5 Potential NFL Free Agency Busts

The NFL off-season is my favorite past time. Every year, I spend my days doing the following things:

  1. Reading every piece of gossip I can find on every free agent under the sun.
  2. Debating quitting my job (which I actually really like) to try to become an NFL GM.
  3. Realizing #2 is impossible, and resorting to daydreaming about it.
  4. Arguing with people that watching rounds 4-7 of the NFL draft is more exciting than the NBA playoffs.

Needless to say, I live for articles like this. So here we go.

What makes a ‘bust’ ?

[the_ad id=”61294″]Simple. By definition, a ‘bust’ is someone that failed to live up to high expectations. There are two primary ways for a player to have high expectations: being a high draft pick, or being paid a high salary.

This article focuses on free agency, so let’s focus on players who will be paid the highest salaries.

Who will bust, and who won’t?

In my mind, I have one conclusion that, while not correct every time, is the underlying theme of predicting free agency busts:

The most likely busts are players who leave successful teams and accept huge contracts to join new, worse teams.

There are three primary reasons why this conclusion makes sense:

Going to a worse team: A highly rated player who played on an elite offense or defense was propped up by his supporting cast. When he suddenly goes to a team with a poor supporting cast, he becomes the focus of the opposing team, and he doesn’t do nearly as well.

New team, new scheme: Joining a new team definitely means playing with new teammates, and it usually means a significant scheme change. If you’ve ever played a team sport, you know that it takes time to gel with teammates on the field. Also, while the best teams adjust their scheme to fit their roster talent, the teams that don’t end up with some comically bad results. For example, trying to get a zone corner to play man-to-man (e.g., Byron Maxwell).

Let go for a reason: I saved the best reason for last: the fact that the player’s old team did not find a way to retain the player speaks volumes upon volumes. When supposedly elite players hit free agency, ask yourself: if they were so elite, why didn’t their team find a way to keep them? More than likely, the team felt that the player was overestimating his contract value, and they decided it wasn’t worth it.

[the_ad id=”58837″]The franchise tag gives us the best insight into this point, as it is the great equalizer to free agency. Teams can use the tag to prevent players from reaching free agency. Sure, it sucks to use because it carries a massive cap hit, but if a team decides that a player is simply too valuable to let get away, they use it. If they didn’t choose to franchise tag a player, regardless of what they say, it ultimately means they deem that player as expendable. Look at the notable tags (and non-tags) from this year:

Notable players tagged: OLB Von Miller, S Eric Berry, CB Josh Norman, DE Muhammad Wilkerson, WR Alshon Jeffery, CB Trumaine Johnson, OT Cordy Glenn

Notable players NOT tagged: CB Janoris Jenkins, OT/G Kelechi Osemele, DT Damon Harrison, DE Olivier Vernon (transition tagged, meaning Dolphins can match any offer but will receive no compensation if they decide not to match)

Five likely busts for 2016

By laying out our criteria above, it’s pretty easy to flag the players who are 1) likely to be overpaid and 2) likely to under-perform. Here are my top five:

1. CB Janoris Jenkins

janoris jenkinsJenkins is likely to fit all three of my criteria. He played on a team with a ferocious pass rush. It’s likely that his next team’s pass rush will not be nearly as formidable, which will expose him in coverage. He will be playing on a new team for top dollar. And the Rams chose to franchise tag his teammate Trumaine Johnson over him. If he was so good, why would they pick Johnson over him?

Why I might be wrong: If he somehow re-signs with the Rams, he will probably remain effective. I’m quite confident in this one though.

2. DE Malik Jackson

malik-jacksonJackson’s situation is eerily similar to Janoris Jenkins’: He’s seeking top dollar, he’ll definitely be going to a worse defensive unit (the Broncos’ D was generational last year), and his team chose to retain the other good young player at his position (Derek Wolfe) over him.

Why I might be wrong: Jackson has a higher likelihood of at least being solid with his new team because he has a multi-year history of production. However, if you’re paying him $15M+ per season, you are expecting much more than ‘solid’.

 

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3. WR Marvin Jones

Marvin JonesThis one is a classic case of low supply and high demand. Jones is arguably the top free agent WR available – at least in terms of talent – in an ultra-weak WR free agent class. With the salary cap increasing substantially, bad teams are flush with cap space.

Jones proponents will argue that he’s extremely athletic and was never given the chance at a featured role in the Bengals offense. To them, I say… the same things I’ve said above. He was on an elite offense and lived in single coverage; on his new team, he will no longer be in a supporting role, and will receive a lot more defensive attention. Additionally, the Bengals have tons of cap space (nearly $39 million!). If Jones were asking for a reasonable price, he could be retained. But he’s not.

Why I could be wrong: Jones at least has a fighting chance to be successful. If he re-signs with the Bengals, he’ll be fine. Additionally, if he goes to Cleveland, he will be playing under an old coach (Hue Jackson) in a familiar offense and will have a primary WR in Josh Gordon to take away defensive attention. If he goes somewhere else though – say SF or PHI – he’s probably doomed to bust status.

4. OLB Bruce Irvin

Bruce IrvinWhen Irvin entered the NFL, he was thought of as a one-trick pony pass rusher. Ironically, he has emerged as everything but that. He’s solid against the run and can cover, but he has just 22 sacks in 58 career games. And more importantly – my broken record keeps on playing – Seattle didn’t pick up his 5th year option, and isn’t aggressively trying to re-sign him. He’s likely going to get paid like a top pass rusher, and as he’ll be playing on a worse defense than Seattle’s, he won’t deliver the goods.

Why I could be wrong: Teams might be smart and recognize that Irvin isn’t an elite player, so perhaps they can obtain him at less than top dollar. That seems unlikely though.

5. DE Olivier Vernon

Olivier VernonVernon has gotten a lot of hype for his extreme production relative to the limited # of snaps he’s played. He’s young and has seemingly massive upside.

Why would the Dolphins use the transition tag? They could have retained Vernon via the franchise tag, which would have only cost $2.7 million more. If Vernon truly was irreplaceable, Miami would have found a way to make this happen. But they didn’t. Instead, they used the transition tag, which is practically begging other teams to sign him away.

Vernon could command north of $15M per season, which is just ridiculous. By paying him that amount of money, you need him to become a 10-15 sack / year type of player just to break even on your investment. Further, since he is so young, he’s going to receive a long-term deal that will have guaranteed money in 2017 and probably 2018, too. That means if he doesn’t pan out, teams will be forced to overpay him, or cut him and live with dead money against their cap.

Why I could be wrong: 

This is the one I am least confident in, particularly because Vernon isn’t leaving an elite defense. Miami’s defense was mostly terrible in 2015, so it’s not like he will be in much worse of a situation. The main reason he’s here is that I expect him to command a gargantuan sum of money, and the odds he lives up to it are slim.

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