Posted March 07, 2013

Bargains and busts in 2013 NFL free agency

NFL Free Agency
Sean Smith has flashes of brilliance, but maddening bouts of inconsistency too. (Tyler Barrick/Getty Images)

Sean Smith has flashes of brilliance, but maddening bouts of inconsistency too. (Tyler Barrick/Getty Images)

Nothing can be decided in the NFL until teams take the field in September, of course, but often contenders are separated from pretenders during the span from the start of free agency until the close of the draft.

We’ll hit that portion of the calendar on March 12, when the free-agent market opens. From there, teams will have about six and a half weeks to get their houses in order before the three-day NFL Draft.

The teams that contend consistently do their best work in this approaching window. And those that attack free agency most competently know that the trick is not simply to spend, but to spend well.

So, which players will wind up paying off as smart acquisitions this offseason and which will lead to buyer’s remorse? A look at 10 potential bargains and 10 possible busts from this year’s free-agent class:

Bargains

Victor Butler, OLB: With the Cowboys sliding to a 4-3 defense, the pass-rushing Butler was an odd man out, and that might be another team’s gain. The 25-year-old Butler has been just a backup thus far — the 300 snaps he saw action on in 2012 marked a career high — but there is reason to believe he could handle a starting gig.

Brad Jones, LB: Jones, like the rest of the Packers’ defense, probably was at his worst in the playoff loss to San Francisco. Still, he started 10 regular-season games for Green Bay in 2012 and finished with 77 tackles (third-most on the team). Jones also graded out as the Packers’ fifth-best defensive player last season on Pro Football Focus. Jones is versatile enough to be valuable in just about any scheme.

Israel Idonije, DE: At 32, Idonije delivered 7.5 sacks in his eighth season with the Bears — and did so on a tidy $2.5 million contract. “He’s done a number of good things and had a number of good games both outside and inside,” Chicago GM Phil Emery said during the combine.

Fred Davis, TE: Coming off an Achilles injury, Davis may wind up back in Washington. But in a league that increasingly values productive tight ends, Davis could be a nice, affordable signing for a team willing to roll the dice. He had a 59-catch, 796-yard season in 2011, while playing just 12 games. If Davis can stay on the field, he’ll put up numbers.

Josh Cribbs, WR: Cribbs finished third in the league in kickoff-return yardage last season and caught a mere seven passes, so maybe he’s strictly a special teams player now. I still think there’s more in the tank elsewhere — and if Cribbs lands with a team creative enough to incorporate him into the offense, he’s still young enough (29) and athletic enough to hit a few home runs.

Sammie Lee Hill, DT: While all the focus on the Lions’ D-line fell on Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and others, Hill quietly went about his business for the past four seasons. He really thrived in the previous three, after shifting to more of a part-time role following a 2009 in which he started as an overmatched rookie. Any team needing some interior line help would be wise to consider the 331-pounder.

Greg Toler, CB: Toler was a top-15 cornerback in coverage last season, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking three spots ahead of teammate Patrick Peterson. Of course, Toler played only 308 snaps and missed all of 2011 with an ACL injury, so he would constitute a gamble as a starting CB. But, if his play is any indication, a worthy one.

Corey Lynch, S: The Chargers signed Lynch away from Tampa Bay prior to 2012 looking for little more than depth at safety and some special-teams help. Lynch provided that, then delivered steady play as a starter late in the season after Atari Bigby fell with an injury.

Mike DeVito, DE: You could make a case that aside from a healthy Darrelle Revis, DeVito has been the Jets’ most consistent defender for the past four seasons or so. Capable of playing in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, DeVito should find a home as a starter.

Donald Thomas, G: The Patriots will miss Thomas if he leaves — he stepped in and started seven games last season, after fighting for his roster spot during camp. He’s an athletic interior lineman, so he might appeal to teams that utilize some zone-read principles.

Busts

Andre Smith, OT: Smith was my first pick in SI’s Free-Agent Mock Draft earlier this week, so I don’t exactly anticipate his performance falling off a cliff next season. But teams must be wary of a player who carries questions about his conditioning and work ethic, then shines in a contract year.

Jermon Bushrod, OT: A Pro Bowl tackle in 2011 and 16-game starter each of the past three seasons, Bushrod has developed into a very solid tackle. The problem is he might be looking for top-tackle money — and he would be hard-pressed to repay that kind of investment.

LaRon Landry, S: Not only did Landry somewhat surprisingly make it through 2012 without missing a game, but also he managed to notch a Pro Bowl bid. How confident will teams be that either situation will repeat itself? Landry reportedly wants $6 million per year on his new contract, which would put him among the top six or seven highest-paid safeties.

Michael Turner, RB: This all depends on the level of commitment made to Turner by his new team. If he winds up with a role suiting his current skill set — i.e. a part-time back capable of grinding out some short yardage — then he won’t warrant a spot on this list. Any team hoping against hope that he’s capable of carrying the load as a No. 1 back will be disappointed.

