Buyer Beware: Which NFL Free Agents Should Teams Avoid This Offseason?
NFL free agency is a way for teams to complement the draft and add the talent necessary to contend for the playoffs and more.
But it is akin to sketching on paper with a pencil. Overzealous maneuvers and outright mistakes can be costly in more than a financial sense—sometimes swinging things for the worse as opposed to having no impact at all.
Recent examples that come to mind include the Arizona Cardinals' decision to throw millions at Sam Bradford, who played three games, and the Washington Redskins' big contract (five years, $40 million) with wide receiver Paul Richardson, who caught 20 passes before going on injured reserve.
Bradford's injury history was a problem well before he got cut prior to Week 10 so the Cardinals could recoup a compensatory selection, while Richardson was a one-hit wonder before joining Washington and getting hurt. The following free agents are the top must-avoid names for teams this year for varying reasons. Injury history, age and simple cost-effectiveness projections factor into this analysis.
Dez Bryant, WR
It seems the Dez Bryant ship has sailed.
In an odd saga, Bryant went without a team until early November, and after signing with the New Orleans Saints, he suffered a season-ending injury on the practice field.
Fast forward to now, Bryant has an eight-month timetable for a torn Achilles. The injury itself is hard enough on a position like wideout but perhaps even worse for a 30-year-old receiver.
Bryant hasn't played since 2017, when he caught 69 passes for 838 yards and six touchdowns with the Dallas Cowboys. He attempted a stint with the Saints, a team that needed help with Ted Ginn Jr. on injured reserve and inconsistent performances from Cameron Meredith.
That is the bigger point here. Bryant went unsigned for most of the season perhaps in large part due to his combination of age and dipping production versus the salary he'd command. Instead of rolling the dice on an injury risk like Bryant, teams might be better off getting long-term assets with rookies or free-agent wideouts such as Donte Moncrief or Jermaine Kearse.
Tyler Eifert, TE
One can't talk "buyer beware" without Tyler Eifert, right?
The longtime Cincinnati Bengals tight end flashed league-best potential in 2015, when he appeared in 13 games and caught as many touchdowns in his only Pro Bowl campaign.
That was the last time we saw the Bengals as contenders. In the three seasons since, Eifert has only appeared in eight, two and four games, respectively. His career-best attendance number is 15 (during his 2013 rookie campaign), and those 13 games in 2015 are his second-best total.
In 2018, he suffered a broken ankle in Week 4. While that injury isn't as concerning as the back issues that have plagued him since college, even the Bengals might be hesitant to bring him back on another one-year prove-it deal.
Eifert will be 29 in September, and coughing up cap space in the hopes he can stay on the field seems ill-advised. There are free agents like Jared Cook, and the 2019 rookie class is sure to follow in the playmaking mold Eifert helped popularize in recent years.
Brent Grimes, CB
Where to start?
Brent Grimes is a 35-year-old cornerback, which is a red flag on its own unless said cornerback's name is Terence Newman.
To make matters worse, Grimes inked a one-year deal to return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this past season and appeared in 13 games, meaning he hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2016. Three games isn't a gigantic number, but the tandem of the budding trend and age should have would-be suitors cautious.
To top it all off, during a recent appearance on the iHeartMiko Podcast (h/t ESPN.com's Jenna Laine), Grimes suggested he didn't think he was being paid enough to shadow a team's top receiver (he earned $7 million in 2018).
Apparent accountability issues within the Buccaneers organization notwithstanding (a player refusing to do what a coach asks in Week 3 means he probably shouldn't have lasted the entire season), it is safe to presume Tampa Bay won't be looking to sign the veteran cornerback to another one-year deal. Most teams shouldn't be at this point, not with another draft class coming in and other veterans likely to be cheaper for similar production.
Tavon Austin, WR
Remember Tavon Austin?
The eighth overall pick in 2013 has just one NFL season north of the 500-yard mark and has scored five receiving touchdowns just once. This was supposed to be the free-agency period in which the top-10 pick would cash in on one final, massive deal.
Make no mistake—Austin will still get paid. NFL teams make excuses for certain things, and one of those is for a gadget player like Austin, who supposedly hasn't had the right coaching staff yet. And while there were some serious problems in then-St. Louis when he entered the league, Austin didn't do much with the Dallas Cowboys this year while only playing in seven games. He did have a 51-yard punt return in the team's first playoff game, but on the whole, he only returned 10 punts during the regular season.
