One of the biggest topics of discussion this offseason for the Browns has been the sorry state of their receiving corps. More specifically, everyone seems to have an opinion on whether the Browns should pursue a top-notch WR on the free-agent market and if so, who it should be.
This year's free-agent market has produced a decent amount of available players at various skill levels. Among the names on the list? Ex-Giant and ex-jailbird Plaxico Burress.
There is little doubt that someone will sign him this offseason, and it seems likely that he'll be at least moderately productive in his return, and perhaps even exceptionally so. But is he a good fit for the Browns? Let's take a look.
First, let's discuss Buress' skill set and general potential. Burress has nine years of experience in the NFL, five with the Steelers and four with the Giants. In that time, he amassed 505 receptions, 7,845 yards and 55 touchdowns with an average of 15.5 yards per game. Not too shabby.
Burress' only true "down year" was his last in 2008, when he had 35 receptions, 454 yards and four touchdowns. Given that he did that in 10 games, that's better than any Browns receiver did in 2010.
But of course, we haven't seen Burress since then, as he was serving a two-year prison sentence after being convicted on weapons charges.
Anyone involved in the game will tell you that two years is a long time to be away from it. Word on the street is that Burress is in the best shape of his life now, but even a fantastic workout regimen isn't a comparable replacement for not having set foot on a football field in two years.
Certainly players can be away from the game for a long period of time and, provided that they stay in shape and work hard upon their return, find success in the second act. Much as it pains me to say it, look at Michael Vick.
Still, it's a tough road. We're not just talking about someone who has been sidelined with an injury for two years. We're talking about a player who has been completely removed from the game and all connections to it (not to mention from society as well). The competition has changed. Opposing defenses have changed. The game itself, even in that relatively short period of time, has evolved. It's like going away for two years only to come home and find someone else is living in your house.
Vick could handle it, so that sets a precedent that it is possible to do. But that's just one guy. There's no good reason to believe that this would work out as smoothly for Burress or anyone else. But on the other hand, there's no good reason to believe that it wouldn't either.
Despite a long absence from the game and after an already nine-year-long career, Burress is still just 33 years old. True, that isn't young in NFL years, but it still leaves him well within the age range of receivers who can potentially be productive. The question is, how productive?
I don't doubt that Burress will return to play a full season in which he will put up good, if not great, stats. That means the answer to "Is he worth the risk?" is a frustratingly inconclusive "maybe." And that "maybe," when it comes down to it, will likely be largely dependent on price.
Two years ago, pre-jail stint, Burress probably would have commanded top dollar as a free agent. That won't be true anymore, but just how much will the price have dropped? I wouldn't expect him to come as cheaply as a second-tier type veteran, but that's probably about the range we're looking at.
He should, ideally, be better than that, but as is the case in any other profession, you can't exactly walk right out of jail and charge people for your services at the rate which they're actually worth. Teams are taking a huge risk on you, both in terms of productivity on the field and character.
So would he be worth the money to the Browns?
The basic, overgeneralized argument is that the Browns WR corps is a mess, so why wouldn't they want to grab a guy with huge potential and proven success who comes at a relative bargain price?
Strictly speaking, that's true, but as always it's more complicated than that.
First, there are no guarantees. While I'd be reasonably comfortable asserting that Burress would behave and there wouldn't be much in the way of off-field or character issues if the Browns were to sign him, I don't think I can state with absolute certainty that he will be productive enough to make it worth it.
Hiring a guy who has been out of football for two years in any capacity is a huge risk in terms of his potential to fail on the field. Hiring a felon comes with an additional set of risks.
Many fans will be skeptical at the time of the signing. Football fans have conveniently long or conveniently short memories, depending on what suits the situation. If Burress were signed and found success, we would all forget about that pesky incident with the gun in the nightclub within half a season. If he fails or even struggles, fans will be on the warpath against the team for bringing a convict to the squad.
Then of course there's the question of, beyond just whether or not Burress can be productive in general, is he a good fit for the Browns offense?
That's a bit iffy before you even get into what happens on the field. We've talked a lot about the value of bringing in a veteran to anchor the receiving corps and mentor the young WRs, but is a guy fresh out of jail the one you want playing that role? Perhaps he's changed and learned a lot from his mistakes. That might make him even better for the job than a guy who has never been in such a dark place.
But maybe he hasn't, and he isn't the kind of person you want hanging around young, impressionable players.
And beyond that, is he even a good fit for the Browns on the field? There's a simple "yes" answer to this which goes something like, "if he can catch and pick up yardage after the gain, then he's better than anyone we've got" so of course he's a good fit!
But on a more complex level, we have to consider whether our style of offense works with Burress' style of play. I'm not sure it does. That doesn't mean he couldn't be useful anyway, but if we're trying to build a consistent and productive offense for the future, I'm not sure Burress fits all that well into the equation.
And lastly, the Browns have a lot of other needs they have to address in free agency. A lot. If Burress is at all expensive (even if he's worth it in terms of how well he plays), the Browns can't go that route. One great receiver won't help you if the rest of your team is in shambles, which is exactly what could happen if the Browns chose to put all their eggs in one Plaxico Burress-shaped basket.
The current roster is on the cusp of going somewhere good, but it needs reinforcements in a lot of different places. Overspending on a receiver like Burress might compromise our ability to fill some of those needs, and ultimately the team would be worse off for it.
Bottom line? While the Browns' need to pick up a veteran receiver on the free-agent market is pretty clear, they're probably better off going with someone less risky on and off the field and less costly. True, this person is just as likely as not to wind up being less productive than Burress this season, but this still probably isn't the place to make the bold move and take a risk.
While his upside is tempting, his downside is far too great a risk for a team like the Browns to ignore given their other needs and the state of their franchise. The way I see it, Burress will likely wind up being a successful, productive NFL receiver in 2011. But it shouldn't be with the Browns.