5 Big-Money NFL Free-Agent Moves That Won't Pan Out

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5 Big-Money NFL Free-Agent Moves That Won't Pan Out
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

NFL free agency is often alluring to fans and front offices because of the quick-fix possibilities.  Unlike the draft, where even exhaustive scouting does not necessarily produce results, the ability to sign a known commodity theoretically involves less projection and risk.

Of course, that is not always how free agency plays out, and the high financial investment entails an entirely separate risk of its own.  Adding star free agents is not necessarily a bad thing—in a vacuum, true big-money busts like Nnamdi Asomugha and Albert Haynesworth are fairly rare, and these players generally make their new teams better in a vacuum.

But roster construction does not occur in a vacuum, and the abundance of resources devoted to a single player means that a team could be disadvantaged in other areas.  Now that the big waves of free agency have largely settled, we can pinpoint a few deals that could leave teams regretful in the future.

When dissecting some of the more questionable decisions, it appears there are two distinct divisions for characterizing these deals.

 

Bad Values

Julius Peppers (GB): 3 years, $26 million

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Let's play a quick blind resume game:

Veteran Pass-Rushers
Player Pass-Rush Snaps Sacks Hits Hurries
A 442 7 6 27
B 649 13 18 34
C 442 11 4 32

Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

All three players represent 4-3 veteran pass-rushers signed this offseason.  Player A is Julius Peppers, B is Jared Allen and C is Shaun Phillips.  Despite clearly superior production from the latter two, the annual average of Peppers' contract is on pace with that of Allen's, and far superior to Phillips' meager deal.

Much has been made of Peppers' potential fit in Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme.  Peppers seems likely to play an "elephant" role that would allow him to pin his ears back and rush the passer on nearly every down, essentially acting as a fourth edge-rushing defensive lineman.  While there are different gap and containment responsibilities between systems, his basic function remains the same.

However, there is a legitimate question whether or not Peppers is still capable of providing Green Bay with a reliable secondary pass-rushing option behind Clay Matthews.  As Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus illustrates, Peppers' diminishing physical tools have cost him invaluable versatility in his pass-rushing arsenal:

The threat to the outside is what edge rushers need and what the vast majority use to set up the rest of their pass rushing repertoire. No matter the defensive end it will be extremely rare that you are just going to bull rush an NFL caliber tackle back or beat them inside if they are not concerned about you beating them to the outside. There needs to be some threat that keeps them off balance to open up the shorter routes to the quarterback. This is probably the biggest potential impediment to Peppers being a threat on the edge for the Packers in 2014 and the biggest clue to how Dom Capers may choose to deploy him.

The problem with Peppers being less effective on the edge is that he has been increasingly confined to that area.  Stockwell also noted how Peppers' usage has become less versatile, as he played 85.4 percent of his snaps off the right edge, the zenith of a steady three-year rise. 

Nam Y. Huh

Perhaps you can teach an old dog new tricks, but at 34, Peppers is no longer the physical freak he was in his Carolina heyday.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com noted that the deal could essentially be a one-year, $8.5 million pact, as the Packers could save $7 million on their cap by cutting Peppers after 2014.

However, it's important to realize that shedding Peppers after just a year would leave $5 million in dead money on Green Bay's cap.  That's not an insignificant amount, especially with important starters like Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Tramon Williams due to hit free agency after next season.

With diminishing ability and at least some questions about scheme fit, Peppers simply does not provide good value over some of the other veteran pass-rushers from this free-agency period.

 

Branden Albert (MIA): 5 years, $47 million

Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Speaking of poor value relative to his peers, let's try another blind resume comparison:

Left Tackles
Player Pass-Blocking Grade Run-Blocking Grade
A +14.7 -2.3
B +15.6 +1.5
C +17.8 +3.1

Pro Football Focus

A is Branden Albert's 2013 season, B is Eugene Monroe's 2013 season and C is Jared Veldheer's 2012 season (Veldheer missed most of 2013 with a torn triceps injury).  Monroe and Veldheer both received nice paydays, but the total value of Albert's deal dwarfs either of the other two premier left tackles from this year's free-agent market.

Albert's staggering $26 million in guaranteed money is second-highest for any tackle in the game, and while he is certainly a capable starter, Miami paid him to be far more than just that.  Albert has not been a net-positive in the running game since 2011, and even then he was an unspectacular plus-2.6.

It's a bit puzzling why Albert is below average in the run-blocking department, as he possesses tremendous athleticism for a man of his size, often running downfield to help with second-level blocks:

NFL Game Rewind

However, Albert is among the most penalized tackles as well.  Only eight tackles had more than his nine penalties last year.  He can occasionally have trouble with quick edge-rushers on outside zone plays, as he did here when he was called for holding:

NFL Game Rewind

In fairness, perhaps no team had a more pressing need than the Dolphins did with their offensive line.  Miami absolutely needed to lock up one of the premium left tackles, and along with guard Shelley Smith, Albert should help anchor an improved Dolphins line.

But the deal carries massive cap hits after 2014—at least $10.2 million every year going forward—and Miami cannot get out of the deal without significant dead money until 2017.  Even with a relatively modest $8.5 million signing bonus, the massive base salaries almost ensures that the Dolphins will have to convert some of that into signing bonus money to save short-term cap space, making the initial figure a moot point.

Again, Albert is a solid tackle who represents a massive upgrade over the flotsam the Dolphins started last season.  But the deal seems likely to cause headaches within a couple years, the consequence of playing a middle-class player a top-tier salary.

 

Everson Griffen (MIN): 5 years, $42.5 million

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Not all bad-value signings need to involve players switching teams.  Unless Griffen hits his ceiling, this deal is going to end up as an overpay.