Austin had eight receptions for 140 yards and two scores and rushed six times for 55 yards in 2018. His 17.5 yards-per-catch average is alluring, but it's on a small sample size. And it is concerning Austin couldn't have a bigger impact on an offense in desperate need of help. His speed, suddenness and ability to create chunk plays—especialy those with blockers out in front similar to spedcial-teams returns—should have had him putting up bigger numbers on a team searching for help well before the Amari Cooper trade.
Turning 29 in March, Austin is in a rough spot. He'll likely need to adapt to new coaches and surroundings again while trying to fend off the next wave of talent at a time when his skill set is becoming increasingly more common. The majority of teams would be better off targeting and grooming a long-term project of the same mold at this point.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE
Ezekiel Ansah is a big name with some interesting upside...if a team can get it out of him.
The Detroit Lions franchise-tagged the defensive end in 2018, coughing up about $17 million, and got four sacks back on their investment.
That is sort of how it goes with Ansah. He had 14.5 sacks in 2015 and followed up that performance with two. He rebounded for 12 sacks in 2017 and then had four this past season. His production has been all over the place over the past four seasons, and he hasn't played a full 16 games since 2015. Last year, he played in a career-low seven (two starts).
Ansah will be 30 years old in May, and he and his representatives are likely going to angle for a massive payday on the open market. Some team will bite on him in hopes of his double-digit-sack upside, which he's hit twice in six seasons.
But for most teams, the cost isn't worth the risk. Rebuilding teams need the cap space for developmental players, and contenders could use the chunk of cap elsewhere on surefire production.
Ndamukong Suh, DT
Age isn't always a sign of an upcoming downfall.
But it sure doesn't hurt to predict it with Ndamukong Suh, who just turned 32 years old Sunday after a ho-hum regular season with the Los Angeles Rams. You'd think Suh would have had a resurgence of sorts while opponents focused on 2017 Defensive Player of the year Aaron Donald, yet Suh was just another guy out there.
A report from Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk in mid-December even suggested the Rams made a move after realizing Suh's lack of production wasn't going to change: "Per a league source, the Rams made the trade for [Dante Fowler Jr.] because they quickly realized that defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh isn't the same guy that he was three years ago."
But this is the NFL, and teams aren't always making the wisest decisions no matter how obvious they may seem. One organization will pay up on his name alone.
Sacks aren't everything, but it's worth noting Suh hasn't hit the five-sack mark since 2016. He had hit five or more in six out of his first seven years in the league. While he hasn't been missing games, Suh isn't producing as much despite recently playing in ideal circumstances.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB
Fitzmagic is entertaining, but that doesn't mean teams should keep taking chances on Ryan Fitzpatrick.
In 2018, Fitzpatrick did what Fitzpatrick does. He put up some eye-popping numbers to start the season before careening off the side of a cliff.
Over his first two starts, the Buccaneers quarterback got wins over New Orleans and Philadelphia by throwing for eight combined touchdowns with one interception. Over his final two games in November, he threw five interceptions and no scores, capping off his 2-5 record as a starter in 2018.
At 36 years of age, Fitzpatrick doesn't have any upside worth gambling on, and it is clear the right coaching can only do so much (and Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken is still one of the hottest head coaching candidates despite Fitzpatrick's fizzling).
With a surprisingly solid free-agent class for quarterbacks, ranging from Tyrod Taylor to Teddy Bridgewater and even Robert Griffin III, Fitzpatrick isn't worth another investment.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S
When it comes to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, it should be a red flag of sorts that the Green Bay Packers were willing to ship the 2014 first-round pick to the Washington Redskins at the Oct. 30 deadline for a 2019 fourth-rounder.
Granted, the Packers cleared some cap space and probably liked the guaranteed selectiion they got in return for Clinton-Dix rather than playing the compensatory game. But it says something that a team trying to compete figured the drop-off to the next guy on the depth chart wouldn't be too terrible.
Not long after the trade, Washington head coach Jay Gruden said his new safety was struggling, according to Matthew Paras of the Washington Times.
"He's finding his way, really," Gruden said in mid-December. "It's not easy, but he's a veteran guy and understands different core concepts and coverages, but a lot of the things we do, we have different checks here and there … I think just from a communication issue, it's getting better and better, but it needs to get a lot better next week."
Clinton-Dix is a big name, but teams wanting safety help are looking at a free-agent class featuring Lamarcus Joyner, Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu. After Clinton-Dix struggled with two teams, a third might end up realizing the mistake in hindsight as well.
Free-agent data and contract info courtesy of Spotrac.