2014 NFL Free Agents: Early Buyer-Beware Warnings

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agents: Early Buyer-Beware Warnings

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    It happens every year. Teams rush out in free agency, throw cash at a player and hope it works out.

    Allegedly there's more to it than that, but then you see the Indianapolis Colts sign Erik Walden to a fat contract and wonder if maybe it's all dart-throwing guesswork after all.

    It's going to be even crazier after the Super Bowl, as players who might have seen modest increases in their payday could have a big game on the biggest stage and see their asking price go sky-high.

    With all that in mind, we've compiled an early list of potentially risky free agents. There are red flags and warning signs. The question is, who will pay attention to them?

Knowshon Moreno, Running Back

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    While Denver Bronco running back Knowshon Moreno had a very good 2013, teams had better be careful before they fork over the cash he’ll inevitably want (especially if he has a big Super Bowl).

    Moreno’s 1,038 yards (a career high) ranked as the 12th most in the NFL this year, while his 10 touchdowns tied him for fourth most by a running back. His 60 catches were his highest career total ever, as were his 548 yards.

    So why the hesitation? Well, a lot of Moreno’s success could be attributed to facing some incredibly soft fronts because his quarterback was Peyton Manning.

    While Moreno ran the ball well, it’s always much easier to face seven men in the box rather than eight or nine.

    Will he be as successful if his quarterback is Ryan Tannehill? Or Jake Locker? Or Blaine Gabbert? Or a rookie from this year’s draft class?

    And let’s not forget his constant injuries in almost every season since he entered the league in 2009.

    Maybe the light finally went on for Moreno this year, but there’s a chance that the guy who was hurt and underwhelming between 2010 and last year might become so again with a worse quarterback.

Devin Hester, Kick Returner

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    Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

    While Devin Hester had more return yards than anyone in the league, he also had more opportunities because the Chicago Bears defense was largely awful.

    His 52 opportunities were far more than Minnesota Vikings return man Cordarrelle Patterson’s 43 (courtesy of an equally painful-to-watch Vikings defense) and almost double the 28 that Dallas Cowboys returner Dwayne Harris had, according to statistics via ESPN.com.

    Hester’s 27.7 return average is a little over four yards less than Patterson’s as well, though better than most other returners.

    The last time Hester got a contract, the Bears were trying to make him into a receiver, something which was a fool’s errand it turns out.

    Yes, Hester is one of the greatest returners of all time. But his time may be coming to a close.

    Hester may be looking for one last, big payday, and if that’s the case, teams should think twice. Investing heavily in a 31-year-old returner isn’t a savvy way to spend your cap money.

Eric Decker, Wide Receiver

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    Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

    It’s not his talent that I worry about because it’s hard to doubt someone coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

    It’s what he will be signed as.

    If a team with a good primary wide receiver takes Decker on as a No. 2 receiver, he could be just as successful as he was in Denver.

    Yes, even without Peyton Manning.

    The problem will be when some team convinces itself that Decker can be a No. 1 receiver or a vertical threat. Decker did almost all of his damage at under 20 yards, much of it on shorter routes across the middle, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Decker does have some longer catches vertically down the middle of the field this year, but that’s a handful of throws compared to the shorter routes. But the shorter routes are where his strength is. Decker gets underneath coverage or splits the middle zone and makes his catch.

    If you keep him doing that, he can be very successful. The problem is he may want a huge payday, and if a team pays him what he could be looking for, it may force him into a No. 1 role.

    In which case, a team may pay an awful lot for a guy in a mismatched role.

LeGarrette Blount, Running Back

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    For a third-string guy, Blount’s numbers (772 yards and seven touchdowns) look pretty good, as does his five yards-per-carry average.

    However, the bulk of his yards came late in the season, and four of his touchdowns happened in the last two weeks of the year. Add to that the shine of a four-touchdown, 166-yard game against the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs and it begins to seem as if maybe the buzz on Blount is a bit more hype than reality.

    While Blount is generally very good on short-yardage plays, a lot of his damage was done when his offensive line opened massive holes for him. That’s when some long runs happened, and his yards per carry went up to the five yards per carry it ended up at.

    Blount also had the advantage of not needing to carry the load for the New England Patriots. A bigger portion of the carries went to Stevan Ridley (178 carries to Blount’s 153). Two other backs (Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden) got significant carries as well.

    It’s easy to look at his stats and think that perhaps Blount has recaptured the magic he had his rookie year when he broke 1,000 yards.

    However, the reality is that if you sign him to carry the load, you don’t know what you’ll get. Blount seems to work best in a committee, but he may not want to get paid like someone who does.

Hakeem Nicks, Wide Receiver

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Which Hakeem Nicks will we see next year when he has likely departed from the New York Giants?

    Will it be the 1,000-yard receiver from 2010 or 2011?

    Or the guy who was injured for a chunk of 2012 or looked like he shut it down in 2013?

    That’s the big concern when it comes to Nicks.

    Yes, the offensive line was a mess, which meant Eli Manning had very little time to throw to his vertical targets, and Nicks was forced to block more than normal.

    Despite that though, this season there seemed to be a distinct lack of effort infecting Nicks’ game. He didn’t seem engaged, didn’t seem to care and played with a real lack of effort.

    Can a player just “turn it on” after phoning it in for a year?

    Do you want to risk top dollar if the answer is no?

Jermichael Finley, Tight End

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    Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

    When we last saw Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, he had just had successful spinal fusion surgery, as reported by the staff at SportingNews.com.

    As his recovery is ongoing—the expectation was three-four months according to Mike Florio at ProFootballTalk.com—how soon will he be in game shape and ready to go?

    But let’s put aside whether he’ll actually be healthy or not.

    The real question is whether he will finally reach the potential he has flashed on occasion.

    Finley has often looked very close to being an elite tight end but has always just fallen short of the mark. Even when he strings a few games together, he always seems to end up missing a key pass or a block when it counts.

    Some team may be tempted to pay Finley for the upside.

    It had best consider how much he’s really worth.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Running Back

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    What’s in a name? Well, the danger that you might pay too much for it.

    While he still has a few more years before he hits the dreaded "30" age mark (Jones-Drew is currently 28), Jones-Drew has had a ton of carries over the course of his eight-year career and saw a pretty big dip in both yards and yards per carry this past season.

    It’s easy to pin all the blame on the Jacksonville Jaguars, given how awful the blocking was. Still, Jones-Drew looked very worn down by the end of the year and seemed to have lost a step.

    On the plus side, Pro Football Focus reports that of his 803 yards, 516 were gained after contact (subscription link).

    The question is, how much does he have left, and how much does he want? If he wants a large, long-term (think five years) contract, teams should think twice.

    If this past year was an indication, he may go downhill swiftly when he blows out those 30 candles in a couple of years.

Justin Tuck, Defensive End

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    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    First, let’s acknowledge that Justin Tuck’s 2013 season was nothing short of amazing. For a 30-year-old player to have 11 sacks and end up as Pro Football Focus’ No. 7 defensive end (subscription link) in a 4-3 is an impressive thing.

    Let’s also acknowledge that this last year was probably an aberration.

    Before this past season, Tuck was struggling and definitely seemed like a shell of the player he once was. In 2011 and 2012 combined he only had nine sacks, and both his combined and solo-tackle totals had been down.

    This was also the first season over the last three when Tuck played a full year. Over the course of the two previous seasons, Tuck missed five games with various ailments.

    Tuck may have a little more in the tank, but he’s looking for some significant money, per Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post. Before a team meets his demands, though, it’d better make sure it is going to get its money’s worth.