Prove It Players
This time last year, as with every free agent period, a number of players were forced to take one-year “prove it” contracts when the market for multi-year deals was perhaps not quite what they were hoping for. While every free agent might imagine hitting the open market and having teams fight over them for a long-term contract, things don’t always play out that way.
Sometimes every interested team has enough question marks over you that they don’t want to invest more than one season. Perhaps they have doubts over your recuperation from injury or perhaps they think you just played up in a contract season and you need to prove that you can do it again.
In this article we’re going to look at eight players who found themselves in just that situation, how they fared last year, and what bearing that performance might have on their prospects for that coveted multi-year deal in their second free agency go ’round in 12 months.
The poster boy for this exact type of deal last season, Bennett proved himself in the Big Apple — finally emerging from the shadow of Jason Witten and flourishing in a starting role with the Cowboys’ division rivals. Having come from Texas A&M with a reputation for being a great athlete, it was something of a surprise to see Bennett develop into a tremendous blocker who struggled to make an impact in the passing game… and having something of a reputation for being a lazy player on and off the field. However, as things played out this season, Bennett proved that without Witten taking 100+ targets ahead of him on the depth chart, he was one of the best all-around tight ends in the league.
Bennett continued his fine work as a run blocker as he fused game-to-game consistency with some phenomenal single-game performances against the likes of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. He doesn’t just do his fine work in the running game either, surrendering just two hurries all season long on 103 snaps in pass protection. It was his work as a receiver, though, that was most important for him to prove this season and he showed himself capable of handling the load as a primary receiver; Bennett snagged 55 catches on 88 targets, collecting north of 11 yards per reception and only having one multiple-drop game (six drops across the whole season).
When players are suspected of questionable work ethic, that stigma tends to stick, but Bennett showed this year that he has the kind of talent that you simply can’t ignore and should be rewarded with a multi-year deal. All-around tight ends are all too rare these days and Bennett proved in New York that he is worthy of a team biting the bullet and making him their No. 1 for the foreseeable future.
Fullbacks don’t tend to see many snaps on most teams in the NFL these days and when you play in a wide open offense like Detroit’s those numbers are all the more limited. So, to an extent, Jerome Felton was fortunate to be given a chance in Minnesota and not become a forgotten man. Having played only 375 snaps in his last two seasons in Detroit, Felton topped that number this year alone with the Vikings and was the man leading the way for Adrian Peterson’s astonishing comeback season. Even if he had been wildly inconsistent, that fact would likely have seen him get a multi-year deal somewhere.
Felton, however, was so much more than that and came up with a number of quality games throughout the season; leading the way for Peterson in some big games particularly against division rival Green Bay on two occasions late in 2012. The number of teams using a fullback in an extended role is dwindling league-wide, but with his experience in Detroit he has the sort of scheme versatility that will make him attractive — even to teams that look only at a fullback as an occasional change of pace. Combined with his stellar season in Minnesota, Felton should be set up for a bigger payday this offseason.
This time last season Jones was faced with the task of having to convince teams that his poor 2011 form was down to the Tennessee Titans’ misguided belief that they could convert him into a 4-3 defensive end. His poor display on the edge took away some from his versatility, but his agent must have been banging the drum and reminding teams of his stellar and disruptive play in seasons past. Combined with a track record of being unable to stay on the field in an expanded role for a full season, there were seemingly no offers for a long-term deal, so Jones had to head off to Seattle’s ever improving defense to prove he was still that disruptive inside player.
Things started well for Jones and he did prove that he is still a disruptive interior pass rusher collecting 18 pressures (four sacks, four hits, 10 hurries) on 229 pass rushes to give him a Pass Rushing Productivity rating (6.3) among the league’s Top 20 defensive tackles. For teams looking for an interior pass rusher, Jones put himself back on the market as a big-time player.
However, that concern over playing time and staying on the field remained. In such a talented and deep defensive line Jones couldn’t nail down a full-time starting role and injury took its toll as well — particularly through the middle of the season when he only played 55 snaps in a six-week spell from Week 7 to Week 12. Jones certainly proved that he is still a disruptive inside presence (the year at defensive end didn’t dull that ability) but there will still be question marks over how much you have to manage his snaps and that will clearly have an effect on how much teams will be willing to invest.
Continue to Page 2 for players with something still to prove…
Something Still to Prove:
As a Pro-Bowl player this is surely an error on my part to suggest that Landry didn’t absolutely prove everything he needed to earn a multi-year contract, right? Well, if the NFL was a meritocracy that would be true, but there were at least a dozen safeties in the AFC more deserving of an invite to Hawaii this season than Landry was. If you believe that Landry’s biggest concern and obstacle last offseason to earning a multi-year contract was his injury situation, then he has proven he can stay healthy for 16 games and you might look to invest with a two- or three-year contract.
