Free Agency: Shopping for Experience

| February 14, 2012

When free agency rolls around, people tend to get quite obsessed with youth, as if the only players worth adding are the 25-year-olds who can be on your team for the next 10 years. The average player lasts in the league less than four years and the average contract is even shorter, so why ignore players that are still at the top of their game just because they may not be on your roster come 2019?

That’s not to say all teams should load up on aging veterans just looking for one last payday or one last shot at a ring, and youth is definitely the foundation of any long-term success, but if a team is a contender that needs to patch a hole or two without bedding in raw rookies or out-of-their-depth backups, why not look to the over-thirties? 

Below we’re going to take a look at a few players the wrong side of 30 who can still get the job done for a new team in 2012. As with our other free agent pieces, I’m going to ignore certain players that I don’t feel will ever hit the open market, and in the case of the over-thirties, there are a few more who will either remain with their current team or retire.

 

Vonnie Holliday, 3-4 Defensive End

Age (On opening day 2012): 36

2011 PFF Grade: +6.1

Key Stat: Graded positively in all four facets of play PFF tracks for 3-4 linemen.

Vonnie Holliday is the prototype forgotten 30+ player. Every season he seems to get picked up by a 3-4 team as a situational player for their rotation before performing extremely well and then doing the same thing all over again. For some reason, none of these teams ever seem to put two and two together and bring him back for another go at it. Maybe they always believe they can get a similar amount of snaps and production out of a younger, cheaper backup, but it isn’t always that easy. Generating interior pressure from the 3-4 is not as simple as you might think, and though the second- or third-year player with a veteran minimum contract that might be half of what Holliday is due seems like an attractive option, they rarely produce the way you know Holliday will.

Holliday is 36 years old, but can still be a significant part of a team’s rotation, and is a consistently capable pass rusher from the 3-4 defensive line, a trait that is more of an issue to find than you might think. He may have gone without a sack last season, but he did generate three quarterback knockdowns and four more pressures from his 82 pass-rushes, which is not an insignificant figure. He also chipped in with a batted pass and 14 tackles, 11 of which were defensive stops. The bottom line with Holliday, as with all of our 30+ players, is that he may not be a glamorous signing, and he certainly isn’t a long-term solution, but he can do a good job for somebody for a season or two to plug a hole in the D-line.

 

John Abraham, 4-3 Defensive End

Age: 34

2011 PFF Grade: +35.9

Key Stat: Abraham generated pressure every 7.2 pass rushes last season.

There hasn’t been a more productive pass rusher in the four seasons that PFF has been analyzing games than John Abraham. If age weren’t a factor, he would be arguably the single most desirable pass rusher in the league hitting the open market. Of course, age is a factor, and at 34 the slow-down has to come at some stage, but there has been no evidence of it so far. This is in part because the Falcons have done an extremely good job in recent years in spelling Abraham and keeping him fresh over the course of the season, meaning he is constantly at his best when he rushes the passer and can have the most impact.

Last season his +31.7 PFF grade for pass rushing was the second-best mark among 4-3 DEs, trailing only Trent Cole. Despite many fewer sacks than either of the big-hitting sack artists from last season, Jared Allen and Jason Babin, Abraham had a better pass-rush grade than either because of the speed and devastating impact of the pressure he was applying. Abraham is still rushing the passer at an elite level, as well as anybody in the game, and though everybody knows that will tail off, there has been nothing to suggest it is happening any time soon. If a team is willing to spell Abraham in the same way the Falcons have been and do their part to extend his shelf-life, then he could have several more productive seasons left as an impact player, especially as he is well versed in rushing from both the left and right side of the D-line, as well as being dropped into coverage more than any other 4-3 DE in recent times. Don’t expect Abraham to be the same weapon he is now at the end of a five-year contract, but he shouldn’t be seen as just a one-season stopgap either.

 

Sione Pouha, Nose Tackle

Age: 33

2011 PFF Grade: +30.1

Key Stat: Topped the 2011 PFF DT/NT rankings by a hair over Bengal Geno Atkins.

Aging defensive tackles scare teams. All too often the big men in the trenches hit a wall late in their careers where they cease to be impact players and simply become large obstacles that teams have to negotiate in order to move the ball. Not necessarily a problem, just a mild inconvenience. The thing that makes these big guys different, though, is that it’s not necessarily age that dictates this drop-off, rather miles on the clock. Pat Williams was able to be a run-stuffing monster late into his 30s for the Vikings, in part because he had Kevin Williams beside him, but also because he came to the Vikings with remarkably little use, having barely played early in his career in Buffalo. Williams himself always pointed to that as the reason he was so effective late in his career.