John Abraham, DE: Another veteran ex-Falcon … and Abraham’s situation is not dissimilar to Turner’s. Abraham, who will be 35 in May, led the Falcons with 10 sacks and 38 QB hurries, both strong numbers. So, it’s a bit of a red flag that they cut him anyway, despite a rather reasonable $4.25 million salary. Abraham can still produce but, like Turner, will only be worth the cost in the right situation — for him, one that lets him pass rush while seeing limited action on first and second downs.

Sean Smith, CB: The potential is there for Smith to be a shut-down cornerback in this league. We even get to see that level of performance from time to time, like when Smith picked off two passes in a Week 4 matchup against Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals. Why he’s here, though, is that Smith frequently falls into bouts of inconsistent play, and that won’t pair well with the lucrative deal he’s sure to get.

Bryant McKinnie, OT: McKinnie lost his starting job in Baltimore back in training camp and only regained it in time for that magical playoff run. The 33-year-old veteran certainly deserves kudos for stepping up in crunch time. That said, McKinnie was benched prior to that for a reason, and he’s on the downside of his long career.

Mike Wallace, WR: It’s understandable to have major questions about Wallace, who, on paper, probably is the jewel of this free-agent class. That standing combined with a plethora of teams in need of a No. 1 receiver means Wallace will get paid. He often appeared unmotivated last season, though, so what will his mindset be once he cashes in a monster paycheck?

Aqib Talib, CB: Talib played an integral role for the Patriots late last season, and his postseason injury clearly helped lead to the team’s demise. Talib, 27, revitalized his career after arriving in New England. But he still has a lot of off-field issues on his resume for a player that likely will command a hefty deal.

Charles Woodson, DB: How much does Woodson have left in the tank? Based on his play in an injury-plagued 2012, not much. Woodson needs to be willing to take on a reduced role in 2013 and any team that signs him must accentuate his strengths. Otherwise, Woodson’s career could have a very disheartening final chapter.

16 comments
Hotbite
Hotbite

Have to agree on Mike Wallace being a bust. Great speed but hands of stone and he cannot get his feet down in bounds on those sideline/corner routes. Someone is going to pay way too much for him. I'm actually glad to see him leaving Pittsburgh.

JordanSchatz
JordanSchatz

McKinnie got benched b/c he was in "John Harbaugh's dog house," not b/c he couldn't play. He's  a great tackle and showed his worth in the playoffs. As a Ravens fan, I hope they bring him back but he offers a lot of upside and at 33 can comand a multi-year deal and be domiant for the span of it.

He's one of the largest reasons (pun) that Baltimore won the Super Bowl. 

 

kylepellerin24
kylepellerin24

How is it that Aqib Talib "revitalized" his CAREER by playing in New England for a few months? Little bit of stretch just because a player goes and plays in New England and looks above average in a terrible pass defence? Talib went from the worst pass defence to the next to worst thath is NOT a CAREER revitalizing move.  He has injury and off-field issues another thing teams will look at.

John4
John4

 @Hotbite If you're a Steelers' fan, it's odd to say that your're glad to see him leaving PIttsburgh.  In 4 years he has 4000 yards receiving, a 17.2 per catch average, and 32 TDs.  He was understandably annoyed last season when the Steelers gave a huge 6 yr $43 Million contract to Antonio Brown.  Please note that Wallace's stats were superior to Brown's in every important category.  (Receptions, Yards, TDs, Avg. per catch).  Why does Brown get the huge contract?  Why did Wallace have to play under a (well below market) tender offer of approx $2.7 Million in 2012?  The Steelers gave big money to the lesser productive WR, and pissed off the more productive WR.  Now they will likely lose Wallace and keep the expensive and less productive Brown.  

The whole situation stunk, and was unfair for Wallace.  The Steelers managed the situation very poorly.  Let's see who has better stats in 2013, Brown or Wallace.  

JDubs
JDubs

 @John4  @Hotbite

YOU DON'T HOLD OUT AGAINST ROONEY'S... "Reagan didn't negioate with Terrorist and the Rooneys don't talk to a player who holds out." It sucks to see Wallace leave but that is his own doing not the steelers. Brown was rewarded for all his work, voted team mvp in 2011. I don't blame Wallace for taking the money... but I have 2 reasons that it make it easier to deal with: 1) Plaxico Burress 2) Santonia Holmes .... both left... both werent' missed.  

mraincmm
mraincmm

 @John4  @Hotbite Ummm, they offered Wallace that money, he turned them down.  Check you fact before you spout off.

