The Denver Broncos released cornerback Champ Bailey on Thursday after a decade with the team. Bailey is a free agent for the first time at age 35, but any team thinking of signing him will have to think twice.
Bailey will be 36 in June and missed 11 games last season to injury. When he did get on the field, he was far from stellar. Bailey was a shell of the player who was an All-Pro seven times and went to the Pro Bowl 12 times.
Bailey was one of the best cornerbacks in the league for a long time, but the Broncos didn’t even try to get him to take a pay cut according to Bailey, via Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today. That's not only surprising, but gives us some idea of how the Broncos think of him going forward.
Bailey’s play has declined, but he still has a lot to offer. He is a great leader, a mentor to younger players and his poor play could have been the result of his injury more so than his age. Bailey is also willing to explore a move to safety that could extend his career, according to Jones, but he wants to stay at cornerback.
One of the problems when trying to evaluate Bailey is that his play last year may not even be indicative of his future performance. Few cornerbacks can play the game at a high level at age 36 because they just don’t have the required athleticism anymore. Even with perfect technique, Bailey might not cut it.
While Bailey’s age and athleticism are a factor, it’s still important to put his play last year into perspective.
Bailey had a foot injury, which is going to impact just about everything he does as a cornerback. Turning, planting, backpedalling and running can be more difficult coming off an injured foot.
It was obvious in 2012 that Bailey lacked the athleticism he once had, but he made up for it with good technique. It’s reasonable to assume the injury made it hard for him to be successful at cornerback.
Bailey’s long-time agent, Jack Reale, told Mike Klis of The Denver Post that he still believes Bailey can play at a Pro Bowl level.
“It’s unfortunate frankly that he tried to play hurt this year,” Reale told Klis. “Because most people with that injury would wind up on IR (injured reserve). But he felt this was a year they were going to go to the Super Bowl, and he was dadgum if he was going to watch that game from the press box or sidelines.”
It might be a little much to expect Bailey to perform at a Pro Bowl level, but it wouldn’t be the first time a serious foot sprain derailed a season. Bailey’s age and position only work to compound the problem.
“He tried to get it done,” Reale said. “Unfortunately everybody wants to judge him based on playing hurt. Which is how it goes in the league. Rarely, if ever do you get an ‘attaboy’ if you don’t play as well hurt as you do when you’re healthy.”
An injury is perhaps a convenient excuse, but his play wasn’t so bad that he needed it.
Bailey came back from injury in Week 6 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and had a poor game. ProFootballFocus (subscription required) gave Bailey a negative-1.2 grade in that game for allowing eight receptions for 95 yards.
It’s worth noting that he was able to defend a pair of passes in his Week 6 start and one in Week 7 before re-aggravating his foot injury. Bailey wouldn’t return until late in the season as a part-time player.
|Bailey's 2013 Season|
|As Role Player||-0.6||59||5||2||12||0||0|
In three games as late in the year, Bailey was neither great nor terrible. Per ProFootballFocus, opponents targeted him nine times, and he allowed six receptions for 52 yards.
The Broncos thrust Bailey back into a starting role after Chris Harris Jr. tore his ACL in the divisional round. Bailey responded in the conference championship against the New England Patriots with his best game of the season. ProFootballFocus gave Bailey a grade of 2.6 for that game, which nearly erased his season grade of negative-2.7.
The Super Bowl was Bailey’s worst game according to ProFootballFocus, but that isn’t unique. Even Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who as a free agent is the likely benefactor of Bailey’s release, had one of his worst games of the season in the Super Bowl.
There is nothing about Bailey’s play in 2013 to suggest he is incapable of bouncing back in 2014. Maybe his play is on the decline, but he still has some gas left in the tank provided he’s healthy and his foot is completely healed.
Every cornerback’s best friend is a good pass rush. The Broncos were below average in that regard, with a sack percentage of just 6.3 percent. ProFootballFocus graded the Broncos 13th in the league in pass rush with a cumulative grade of 6.7.
Von Miller and Bailey played one full game together in Week 13, but Bailey was a part-time player by then. For a cornerback like Bailey who lacks elite athleticism at this point in his career, having a decent pass rush is important.
Bailey can survive on his instincts and with good technique, but the defense must get pressure. When a quarterback has time to throw and fast receivers can use their speed to gain separation, Bailey is going to have issues.
It was true in 2012 as much as it was 2013. In 2012, the Broncos had the second-best sack percentage in the league at 8.5 percent. When the Baltimore Ravens protected Joe Flacco in the 2012 playoff game against the Broncos, he was able to expose Bailey’s lack of speed.
Bailey is also probably going to narrow his choices down to teams with a chance to win the Super Bowl. One team that makes sense is San Francisco, which took a chance on Nnamdi Asomugha last year and has a great pass rush.
|Contenders with Potential Need in Secondary|
|Team||Key Free Agent||PFF Grade||Position|
Another that makes sense for Bailey is the Detroit Lions, who need help in the secondary. Bailey’s leadership could also help new head coach Jim Caldwell turn things around in the locker room.
Teams like the Indianapolis Colts have a need at safety if they don’t make any other moves. A short-term deal with Bailey to compete on a roster full of young players makes some sense. Bailey’s age and ability should keep the market for his services small.
Bailey isn’t the player who used to lock down half the field, but he’s far from useless. To have a bounce-back year in 2014, he likely just needs to stay healthy.
Finding a new team that is capable of hiding some of his weaknesses will be important for Bailey in 2014. A team with a good pass rush or good safety play would make sense, but they also have to like Bailey.
For the right price, a contending team should take a chance on Bailey. There’s always the risk that he’ll never be athletic enough again to be a viable cornerback, but a move to safety mitigates some of that risk.