Money is thrown around every season in a free agent frenzy as teams look to add proven talent rather than take a gamble on the draft, but you only need to look back a year to see the gamble free agency itself presents.
The 2011 offseason was an unusual one–truncated as it was by the seemingly endless lockout and PR war during the CBA negotiations–and that left teams scrambling on a shortened time scale, suffering from something akin to auction fever.
The players signed may have proven themselves at the NFL level, but many of them responded with underwhelming seasons, and represent an interesting study in the risks attached even to players that have shown they can cut it in the league.
Ray Edwards to Atlanta – 5-year, $30m contract
Atlanta needed a second pass rusher to go along with John Abraham, their defensive talisman and one of the league’s best over the past few seasons. When the Panthers locked up Charles Johnson, that left Edwards as the best available pass rusher for their scheme. Edwards was always an underrated player for the Vikings, getting little credit for playing on the end of a line that was otherwise comprised of three Pro-Bowl players. He was also never a prolific sack artist, so many ignored the less publicized pressures that he did record. It seemed like a natural fit, and yet in his first season in Atlanta, Edwards under-performed. So what went wrong?
The first is schematic fit. While the Vikings and Falcons do run similar schemes in some ways, they vary in how they treat their linemen in terms of workload and deployment. Minnesota tends to line up with the same players in the same positions on as many snaps as possible, while the Falcons, in particular John Abraham, move around to rush the passer from different positions. In 2010, Edwards lined up as a defensive end on the right side of the Vikings line just five times. That’s five out of 765 snaps. In 2011 in Atlanta, Edwards spent 268 of his 732 snaps as right end … 36.6% of his game time.
Drafted out of Purdue in 2006, Edwards was just 21 at the time of the draft, and was a raw prospect that the Vikings had to spend time in developing. He slowly improved year on year to the point that in 2010 he was our eight-ranked 4-3 DE with a grade of +31.1. He notched nine sacks that season, but totaled 67 combined pressures, and only Charles Johnson brought more pressure on a per-snap basis. He was visibly uncomfortable in Atlanta when forced to move around the line, and his best two games of the season came in games where he spent most of his time rushing from his more familiar DLE spot. Over the season, he was almost twice as effective rushing from that side than from the right.
The final thing to note about Edwards is that he underwent a knee surgery in the 2011 offseason and the same knee became an issue during the season, with his coaches admitting that it became a problem as the year went on. His game-by-game grade shows a slow start to the season, but then a marked improvement during the middle of the year before tailing off after Week 11. He underwent a second procedure this offseason, and expects to be fully healthy in 2012. Between his health improving and the fact that Edwards consistently improved in his time in Minnesota, the Falcons may find Edwards proves to justify that contract despite a slow start .
Sidney Rice to Seattle – 5-year, $41m contract
The Vikings lost a pair of big free agents last season, but on both occasions they made decisions that they could live without them. In Edwards’ case, they put their faith in backup Brian Robison, but in the case of Sidney Rice, they were simply better aware than anyone else the risk that came attached to his big-time play-making ability.
Rice was another of the Vikings’ young draft picks, coming out of South Carolina as a redshirt sophomore, and while he has always had huge talent, the red flag in his career has been durability, with a seemingly endless list of injuries that have hampered his production.
Rice looked talented immediately for the Vikings as a rookie, catching 31 balls for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw a pair of passes, including a 79-yarder before a knee injury ended his year. In 2008 he was a starter before suffering yet another knee injury, supposedly a relatively minor one, but it would keep him out of the lineup until Week 9, and then visibly hamper him even after his return.
2009 saw the only season in which Rice has been able to play fully healthy, and he exploded to be our highest-graded receiver with a +22.0 grade. 84 catches for 1,322 yards, and eight touchdowns later, the league had seen the kind of game-changing ability that Rice had, and at just 23-years-old, his upside was huge. The next season, however, saw a return of the durability concerns. Rice picked up an injury in the final game for the Vikings in 2009, the now infamous NFC Championship Game against the Saints, and something that was supposed to clear up of its own accord then lingered into camp, and eventually required surgery that would shut Rice down until late November. Once he returned, he was able to flash the kind of talent we had seen in ’09–especially against the Bills in Week 13–but that was now three of four seasons that had involved significant injury concerns, and the Vikings clearly understood the risk attached with throwing a major contract at him.
