The Riskiest 2014 NFL Free Agents

Nick KostosContributor IMarch 7, 2014

The Riskiest 2014 NFL Free Agents

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Every single NFL free-agent class contains players with significant risk, and 2014's is no different.

    Once free agency officially opens on Tuesday, owners and general managers across the league will be opening their checkbooks and lavishly spending money on a host of players, and the onus is on those decision-makers to make the right signings and avoid the pitfalls that could set their franchise back.

    But it happens every year: Teams sign players that could be labeled as "risks" for a variety of reasons, often looking past whatever earned them that moniker in favor of potential on-field production.

    In this column, I'll assess the biggest risks set to hit the free-agent market and explain why they've garnered the dubious distinction. The reasons include injury risk, inconsistency, off-field transgressions and the potential for a player to be overpaid and not produce to the level of his compensation.

    Here are the riskiest 2014 NFL free agents.

Eric Decker

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    Denver's Eric Decker is the top free-agent receiver to hit the market, and he is coming off a season in which he caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdown receptions.

    So why is he on this list of riskiest free agents available?

    It's because it's unclear if he has the chops to be a true No. 1 receiver.

    Decker is coming off a fantastic run with the Broncos, but one could easily construct an argument that postulates he was the fourth-best receiving option on last year's record-setting offense and a product of the Peyton Manning-led aerial juggernaut.

    If Decker signs with a team that already possesses other viable options in the passing game (Indianapolis?), he'll flourish. He's already proven to be capable of succeeding in that situation.

    But if Decker is signed by a team without a top receiver—say, the Raiders or Jets—that franchise will be taking a massive risk by paying No. 1 receiver money to a player who's never been asked to carry a passing attack.

Darren McFadden

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Oakland Raiders selected running back Darren McFadden with the fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft for a reason: He has a tantalizing combination of power and speed.

    But the issue with McFadden has never been his physical attributes, but his inability to stay on the field.

    McFadden has never played a full 16 games in a season, and he has missed 19 contests over the last three campaigns. He's simply not a reliable player.

    When you couple his injury history with the fact that he's only averaged 3.3 yards per carry over the last two seasons, McFadden looms as a significant risk on the market.

    Any team interested in signing him would be wise to offer a short-term, incentive-laden deal. Paying him starter-type money would be the definition of lunacy.

    For more on McFadden's future, check out this column from Bleacher Report's Chris Hansen.

Hakeem Nicks

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks represents a curious case.

    Just two seasons ago, Nicks was outstanding in helping Big Blue win Super Bowl XLVI.

    But given his substandard 2013 campaign, 2011 seems like a lifetime ago.

    Nicks was positively dreadful last year. He was never on the same page with quarterback Eli Manning, and he failed to score a single touchdown, finishing as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 69th-ranked receiver.

    With Nicks' chances of returning to the Giants "close to zero," per Jordan Raanan of The Star-Ledger, citing a source with knowledge of the situation, another team will surely roll the dice with on the inconsistent receiver.

    There's no doubting Nicks' immense physical talents, and he's proved that when he's on, he's one of the better receivers in football. The question is if he can regain the form that made him one of the most feared receivers in football and avoid another clunker like last season.

    The unknown is what makes Nicks such a major risk.

Aqib Talib

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib is one of the better players in the league at his position. He doesn't make this list because of his on-field production.

    He's on it because of past off-field transgressions and the various maladies he's suffered in his time as a Patriot.

    Talib was a major problem child in Tampa Bay, but he has turned his career around under the stewardship of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. What's unclear is if Talib would stay on the straight and narrow away from Belichick's watch.

    He also missed three games last season with a nagging hip injury and sat out the second half of the AFC Championship Game in each of the last two seasons with thigh and knee injuries.

    Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald recently reported that Talib is searching for a big-money deal, so any team that signs the mercurial corner will need to shell out the greenbacks.

    Given his history, that decision would most certainly be a risk.

Justin Tuck

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Last season, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck experienced a career renaissance that would have made Galileo jealous.

    Tuck delivered an 11-sack campaign, the first time he accumulated double-digit sacks since 2010. He played well enough to finish the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) seventh-ranked defensive end.

    But he's about to turn 31 and only registered a combined nine sacks in 2011 and 2012. It's very possible that last year's production was an aberration, not a harbinger of things to come.

    Tuck will definitely hit the market, with Giants general manager Jerry Reese saying at the NFL combine (per Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports), "Free agency means you try to get as much money as you can. Justin will see what the market is. We'd love to have him back, but we'll see where it goes."

    If a team chooses to bring Tuck in, which player will they receive: the one who authored a throwback performance in 2013, or the one who struggled mightily and looked to be on his last legs in 2011 and 2012?

    That question makes Tuck a significant risk.

Josh McCown

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    Bears quarterback Josh McCown had the kind of season every journeyman signal-caller has dreamed of.

    McCown played in eight games (starting five) in relief of an injured Jay Cutler and tossed 13 touchdown passes against only one interception.

    In fact, he played so well that there was an actual debate as to whether or not Marc Trestman should have stuck with McCown once Cutler was healthy enough to return to the lineup.

    Now McCown is set to hit the market, and according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (h/t Marc Sessler of NFL.com), he's unlikely to re-sign with the Bears.

    Before fans of quarterback-needy teams get excited about McCown, let's take two things into account.

    First, McCown is a journeyman for a reason: He's never been all that good. He's only 16-22 as a starter in the NFL.

    Second, there's no doubt that McCown benefited from the tutelage of Trestman, a known quarterback guru. Away from Trestman's Midas touch, it's unclear if McCown would be able to sustain similar success.

    If a team signs him to be a veteran backup or a potential stopgap starter, that would be acceptable. But if a franchise brings McCown in with designs on him getting significant playing time, the risk would be tremendous.

    For more on McCown, read this column by Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey.

Rodger Saffold

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    Rams offensive lineman Rodger Saffold is a damn good football player.

    He is versatile enough to play multiple positions on the line, and he finished 2013 as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 18th-ranked guard.

    The reason why he's on this list is because he hasn't shown the ability to stay healthy, missing 17 games over the past three seasons.

    When he's on the field, Saffold is more than capable. But any team thinking about lavishing big-time money on Saffold should take the considerable injury risk into account.

Jermichael Finley

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Packers tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a scary neck injury in the team's Week 7 win over the Browns, and he had to undergo spinal fusion surgery as a result.

    While Finley's agent, Blake Baratz, recently told Paul Schwartz of the New York Post that Finley will be ready for contact in "the coming weeks," there's obviously an injury risk associated with the talented pass-catcher.

    In addition, it does seem as if Finley has never reached his true potential.

    Despite playing in the Packers' pass-happy offense with Aaron Rodgers serving as the trigger man, Finley never recorded more than 61 catches in a season, and he only hauled in more than five touchdown passes once (2011, with eight).

    There's little doubt that Finley, who turns 27 this month, has the requisite talent and skills to be a difference-maker in a team's passing attack, but his past inconsistency and recent injury make him a risk.