The Riskiest Signings of NFL Free Agency so Far

Zach KruseSenior Analyst IMarch 13, 2016

The Riskiest Signings of NFL Free Agency so Far

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    There isn't a riskier way of player acquisition in the NFL than free agency, when teams spend millions and millions on players that other teams let go.

    That isn't to say free agency can't be used wisely. The best teams draft, develop and retain their own talent while picking their spots on the open market. And for some teams with tons of cap space, spending isn't much of an option. Sitting on a mountain of money doesn't exactly win football games.

    Still, every signing is a gamble. And not all gambles in free agency are created equal.

    In the following slides, we'll highlight the riskiest signings of free agency so far—using contract value, expectations and fit to guide the process.

Honorable Mentions

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    RB Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Martin is coming off a 1,400-yard rushing season, but he's produced two great years and two ugly years. The Bucs are banking on more of the great and less of the ugly. According to Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune, Martin signed a five-year, $36 million deal, with $15 million guaranteed. 

    TE Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts: Allen is injury-prone (21 missed games since 2013) and coming off a season in which he caught just 16 passes. The Colts should give him more opportunities with Coby Fleener in New Orleans, but they paid an awfully steep price (four years, $29.4 million) for a mostly unreliable player. 

    DE Mario Williams, Miami Dolphins: Which Super Mario is Miami getting? The All-Pro of 2014 who produced 15 sacks? Or the lazy, pouting disappointment from 2015? The Dolphins are at least protected by a two-year deal. 

    S Rodney McLeod, Philadelphia Eagles: According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, the Eagles gave McLeod $37 million over five years. He's only 25 and coming off a breakout season, but that's top safety money. The former undrafted free agent will need to keep ascending to make good on the deal. 

QB Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans

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    Deal: Four years, $72 million, $37 million guaranteed, according to Albert Breer of NFL Network

    Unsatisfied with Brian Hoyer after his nightmare collapse in the AFC Wild Card Round, the Texans got aggressive at quarterback and made the biggest gamble of the offseason to date. 

    Houston surprised everyone, snagging quarterback Brock Osweiler from the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. In the process, general manager Rick Smith and head coach Bill O'Brien tied their respective futures to Osweiler, who has made all of seven NFL starts.

    He showed flashes of greatness for the Broncos in 2015, including late in Denver's come-from-behind win over the New England Patriots. But he also couldn't keep a struggling, injured Peyton Manning on the bench, and his 86.4 passer rating ranked tied for 25th in the NFL. 

    According to Cian Fahey of Football Outsiders, Osweiler ranked 27th in interceptable pass rate and 22nd in accuracy percentage. He wasn't careful with the football (despite only six interceptions) or particularly consistent in throwing accurately, two important factors for playing well at any level. 

    Only 25, Osweiler has growth potential, especially under a coach like O'Brien. It's easy to see why the Texans pulled the trigger on the $72 million deal, even with his lack of experience. Finding a quarterback is the hardest task in the game, and the Texans are a good quarterback away from being serious contenders. 

    Still, signing Osweiler is far and away the biggest risk of free agency. If he fails, he could take the whole hierarchy of decision-makers in Houston down with him. Like it or not, the Texans are approaching a crossroads as a franchise. 

CB Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants

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    Deal: Five years, $62.5 million, $29 million guaranteed, according to Albert Breer of NFL Network

    In desperate need of fixing a defense that gave up the most yards in the NFL last season, the Giants went all-in on the open market—signing three of the top free agents (Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison) and re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul. 

    Jenkins is the riskiest of the additions. 

    He's 27 years old with 10 career interceptions, but he's now being paid like one of the NFL's top cornerbacks. The title doesn't match up, given some of his other coverage numbers. 

    According to Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus, Jenkins has allowed the third-most touchdowns (22) and fifth-most completions over 20 yards (39) since 2012. One of the NFL's biggest gamblers, Jenkins gives up as many big plays as he creates. 

