be the wisest course of action from potential Tuck suitors.

    As good as Tuck may have been down down the stretch last year, he has a long injury history. It's also worth bearing in mind that Tuck only had 10.5 sacks in the 37 games preceding his late-season outburst.

Brandon Spikes

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    On some level, Brandon Spikes would seem to be the sort of free agent that many NFL teams should target.

    At 26, Spikes is entering the prime of his career. He's played well for the New England Patriots the past two years, but not so well that his numbers would command a king's ransom. Spikes also ranked ninth among all inside linebackers in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, and first against the run.

    However, there are also more than a few red flags with the fourth-year pro.

    There's the four-game PED suspension during his rookie year, and there is also the knee injury that cost Spikes eight games the following season. Or how about the fact that even while relatively healthy for the past couple of years, Spikes has failed to top 100 tackles in a season to this point in his career?

    It's also important to qualify Spikes' health with "relatively." As the Patriots' website reports, Spikes 2013 season has been prematurely cut short by another knee injury that will require surgery.

    That is not the sort of momentum you want to head into the offseason with.

Charles Tillman

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    For several years, Charles Tillman was the epitome of a Cover 2 cornerback.

    Tillman's hard-hitting style and willingness to chip in on run support made him a fixture on the Chicago Bears' defense. From 2008-2012, the 32-year-old averaged more than 85 tackles a season, making two Pro Bowls while intercepting 13 passes and forcing an eye-popping 27 fumbles.

    In both 2011 and 2012, Tillman ranked inside the top-10 cornerbacks in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

    However, in 2013, the roof caved in. Struggling through a laundry list of injuries, Tillman played in only eight games. His ranking at PFF free-fell all the way to 89th.

    The Bears also struggled as a unit defensively. With a rebuild on the horizon, Tillman admitted to Dan Weiderer and Fred Mitchell of The Chicago Tribune that his days in the Windy City may be numbered, stating, "We'll see what happens."

    Elite cornerbacks can fetch a pretty penny on the open market, but after a dismal 2013 and with 11 years of mileage on his tires, "Peanut" may have a hard time convincing NFL teams that he is still elite.