5 boom-or-bust free agents set to hit the market

Which free agents have high upside, but also high risk? Analyst John Kosko names five such players.

| 3 months ago
Morris Claiborne

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

5 boom-or-bust free agents set to hit the market

While teams and agents have secretly been conducting their negotiations throughout the combine, the legal tampering period is now officially under way. With a fairly weak overall free-agent class, subpar players are about to get paid big-time dollars. Teams that think they are one player away will reach for a guy that hasn’t shown the production value of the contract, and will pay on the basis of potential. Most players that do get the big contract have flashed elite or top-tier play, but have combined that with poor play or just a lot of inconsistency.

With that said, here are five of the biggest “boom-or-bust” players currently set to hit free agency.

1. Terrelle Pryor, WR, Browns (78.6 overall grade in 2016 season)

A lot of noise has been made about Pryor in Cleveland in recent days, considering that the Browns have a copious amount of cap space and could easily pay him what he is seeking to keep him from hitting the open market. The Cleveland front office, led by Sashi Brown, has taken the approach of not overpaying for players, and is doing as such with Pryor. Pryor had one good year in Cleveland, as he finished the 2016 season with PFF’s 17th-best receiving grade despite a revolving door at QB throwing him the football. The argument that Pryor will become a top-10 WR with a stable QB situation is strong, but remains largely unknown.

(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Pryor has one year of tape that defensive coordinators will now be able to dissect and learn how to defend the former QB-turned-WR. Let’s compare Pryor to a WR that had a fantastic 2015, season but then stumbled in 2016: Player A was also a player that hadn’t shown much as a WR until the 2015 season, but once teams had a full season’s worth of tape to pick apart, he became much less effective. One reason he took a big step back was that the WRs around him became healthy and he was under-utilized, but the fact remains—one year of production is a big risk to sign to a top-10 contract.

Player A

While Terrelle Pryor is a better athlete than Baltimore’s Kamar Aiken (“Player A” in the above description), and he most certainly could take a big step forward with a stable QB situation, the Cleveland wideout still remains a big risk for whichever team signs him.

2. Dontari Poe, DI, Chiefs (55.8)

Dontari Poe makes this list because of his wild inconsistency throughout his career. A freak athlete for his position and size, Poe hasn’t lived up to expectations set during his sophomore season, when he graded at 86.4 overall. Poe could have kept himself off this list had he played to the average level he displayed in 2014–2015, but in 2016, he struggled badly in run defense while being largely ineffective as a pass-rusher. From 2013–2014, Poe racked up 12 sacks playing primarily as a NT, but the past two years, has recorded just three sacks while splitting more time between NT and 3-tech. The case could be made that he is playing out of position, but with a player as athletic as Poe, he shouldn’t have struggled as much as he did this past year.

Any team looking to sign Poe will hope to tap into the potential of his athletic ability, likely believing that he can become more consistent in the run game and terrorize centers in the passing game. Poe is a sure tackler, as he’s missed just 18 tackles in his five-year career, but his number of defensive stops have steadily declined each season since 2013, as he finished with just 15 in 2016. The upside with Poe is a top-10 DT/NT, but the downside is what the Chiefs received this past season.

3. Alshon Jeffery, WR, Bears (77.6)

Jeffery graded as one of the best WRs in 2015 and was a top-five player set to hit free agency in 2016 before being tagged. The former South Carolina Gamecock has never disappointed when on the field, as he remains one of the best deep threats in the NFL, as well as excellent at contested catches. Where Jeffery becomes a potential bust is his injury history and his suspension related to performance-enhancing drugs. When looking at Jeffery for purely his on-field contributions and production, he’s clearly the best WR in free agency, but the whole picture needs to be taken into consideration with the talented free agent.

 (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

In his injury-plagued and suspension-shorted seasons of 2015 and 2016, Jeffery was efficient enough to top 800 yards on just 54 and 52 receptions, respectively. In his only two full pro seasons, Jeffrey averaged 87 receptions and 1,277 yards with 17 total TDs while forcing 14 missed tackles. Jeffrey’s grades match the production, as he is a threat when on the field, but the “bust” part of him is the injury history—assuming he cleaned up the PED use. The injury list includes a torn meniscus, a fractured hand, multiple hamstring pulls and tears, and a calf injury. There is a reason the Bears are letting him test the waters, but they are also risking losing one of the best WRs in the game.

4. Morris Claiborne, CB, Cowboys (84.7)

A former top-10 draft pick, Claiborne showed some promise as a rookie before struggling badly for the next three years. In 2016, the stars aligned for the Cowboys and the same happened for Claiborne, as he had a career year, grading as the sixth best CB in coverage through eight weeks before injuring his groin. He returned for the Divisional Round playoff game versus Green Bay, but with just a half a season of excellent play after years of below-replacement-level production, Claiborne is a classic “boom-or-bust” player.

Claiborne clearly has the athletic ability and talent, considering he was picked No. 6 overall in the 2012 draft, but potential is one thing and production is another. While he started to put it all together in 2016, the risk with signing the former LSU Tiger is that his potential is just that—potential. He may have started to figure it out and get his game to the expected level of his draft status, but any team looking to sign the Cowboys CB should do so with an incentive-laden contract with an easy way out—in case his 2016 tape is a fluke.

5. D.J. Swearinger, S, Cardinals (86.1)

Swearinger would be wise to re-sign with the Cardinals, as he’s a player that has bounced around the league before excelling in Arizona. Swearinger was at risk of struggling to make it in the NFL, as he was cut by Tampa Bay in 2015 after Week 7 before Arizona signed the former second-round pick in early December to the practice squad. He was promoted to the 53-man roster a week later, and hasn’t looked back since. In 21 games with the Cardinals, Swearinger has turned in just four negatively-graded games in coverage after logging 22 such games in the previous 38 outings. Whether it be the scheme or players around him that have allowed the previously-discarded player to have a resurgence, Swearinger is playing at a high level.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 20: D.J. Swearinger #36 of the Arizona Cardinals celebrates a fumble recovery in the second half of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Of course, previous poor play has to be taken into consideration when signing Swearinger to a contract this offseason, as he is surrounded by one of the best defenses in the NFL. Swearinger has seen far fewer targets in Arizona than previously, but he has made the most of them, as he recorded three interceptions and four pass breakups in 2016 after getting three picks and seven breakups in the previous three seasons. Swearinger was selected in the second round due to his talent, and perhaps that talent and potential has finally blossomed. That said, he remains a large risk because of his poor play in previous stops and the talent he has been surrounded by in Arizona.

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| Analyst

John is an analyst for Pro Football Focus and former safety for the University of Kansas Jayhawks (2004–2006).

  • crosseyedlemon

    Though teams that think they are one player away will occasionally reach, I think it more likely that GMs that are under pressure to retain their jobs, will roll the dice on the boom or bust players.