In today's NFL, certain positions carry a higher premium than others. And elite pass-rushers fit that bill. In fact, the league's top five defenders in terms of salary all make in excess of $15 million per season for their ability to collapse the pocket.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants appeared headed for just such a monster payday. Now, after a disastrous accident and disappointing 2015 season, Pierre-Paul readies to hit free agency amid clouds of uncertainty regarding his NFL future.
He's also potentially the biggest steal among a crowded market at defensive end.
Yes, the New York Jets slapped the franchise tag on star end Muhammad Wilkerson. And after placing the transition tag on Olivier Vernon, the Miami Dolphins have the right to match any offer for the 25-year-old. But the cupboard is as stocked as it's been in several years for teams that are looking to bolster the pass rush in free agency.
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There are accomplished veterans such as Charles Johnson of the Carolina Panthers, Mario Williams of the Buffalo Bills and Chris Long of the Los Angeles Rams, all of whom have multiple seasons of double-digit sacks to their credit.
You have young up-and-comers such as the 26-year-old Malik Jackson of the Denver Broncos, who looks set to hit the jackpot after a career year for the Super Bowl champions.
Then there are mid-range options such as the Giants' Robert Ayers and Rams' William Hayes, who don't have the resumes of their star counterparts but also won't carry as high a sticker price.
There's something for everyone. And smack in the middle of it all, with question marks all around, lies the 27-year-old Pierre-Paul.
Just a few years ago, it didn't look like the Giants would allow Pierre-Paul anywhere near the open market. In both 2011 and 2014, he posted the sort of numbers that give defensive coordinators the vapors and quarterbacks nightmares.
He had 16.5 sacks in 2011 and 12.5 in 2014. He also posted more than 70 tackles in each of those seasons.
Back then, Pierre-Paul was a wildly athletic end just entering the prime of his career who played the run and pass with equal ferocity. In each of those monster seasons he ranked as a top-10 4-3 end at Pro Football Focus.
Yes, injuries led to "down" years in 2012 in 2013, but after his rebound year two seasons ago, there was no question Pierre-Paul was one of the NFL's best at a position where being the best can make a player very wealthy.
And then catastrophe struck:
Jason Pierre-Paul Posts X-Ray Of Mangled Hand On Twitter https://t.co/1SxwOjNrQz— CBS New York (@CBSNewYork) February 16, 2016
There haven't been many players in the NFL over the past 25 years whose career arcs have been changed more by a non-football injury than Pierre-Paul's was by the fireworks accident that cost him part of his right hand. Never mind whether he would return to the level that saw him earn a pair of Pro Bowl selections.
No one knew if he would ever play again.
After several surgeries and grueling rehab, Pierre-Paul returned for eight games in 2015. But he wasn't the same player. His per-game stats and ability to generate consistent pressure on quarterbacks fell off a cliff. Pierre-Paul would finish his sixth NFL season with but a single sack.
One NFL executive didn't mince words while speaking with ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. "He's not the same player," he said. "You can see he's not. It's all there on film. He still has the burst, but he's obviously limited in what he's able to do."
There would be no megadeal. No franchise tag. No huge payday.
However, that same decision-maker offered a glimpse into why this story can have a happy ending. And why the NFL team that is willing to roll the dice on Pierre-Paul may wind up reaping a huge reward.
Pierre-Paul's greatness was never the result of power. Or his ability to bull rush his way into the backfield, a la J.J. Watt. No, with JPP, it was all about his wheels. About an otherworldly burst off the line of scrimmage that propelled him past blockers before they could react.
That burst didn't go anywhere. Pierre-Paul's inability to get off blocks in 2015 just muted it. It isn't easy to disengage an offensive lineman with one hand. And with a huge club on his mangled one—that's what he spent last season playing with.
However, as the season progressed and the Giants and Pierre-Paul experimented with different coverings, the club gave way to a specially designed glove:
And with a full offseason to rehab and figure out a covering that works and that feels comfortable, Pierre-Paul should be able to do a bit more than just bludgeon opponents with his right hand in 2016.
He admitted to Michael Strahan of Fox Sports (via Justin Tasch of the New York Daily News) that 2015 was a trying year but insisted the best is yet to come. "To be honest it never pissed me off or nothing, because any given moment things happen to people. You never know when they’re gonna happen," he said. "I’m still just getting started."
New Giants head coach Ben McAdoo appears to agree, telling Graziano he saw enough from Pierre-Paul to want him back with Big Blue in 2016:
I've spoken to Jason a couple different times so far throughout the offseason, and we'll have to see how that goes. It was obvious when Jason came back last year how disruptive he was. When you look at him, his ability to get off the ball and get after the quarterback is easy to see. That's something that comes naturally to him, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.
It wasn't like Pierre-Paul was awful last year. Sure, the stats and sacks weren't there, but Pro Football Focus saw enough from him on the field to rank him inside the top 15 at his position.
However, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com, that return would have to be on the Giants' terms "on a one-year prove it deal." As Raanan wrote, "if Pierre-Paul can get more elsewhere, he's likely gone."
And that's going to be the $64 question. Will an NFL team see enough from what Pierre-Paul did a year ago to offer a multiyear contract? It's a calculated risk. A gamble that 2015 was the nadir of Pierre-Paul's career, and 2016 will be the beginning of a climb back to the top of the mountain.
Will Pierre-Paul ever get all the way back to the form he showed in terrorizing the NFL in 2011 and 2014? Quite possibly not. And that's a shame for any number of reasons, including the staggering amount of money his mistake cost him.
The thing is, he doesn't have to. If Pierre-Paul can come anywhere close to the player he was, if he can become a solid, two-way top-15 end capable of putting up eight to 10 sacks per season while providing stout run defense, he's going to be worth a lot more to an NFL team than a multiyear deal would cost this spring.
And that's the definition of a steal.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report, a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.