The Seahawks were prepared to go higher than the Vikings were, and were ultimately rewarded with a receiver who looked impressive when he was on the field, but was on I.R. by late November. Free agency will give you a shot at players proven at the NFL level, but you always have to factor in injuries, which can keep even supremely talented players off the field. Seattle paid big money for a player who the Vikings knew may never see the field enough to justify it.
Nnamdi Asomugha – 5-year, $60m contract
Undoubtedly the jackpot of the 2011 free agency lottery, Nnamdi Asomugha was seen as a shutdown corner from the Oakland Raiders who could lock down an opponent’s top receiver and give no end of help to any team he joined.
The Eagles won the race for his signature, and he came to Philadelphia with notions of becoming their version of Charles Woodson–a player that could be moved around all over the defense and create havoc for an opposing offense. The only problem is that Asomugha was used in a very specific and very consistent way in Oakland: playing almost exclusively RCB (the side targeted less often by quarterbacks because it is to the backside of right handers), and running mostly off-man coverage.
There is no doubt that he excelled in that scenario in Oakland, but with the corners that the Raiders had on the other side of the field, Asomugha simply became targeted less and less frequently–why would you bother when you could go to your more frequently targeted side and find a far worse player in coverage?
The Eagles run much more zone coverage, and with Asomugha also moving into the slot, he found himself badly out of his comfort zone, struggling for most of the season. To a degree, teams still kept away from him, and he was thrown at just 47 times on the season (for comparison, Darrelle Revis, who tracks opponents’ top receivers was thrown at 85 times), and he did begin to look much more comfortable as the season went on.
The Eagles gave Asomugha a blockbuster contract on the basis that he could be a truly elite corner for them, and so far he hasn’t come close to that level in the new scheme. He’ll have a full offseason for the first time before the start of this season, but he has a long way to go before he can justify the dollars spent.
Jason Babin – 5-year, $27.7m contract
We’ve talked so far about what can go wrong in free agency (failing to adequately take into account the various factors that can influence play from one year to the next), but we will end with an example of what can go right when you keep a player in the situation that made him successful.
Jason Babin was once a first round pick of the Houston Texans, who liked him enough that they traded up from the second round to get him with the 27th pick overall. Babin flashed as a rookie, enough that I spent the next half a dozen years waiting for a breakout season that never came, but he bounced between positions in different schemes throughout the league and looked like little more than another top pick that didn’t pan out. But, in 2010, he landed in Tennessee, where D-line coach Jim Washburn employed an unusual scheme that calls for defensive ends to be aligned wider than most. You’ll by now know it as the ‘Wide-9’ alignment, and it is designed to get pass-rushers out in space on an island against the offensive tackles, and use their speed to cause problems. This proved to be a scheme made for Babin, who made his first Pro Bowl, topped double-digit sacks for the first time, and totaled 64 pressures for the season.
Before the 2010 season, Babin was just a journeyman adding depth to teams, so he had signed just a one-year deal with Tennessee, and found himself on the open market after his marquee season. The Eagles, who had hired Jim Washburn, went after Babin and reunited him with the one coach that had been able to get production out of him. In the Eagles’ defense, coached by Washburn, Babin was able to re-capture the form that made him a hot commodity, this time notching 18 sacks and 67 total pressures.
Jason Babin had shown in his career that in the wrong scheme he could flounder, but the Eagles invested some significant money in the pass rusher because they had seen what he could do in the scheme they were about to implement. In the same circumstances, Babin was able to replicate and even exceed that form, proving that you can in fact trust what you see against NFL competition, as long as you understand all the variables at play.