    "Jenkins is the classic high risk/high reward cornerback," ESPN's Matt Bowen said. "He is going to jump routes and make plays, but that also opens up the door for opponents to game plan his style with double moves or multiple breaking routes. This is where we see the negative on Jenkins."

    The Giants certainly improved at cornerback, and with Pierre-Paul and Vernon coming off the edges, a gambler like Jenkins could create havoc. But giving a cornerback almost $63 million should demand one-half of the field is locked down on every snap. Jenkins is going to have a hard time living up to the expectations of such a deal. 

WR Mohamed Sanu, Atlanta Falcons

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    Deal: Five years, $32.5 million, $14 million guaranteed, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network

    Sanu is a versatile talent, with 11 receiving touchdowns, two rushing scores and a perfect 158.3 passer rating over five career attempts (five completions, 177 yards, two touchdowns). But the Falcons are paying him like a high-end No. 2 receiver, and there's little evidence that he's capable of handling such a role. 

    Sanu doesn't have a season with 60 catches or 800 receiving yards, and his five receiving touchdowns in 2014 are still a career high. Opportunities were limited at times in Cincinnati, but even when Sanu was a full-time player for the Bengals two seasons ago, he didn't produce like a player opposite A.J. Green probably should have. 

    In 2015, Sanu caught just 33 passes for 394 yards and no touchdowns. He'll need to at least double those numbers—while also finding the end zone—to justify the $32.5 million Atlanta invested in him. 

    Pro Football Focus gave the deal a "D-minus," noting Sanu's negative receiving grade in each of the last three seasons.

    Would you rather have Sanu for $32 million over five years or Marvin Jones—his far more talented teammate—at $40 million over five? Seems like an easy choice. The Falcons overpaid. 

LB Mark Barron, Los Angeles Rams

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    Deal: Five years, $45 million, $20 million guaranteed, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle

    Two years after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers all but gave away their first-round bust, the Rams have handed the same player—now with a shiny new position—$9 million per season and $20 million guaranteed. 

    A converted safety, Barron flourished as an outside linebacker for the Rams last season—tallying 116 tackles and four forced fumbles. He helped develop a growing trend in the NFL for smaller, faster linebackers capable of handling the physicality near the line of scrimmage and coverage responsibilities in space. 

    But $45 million is a steep price to pay for a player with only one full season of playing the position. 

    It's possible he'll continue to grow as an outside linebacker next to new middle linebacker Alec Ogletree. Maybe we'll look back on this deal in a few years and call it a bargain. 

    But it's equally possible the NFL will adjust to the flashy new trend, as it always does. And when that inevitably happens, Barron could be exposed as a high-priced player with no set position. 

    There's no reason to knock the Rams for the deal. It's forward-thinking and progressive, with the right amount of projection. But it also comes with an obvious level of inherent risk.  

DE Olivier Vernon, New York Giants

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    Deal: Five years, $85 million, $52.5 million guaranteed, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network

    Vernon hit the proverbial jackpot, the result of being a young, ascending player at a prime position within a market possessing an unprecedented amount of cap space. He doesn't turn 26 until October, and he finished off the 2015 season with a dominant stretch of games that included 5.5 sacks over the final seven games. 

    Still, the Giants just paid Vernon J.J. Watt-type money. 

    Free agency is all about projection, using past production to help predict what a player will do over the offered contract length. And the Giants have every reason to believe Vernon can consistently produce double-digit sacks. 

    Still, the Giants just paid Vernon J.J. Watt-type money. 

    The point can't be made enough. Watt is a generational talent headed straight for the Hall of Fame when he's done. Vernon has exactly one season with more than eight sacks. Watt has won three of the last four Defensive Player of the Year awards. Vernon hasn't even sniffed the Pro Bowl. 

    The market obviously inflated Vernon's value, helping him get to Watt-like numbers. But with all that money comes all the risk. 

    The Giants made a smart and aggressive move, using their mountains of cap space to lock down one of the NFL's most talented young pass-rushers. Vernon is very, very good, but every blockbuster deal like this one is a huge gamble.