In the Peppers section above, we've already shown the market value for this year's best edge-rushers.  While Griffen is making similar money to Allen and Peppers, his track record is nowhere near the same level.  In four seasons, Griffen has 17.5 sacks, including a decline to 5.5 last year after notching 8.0 in 2012.

Moreover, it's not as if the underlying stats suggest an imminent breakout.  Griffen compiled 52 total pressures in 635 pass-rushing snaps last season, a mark that placed him in the middle of the pack among 4-3 defensive ends. Even with gaudier sack numbers in 2012, his 43 pressures in 613 pass-rushing snaps that year was a slightly worse rate.

That's not poor production, but it does not portend someone who deserves more guaranteed money than Cameron Wake or Michael Bennett.  Additionally, Mike Zimmer's system emphasizes run containment as much as pure upfield edge-rushing, meaning that Griffen is unlikely to see a spike in sack numbers as a result of the Vikings' coaching change.

This is not to suggest Griffen is a bad player.  At 26 years old, he could conceivably play out this entire contract and not leave heaps of dead money on Minnesota's cap.  The cap hits are also fairly manageable and consistent going forward, so as the NFL's overall cap rises, Griffen's contract should be fairly tenable.

Still, it is hard to imagine this deal ever being a bargain for the Vikings, and Griffen will need to improve significantly just to make this market value (at least by 2014 standards).  Ultimately, with Allen out the door, this looks like a case of Minnesota overpaying to retain some continuity along the defensive line.

 

Bad Fits

Chris Williams (BUF): 4 years, $13.4 million

Tom Gannam

Apologies if the blind resumes are getting old, but allow one more comparison:

Guard Comparison
Player Pass-Blocking Grade Run-Blocking Grade
A -15.4 -5.7
B -12.7 -9.5
C -13.1 -3.1

Pro Football Focus

Pretty similar across the board, right?  All of them reflect 2013 seasons from guards—A is Chris Williams, B is Mike McGlynn and C is Oniel Cousins.  However, while Williams received the aforementioned contract from Buffalo, Cousins signed a one-year deal for $795,000, while McGlynn appears to have signed a similarly small one-year deal.

Indeed, the former 14th overall pick was a washout as a tackle in Chicago, and did not fare much better at left guard in 2013.  Williams' minus-21.8 overall grade was eighth-worst in the league among guards last year.  He conceded 41 pressures over 503 pass-blocking snaps, a mark that tied for the fourth-worst pass-blocking efficiency rating among guards.

Quite simply, despite his starter salary, Williams has proved over his six-year career that he is little more than a fringe roster player.  SI.com's Doug Farrar notes that turning Williams into a reliable starter would entail a total reversal of his career track to date:

Williams has never lived up to his athletic potential, though that’s partially due to the sub-par coaching he received in Chicago. He gets pushed around too easily at any line position, and he’s not consistent when asked to stop pass-rushers at the point of attack. The Rams line was a mixed bag last season, and Williams was at least a bastion of consistency, but not much more. If the Bills are serious about competing in the AFC East sooner than later, they’ll need to develop Williams in ways other coaches have not been able to.

Farrar gave the signing a "D" grade, and he is not alone in his assessment.  Pro Football Focus' deal grader has ranked Williams' signing the worst of the free-agency period thus far, and characterized Williams as a "prototypical draft bust."

The Bills certainly needed an upgrade at left guard, as the putrid tandem of Doug Legursky and Colin Brown combined for a staggering minus-42.6 overall grade last season.  But Williams is unlikely to provide a meaningfully significant upgrade from that low standard, meaning that second-year quarterback EJ Manuel will continue to run for his life in 2014.

 

Mike Mitchell (PIT): 5 years, $25 million

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In a vacuum, Mitchell is a decent safety receiving a somewhat reasonable contract.  After four humdrum seasons in Oakland, Mitchell's plus-0.5 overall grade ranked 35th among safeties.  He provided versatility, playing as both a deep centerfield free safety and in-the-box strong safety for a Carolina team that needed his contributions following a season-ending injury to Charles Godfrey.

However, Mitchell's strength lies near the line of scrimmage, as he is better as a downhill attacking safety rather than a read-and-react safety valve in the deep half.  As Grantland's Bill Barnwell indicates, that overlaps with what the Steelers already have in Troy Polamalu:

Mitchell’s strength is using his speed to attack the line of scrimmage and fill against the run. His fellow starting safety in Pittsburgh is Troy Polamalu, a rover who has lost several steps in coverage and whose best remaining strength is … using his instincts to attack the line of scrimmage and fill against the run. I’d wonder if Mitchell was a replacement for Polamalu, but the cap-strapped Steelers just gave their long-serving safety a two-year contract extension.

There are certainly holes in Mitchell's game.  With a whopping 17 missed tackles, Mitchell was the least efficient tackler among all safeties last season.  Frequent curious angles make Mitchell a shaky proposition in the open field (on this play he was the second missed tackle):

NFL Game Rewind

Moreover, with undrafted rookie Robert Lester as the other starting safety for the majority of the season, Carolina often played vanilla zone coverages to simplify the burden for their young secondary.  That's not to suggest Mitchell could not handle more coverage responsibilities, but he's yet to consistently exhibit the combination of quick diagnostic instincts and ranginess demanded from today's free safeties.

The signing is especially frustrating when considering Pittsburgh's need for a coverage complement to Polamalu.  Fourth-rounder Shamarko Thomas was a bit player in his rookie season, and he and Mitchell will likely split snaps to replace Ryan Clark at free safety.

The cap-strapped Steelers can ill-afford to miss on a rare free-agent splurge.  Mitchell's contract is not crippling, but for a team that has hemorrhaged starters in recent years due to salary-cap troubles, Pittsburgh has less room for error than most other teams.

 

*Stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required), salary data via Spotrac.com.

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