Hotbite
Hotbite

 @John4 I can see your argument but I have to disagree. Wallace had a very good 2011 season. But to hold out and say he wants "Larry Fitzgerald money" was totally insane. Larry Fitzgerald he is not. Not even close. He drops too many balls and like I said, the guy can't get his feet down. I'm amazed that he never developed in that regard. Besides, Brown and Wallace had very similar numbers in 2011...Wallace averaged .4 yards more per catch...hardly "superior", especially considering Wallace was their deep ball threat. I just think we can do better for a lot cheaper than what he's going to get paid. But you're right, we will have to wait and see who has the better stats next season. 

MarkReed
MarkReed

It's not odd, you must not watch steeler's games. Mike Wallace put the least amount of effort possible into catching the ball the past two seasons. No one i know wants him back. I would have trouble bringing him in on a team at league minimum. i don't care what his stats are, he gave up plenty of catches that a good receiver would of made. Watching the Super Bowl with the Giants receivers going up and making catches to help win the game made Wallace look that much worse.

John4
John4

 @JDubs  also, the "JDibs" below was a typo.  Not an insult of any kind.  Sorry.  JDubs.  

John4
John4

 @JDubs  JDibs - maybe the Rooneys could change a little with the times.  We are talking about a WR who has over 4000 yards in his first 4 seasons.  Maybe the Steelers did not offer enough.  Maybe Wallace was (justifiably) pissed when he got the $2.7 Mill one year tender,and WR Brown, (a younger teammate) got a 6 yr $43 Million contract.  Note also that Wallace has outperformed Brown every year they were both on the team.  Maybe the Rooneys could have increased their initial offer to Wallace at the expense of possibly losing Brown in Free Agency.  (As it is, the Steelers will be retaining the less productive WR, and losing the more productive WR in Free Agency).  Maybe the Rooneys might want to learn a few new tricks, as they will lose their top WR with their current tactics, and strengthen another team (who signs Wallace) in 2013.  The Steelers aren't the only game in town.  Maybe their tender offer (which was WAY below market) was the last straw for Wallace.  We'll see how this plays out in 2013.  JDubs - note also, no disrespect to you, just the facts.  Peace.  

Hotbite
Hotbite

 @JDubs  @John4 Amen, JDubs! And according to recent reports, Wallace is going to sign for $11 million with the Dolphins. Umm...I would have much rather taken the $10 million Pittsburgh offered him during the holdout than play for the Dolphins for not much more. Now, what he does sign for might be different than what the reports are, obviously. But I would take a lot less in pay to be a Steeler. We can replace our receivers (as you mentioned) just like we replace our linebackers when they leave.

John4
John4

 @mraincmm  m rain - so when the Steelers could not reach an agreement with their top receiver they screwed him with the tender offer.  The tender paid him $2.7 Million for the season when Wallace's market value was at least 3 times that.  Since no agreement could be reached, the Steelers were justified in screwing Wallace?  Is that what you're saying?  If you Google the negotiations, you see that the Steelers and Wallace were far apart, but interestingly not far apart from what Wallace will get in free agency.  So the Steelers cheaped out with their negotiations then screwed Wallace when they could not find an agreement.  Nice effing going, Steelers.  

Hotbite
Hotbite

 @mraincmm  If you are right, which you're not, then Wallace has nothing to complain about. However, you're not right. Fitzgerald signed for 8 years and $128.5 million. The Steelers offered Wallace 4 years at $42 million, which he declined. $10+ million per year on average is a lot of money but it's not $16+ million a year. And because Wallace turned it down, they gave it to Brown. Feel free to go check those facts.

John4
John4

 @Hotbite Hotbite and MarkReed, you both get points for your opinion and politeness.  No disrespect to either of you, but I believe the Steelers would have been better served giving the large contract to Wallace.  

The NFL is a results driven league.  Wallace outperformed Brown, but got a much worse (by comparison) contract for his efforts.  

Of course time will tell. 

Peace out.  

John4
John4

 @MarkReed It is odd.  I do watch Steelers' games.  Note also that in 2011 Wallace's stats were better than Brown's.  (72 catches, 1193 yards, 8 TDs) compared to 69, 1108 and 2).  Then in 2012, after Brown signs the massive contract that should have been given to Wallace, Brown was outperformed AGAIN by Wallace.  (64, 836, 8 TDs for Wallace, compared to 66, 787 and 5 TDs for Brown).  (It seems as if the large contract made Brown a bit complacent).  What would you do if you were Wallace?  Outperform a guy every season they both are in the league, and then watch him get a contract with an annual average of $7,166,000 per year while being forced to play on a contract tender of $2,700,000 for 2012.  Wallace outperforms a younger teammate on the field, but is paid roughly ONE THIRD of the salary of the guy you outperform.   How does that work, and much more importantly, why should Wallace give more effort to the Steelers than they show him?  "Hey Wallace, another WR on the team, one who you outperform every year will be getting a contract for MUCH more than you will be getting, but we still expect your best effort.  We don't appreciate you as much as we appreciate a lesser player, but still, we expect your best on the field."  Huh?