However, while he stayed healthy this season there are still questions about whether Landry really re-discovered his best form. There may have been some highlight-reel hits and a career-high four forced fumbles, but his overall body of work didn’t measure up to his best showing as a Redskin in 2008 and his injury-shortened 2010 and 2011 seasons. In coverage he allowed first downs and touchdowns at a rate amongst the worst safeties in the league and as a run defender he was not tremendously effective as a box safety, middle of the road in terms of converting snaps into defensive stops.
In terms of health, Landry answered some questions this season, but with the nature of his injury history and the questions of whether he truly re-discovered his best form, a long-term investment in Landry would be a questionable move.
If you simply look at the overall grades for Wheeler in our premium section you would assume that Wheeler would be one of the players in the above category as a player who “proved it” in 2012. But if you just scratch a little below the surface you see that while Wheeler was doubtless one of the best value defenders in the league, there are still the same old question marks with him that linger from his time in Indianapolis.
He was consistently efficient as a blitzer, but that is more of a benefit you get with a player than a core trait that you want to build your linebacking corps around. Outside of a stunning game in coverage against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3 when he collected a pass defense, forced two fumbles, and recovered another, his coverage was inconsistent and outside of a couple of games his run defense was also sketchy. What Wheeler proved this season is that at the right price he is one of the better value defenders in the league, but at a higher cost you may not get the returns you expect for your investment.
One of the players that I was most mystified by the lack of market for last offseason was Erin Henderson, in fact, this extended to linebackers full stop — a position group teams were slow to sign up. Henderson graded as one of the Top 5 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL during the 2011 season and as a young player just growing into a starting role, the Vikings would surely have been wise to tie him down long-term before their hesitance to act cost them money down the line.
Minnesota didn’t make that move, though, and neither did any other team in the league with the Vikings able to secure Henderson on a one-year deal that would ask him to prove his ability in a more extended, three-down role. With that audition in mind, Henderson did not make that position or contract his own.
A disappointment this season for Minnesota, Henderson struggled in coverage when asked to defend the deep middle of the field in the Vikings’ cover 2 and he wasn’t the same force against the run as he was the season before. After an incredibly strong start — seven stops in each of his first two games — he went missing through the middle of the season and only a timely performance in run defense against the Packers in Week 17 rescued his 2012. If the Vikings were unwilling to invest in Henderson with question marks over his ability to excel as a three-down linebacker last season, it’s hard to believe they will invest with the answers that Henderson provided this year.
A victim of injuries in Carolina, Schwartz was always destined for a one-year deal last offseason and he seemingly landed in the perfect spot to prove it in 2012: in an offensive line paving the way for Adrian Peterson and keeping quarterback Christian Ponder on his feet. Schwartz, however, was once again a victim in Minnesota — this time a victim of circumstance as he failed to supplant starting right guard Brandon Fusco in spite of demonstrably outplaying Fusco when given the chance early in the season.
For the season, though, Schwartz only accumulated 160 snaps and consequently will enter free agency once again as a player likely destined for a one-year deal where he will need to win a job in training camp and prove himself worthy of a longer contract next offseason. Schwartz had his most extended playing time in 2010 for the Carolina Panthers, impressing both at tackle and guard including making the none-too-simple switch from tackle to guard during the Panthers’ bye week. Whenever he has played, Schwartz has looked a strong run blocker and a safe pair of hands in pass protection. There are plenty of teams in desperate need for upgrades at guard that could do far worse than give Schwartz a year to show his 2010 form again.
As a cornerback with a Super Bowl-sealing interception return touchdown on his résumé, you might think that Tracy Porter was the prime candidate to get a multi-year deal from someone last offseason, but no such deal materialized so a prove it year in Denver was called for.
Things started well for Porter in his debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night football. Though he gave up a touchdown that night, his Bronco opener was incredibly impressive as he passed a thorough test from the Steelers. Of the 12 passes targeted into his coverage, Porter got his hands to five while Pittsburgh receivers got their hands to six (one drop) as he yielded less than 5 yards per target and a passer rating of 50.0.
That fine start wasn’t sustained, though, as Porter allowed touchdowns in his next two games as well and only played three snaps against Cleveland after the Broncos’ Week 5 defeat to the Patriots. If teams were eager to see how Porter fared outside of the Saints’ overly aggressive defense, they never got that chance this season and Porter will surely be forced to take another one-year deal and hope he can remain healthy and in a starting role to take another shot at a multi-year offer in 2014.
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