Sione Pouha may be 33-years-old, but he was a 26-year-old rookie thanks to spending time on a Mormon mission, and has never been an every-down player for the Jets. In the past four seasons, he’s averaged fewer than 450 snaps per season, and never topped 700, well under the rate of the top defensive tackles in the league. Pouha is a run-stuffing specialist, able to two-gap and ride blocks down the line of scrimmage, and too strong and tough at the point of attack for just a single blocker. A team could transform a problematic run defense by overlooking his age and working from the tape instead.

 

E.J. Henderson, Inside Linebacker

Age: 32

2011 PFF Grade: +5.4

Key Stat: Henderson’s 50 defensive stops in 2011 trailed only 11 other ILBs, only one of whom played fewer snaps.

The league has a downer on two-down linebackers. For some reason plenty of teams are prepared to play with situational pass rushers, nickel corners and safeties, even a third-down right tackle, but they don’t like having to use linebackers on just two downs–even if they’re very good at it. E.J. Henderson has always been far better coming forward than he was moving backward in coverage, and in an injury-hampered season in 2011, that split was never clearer. His +18.1 PFF grade against the run trailed only NaVorro Bowman and Derrick Johnson among ILBs (i.e. topped that of Patrick Willis, Brian Cushing, and Ray Lewis), but his -9.7 coverage grade was the worst mark in the league for ILBs with any significant playing time.

In the past few seasons, Henderson has battled some significant injuries, including a broken femur so horrific some speculated that it would be a career-ender, but he can still excel as a downhill, thumping linebacker. The Vikings’ defense last season was at its best when E.J. became a two-down player and his younger brother took over the middle linebacker duties on nickel-snaps, and that situation could work again for a new team. If the market is prepared to see Henderson as a two-down player in a league heading ever more pass-heavy, then there is no reason some team couldn’t pick themselves up a major upgrade in the run game for a few seasons, and potentially increase Henderson’s longevity by reducing his snaps at the same time.

 

Juqua Parker, 4-3 Defensive End

Age: 34

2011 PFF Grade: +7.3

Key Stat: Every time Parker brought the ball carrier to the ground, it was for a defensive stop.

The Eagles are loaded on the defensive line, and have been for a while, so much so that they can afford to let go of bit-part players who have only ever been situational for them, but who then go on to start and succeed elsewhere. It happened with Chris Clemons, and I think there’s a chance Juqua Parker may be next in line. Parker isn’t the sensational athlete many elite-pass-rushers are these days, and he can’t deal with the apex of athletic quarterback that you find at times (Vikings QB Joe Webb made him look foolish in the backfield on more than one occasion), but he is an accomplished and polished pass rusher who will consistently generate pressure for a team.

Parker, like many of these players, has also been kept relatively fresh by a limited number of snaps, and doesn’t have the tread on the tires you might expect of a player of his years. Teams can never have too many pass rushers, and while the Eagles might actually be at the point where they can disprove that, there aren’t many teams like the Eagles. While Philadelphia will likely see Parker as surplus to requirements, there are pass-rush starved teams out there that should jump at the chance to upgrade their defensive front for a few seasons.

 

Todd McClure, Center

Age: 35

2011 PFF Grade: +10.9

Key Stat: Did not allow a sack all season.

Unusually, there’s a trio of ageing centers who all played well last season coming up as free agents. Of the three, McClure is the only one that I think has a chance of hitting the open market. Jeff Saturday and Matt Birk both showed last season that they can still play at a high level, but I believe both will either be back with their current teams or find their way to retirement (or in Saturday’s case, upstairs to the Colts’ front office somewhere), but McClure might give it a go elsewhere if just because the Falcons have a lot of free agents to try and retain.

McClure has shown last season that he can still play well, allowing no sacks all year, and grading well in the run game too. But for a nightmare of a game in Week 3 against Tampa Bay, his grade would look even healthier, and be up among the Pro Bowl spots on the season. He may be turning 35 soon, but he is the kind of savvy player who can anchor an offensive line for a team for a couple of seasons and improve dramatically what can be a troublesome spot to nail down. If the Falcons can’t find a way to get the dollars together to keep him around then another team would be wise to pounce.

 

Five more 30+ players who can still play:

Andre Carter: Miscast in a 3-4 in Washington, Carter was dominant in the Patriots’ 4-3 before injury ended his season.

Brandon Lloyd: Will be 31 by the start of the year but his best two seasons have been his last two.

Robert Mathis: Another player who will be 31 come opening day, Mathis is still a force as a pass rusher and has always played the run better than people think.

Leonard Davis: Davis will turn 34 in the days before opening day and was a powerful run blocker before signing with the Lions where he did nothing beyond warm a (large) portion of the bench.

Reggie Wayne: I feel Wayne is slowing down at 33, but he still has more than enough veteran savvy and route-running skills to produce at this level.

 

 

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