Eric Decker, Jared Allen among potential busts in 2014 NFL free agent class
NFL free agency officially opens March 11, and it will no doubt be a mad scramble as teams attempt to fill holes across their rosters. Teams should be cautious, though, as risks lurk across the market.
Here are 10 players (five on offense, five on defense) who may struggle to live up to lofty contracts this offseason.
1. Eric Decker
Perhaps the most obvious candidate of all, really through no fault of his own. Decker is coming off a career-best 87-catch season, which sets him up to break the bank and claim No. 1 receiver money. The problem, of course, is that he's not really a true No. 1 receiver -- Seattle wiped him off the mat in the Super Bowl and even Decker recently admitted that (former?) teammate Demaryius Thomas is on another level by comparison.
Decker will be the top WR available, assuming he does not re-sign with the Broncos. And that status coupled with his 24 TD catches over the past two seasons might encourage some team to deem him their go-to guy. His game may not be built for such responsibility.
Starting to grow more and more concerned that McFadden is destined for the Christian Okoye "Remember That One Year He Was Awesome?" Hall of Fame. Like Okoye, who propelled himself to NFL (and "Tecmo Super Bowl") fame with a breakthrough performance in his third season and then fizzled rather quickly, McFadden has not been able to replicate the 1,664 all-purpose yard campaign of 2010 -- mainly because he has yet to play more than 13 games in any one NFL season.
And yet, that talent ...
McFadden still believes he can be a starter in this league, so he'll hold out for an attractive offer. Will any team bite?
A 6-foot-5 tight end who can block and has 284 career receptions. What's not to like? Well, this for starters: Pettigrew has proven inconsistent at best in the passing game and he has struggled to fully take advantage of his physical gifts either as a red-zone weapon or threat up the seam. There's a reason that Detroit started using rookie Joseph Fauria more and more in the passing attack last season. Pettigrew is what he is at this point in his career, which is to say a steady but unspectacular weapon. Don't overpay.
Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork recently speculated that Howard would hit the market seeking a contract near Sebastian Vollmer's four-year, $17 million (with $8 million guaranteed) deal from an offseason ago. Heck, he may as well as a mid-20s tackle with significant experience.
But here's the rub: Howard was shoddy as a run-blocker in 2013 (Pro Football Focus graded him 68th among tackles in that area) and he allowed 15 QB hits, more than every OT but Mitchell Schwartz. He may still be improving as a lineman, but odds are that he's going to struggle to measure up to a lucrative contract.
5. Michael Vick
If you believe the NFL rumor mill, Vick is a top candidate for every team from Jacksonville to Oakland to Minnesota. He might be particularly appealing to a team that thinks it's a playoff contender, as Vick remains one of the league's most electrifying QBs when he's healthy. Of course, he's never healthy -- at least not for extended periods. His only 16-game season came in 2006, with Atlanta. He is worth a roll of the dice because of the upside. Just have a backup plan. (Doug Farrar believes the upside makes Vick one of the best potential bargains on the market.)
It took Rodgers-Cromartie's arrival in Denver -- and a pairing with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio -- for him to finally rediscover himself as a top-flight cornerback in this league. What will happen if he splits from the situation that so benefited his game? Another concern here lies in Rodgers-Cromartie's mindset. He openly discussed his possible retirement during Super Bowl week, so there is at least a slim possibility that he checks out once he lands a big-money contract. (But the talent is there, which makes Farrar believe DRC could be a value this offseason.)
2. Jared Allen
Allen has played every game since 2008 and averaged 14.25 sacks per season in that timeframe. In other words, he's durable and still can wreak havoc in the backfield. His "bust" potential will grow exponentially, though, if a team asks him to take on more of a role than that of a pass-rusher. Allen, 32 next month, should not be counted on as an every-down force anymore.
3. Perry Riley
Riley notched 129 tackles in 2012 and 115 last season. His agent, no doubt, will lean on those numbers during the negotiation process -- the Washington Post reported that Riley wants a contract similar to that of Dannell Ellerbe's (five years, $35 million). Even considering Riley's production, that is an awful lot of change for a linebacker who has been relatively average against the run. This feels like a Rodgers-Cromartie-like situation, where a player already has himself in the best possible situation for his game.
There may not be a better two-down inside linebacker in the league. For the point of this discussion, emphasis on the "two-down" portion.
Spikes is an absolute monster against the run, with an average of 89 tackles over the past two seasons. That's about the range of his game, though, meaning that he needs to come off the field in passing situations and is a liability if teams find ways to lock him up in coverage. He also missed half the 2011 season with various ailments (ankle, knee), then was shut down late in 2013 with another knee issue.
Seemingly capable of forcing turnovers just by making eye contact with a ballcarrier, Tillman will find a market for his skills -- a reunion with Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay makes for an obvious connection. However, he's 33, coming off a season in which he missed eight games to injury and still has not been cleared after triceps surgery. Tillman also has rejected the notion of moving to safety, further limiting his potential value. GALLERY: Biggest free-agent busts in NFL history