Quick, close your eyes. Actually don’t do that because then you can’t keep reading, but just somehow simulate the eyes closed sensation (get creative). When I say “draft bust” to you, what’s the first image in your mind? For me it’s always JaMarcus Russell, for he will always and forever be the image of what it is to not try.
Now let’s do the same with “free agent bust”. For me the immediate image there is that of Albert Haynesworth, the rotund Redskins money pit who was signed to a $100 million contract in 2009, $41 million of which was guaranteed. He then commenced his ballooning, and this remains his lasting legacy in Washington…
Haynesworth has now become an American hero of sorts, and in hindsight he may have actually been the smart one here. In a league where only about half of every contract is guaranteed (at best), teams can discard players at will, and bodies are ruined by age 30, he took his money and ran. Or at least waddled quickly, as former teammate Chris Cooley said Haynesworth’s goal was to get released as soon as possible after receiving his guaranteed money, and live a quiet life in retirement on a speed boat with scantily-clad women.
To be a bust the player in question doesn’t necessarily have to reach Haynesworth’s level of stink. For me and for most (I think?), the definition of a free agency bust is as follows: a player whose production doesn’t come close to meeting the level of play expected from the paycheck he receives. Each year there are potential land mines who can meet that description, and through the first year of his contract Mike Wallace certainly leads the 2013 free agent class for the bust label.
So let’s get sad, and thoroughly examine the top three players in this year’s group who could bring doom.
1. Eric Decker
I like Eric Decker, because it’s difficult not to like a tall and spider-armed wide receiver who’s a great red-zone presence with 24 touchdown receptions over his last two seasons. Of course his yardage is just fine too, with a career high 1,288 this past season.
But this a receiver market that quickly drops off after Decker and Hakeem Nicks at the very top, and one that just saw Riley Cooper get paid $25 million over five years. So inevitably Decker’s value will balloon fast as a lack of supply pushes demand higher. And when we’re dealing with a No. 2 wide receiver, that can be a scary thing.
Decker operated in a Broncos offense where attention was drawn away from him by Peyton Manning’s other embarrassment of riches, most notably Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas. That contributed greatly to his success, and put him in a position to compile those touchdowns.
We all understand that to varying degrees every offensive skill player is a product of his offense, and the talent assembled around him. For receivers that notion is extended further since they rely so heavily on a competent quarterback to deliver the ball, and when that quarterback is on the level of a Manning or a Tom Brady, numbers will be inflated.
Yes, we get that, but whenever a No. 2 receiver in an offense is about to be paid like a No. 1 receiver, we have to consider how well he’ll perform with quarterback play that’s merely good, or average. With Decker we can look back to the 2011 season when he was receiving passes from the nightmare combination of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. That’s easily bottom five quarterback play, and it ended in 612 yards, but still eight touchdowns.
Not horrendous considering the embarrassment that was Tebow, who’s on the extreme end of wobbly pass distribution. But then we can look at Demaryius Thomas’ production during the same season, and allow fear to enter our eyes. Even though he missed five games that year Thomas still finished with 511 yards, a short distance behind Decker with limited playing time.
This is when I also remind you that a true No. 1 receiver who’s worth the cash Decker is about to be thrown is bulletproof, and he comes in the form of Josh Gordon. Despite missing two games and, more importantly, receiving his passes from Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, and Brian Hoyer, Gordon finished his second season with 1,646 receiving yards.
2. Julian Edelman
Oh look, another product of a very unique system, and a very special quarterback fellow. Julian Edelman’s place on this list might be irrelevant soon, because he could be re-signed by the Patriots. And he should be, because what he does and what the Patriots ask him to do is a perfect fit.
Asked to play the Danny Amendola/Wes Welker role for much of the season when one departed and the other broke repeatedly, Edelman was targeted 150 times this past season, and that resulted in 105 receptions. But a wholly expected thing happened in an offense that spread the field often, lining Edelman up in the slot while essentially asking him to become the punt returner he is after the catch: his gains came in the smallest of chunks.
Even in a season that shattered his previous reception high (37), Edelman averaged only 10.1 yards per catch. And that’s fine for a certain role, as Edelman needs to be put in space, and then essentially given long handoffs which happen to travel through the air a short distance. It’s a highly specific role too in a highly specific scheme, and one where Edelman is ideally supported and used as a second or third option.
But hey, if a team is also in need of a gourmet smoothie guy, pay Edelman all the money.
3. Ben Tate
Though common sense would prevail in most NFL outposts, it’s not difficult to imagine a world where the Browns of Cleveland overpay for Ben Tate.
After drafting one of the top three quarterbacks with their fourth overall pick and thus admitting failure with Brandon Weeden, the new Browns’ front office will have addressed its glaring quarterback awfulness. Then with the aforementioned Gordon they rightfully have the belief that he alone can be a one-man receiving spectacle, so their offense is just a running back away from being at least sort of good. By extension, since Cleveland’s defense is vastly underrated (even with the likely departure of T.J. Ward), the Browns are a quarterback and running back away from being a sort of good team.
That would signal the end of our world. With their obscene cap space (an estimated $55.8 million), the Browns are ripe and ready to overpay for Tate, a running back who finished 2013 on the injured reserve due to a rib problem, and he missed five games in 2012 with hamstring and toe issues. In a league where running backs are generally discarded with the speed of Juicy Fruit, that’s some serious wear already on a guy who will turn 26 this August.
Signing Tate to a contract of any significance means you’re asking him to become another Michael Turner, who went to Atlanta at the age of 26 after four years as LaDainian Tomlinson’s running mate and then promptly posted 1,699 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns during just his first Falcons season. He followed that up with two more +1,300 yard seasons before finally disintegrating.
If that dice can be rolled at a moderate to manageable price, smoke ‘em while you got ‘em. If not, buyer’s remorse awaits.