Free-agent bust candidates in position for outsized contracts
As in life, there are no guarantees when it comes to NFL free agency.
Wait. Scratch that. There is guaranteed money thrown around, a variable that actually goes a long way in determining where players sign and how quickly they can repay the investments made in them.
Everything else is a guessing game. Both sides—the players and teams—know going in that free agency is a gamble, with just as many low-cost steals emerging each year as high-priced flops.
Here, we shine a light on the latter by tackling a few names that could wind up making more than they're worth in the long run.
• DeMarco Murray, RB: Murray's foray into free agency will be the latest litmus test for running backs' value. He propelled himself into a legitimate MVP candidate last season, easily capturing the NFL rushing title and averaging more than 28 touches per game.
Murray will hit the market (assuming Dallas doesn't re-sign him by Tuesday) as the clear top option at his position. Are teams still willing to spend money at that position, though? And even if they are, ignoring the annual discussion about the devaluation of running backs, will Murray's whopping 449 touches last season give them cause for concern?
"DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing by, I think, over 500 yards (actually, 484). His impact on our football team was significant," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "Our ability to control the line of scrimmage, control the football, helped the other parts of our team out. He was a big part of all that. The value of being able to hand the ball to somebody 25 times a game, week in and week out, is significant. His impact was huge for our team.
"But again, there’s a business of the NFL that we all understand."
Prior to his incredible 2014 season, Murray missed three games as a rookie in 2011, six the following year and another two in '12. His previous career high in touches: 270. In yards rushing: 1,121—724 yards shy of his 2014 output.
Paying Murray as if he can repeat what he did last year should be out of the question. Murray's workload has to be lightened some moving forward, and if he leaves Dallas he will no longer have the benefit of working behind one of the league's top run-blocking offensive lines.
In other words, Murray's 2014 season was one for the ages. Which is precisely why any GM interested in signing him ought to be prepared for a regression in 2015. If Murray gets paid like an 1,800-yard back, he will have a hard time meeting expectations.
• Julius Thomas, TE: Over the 2013 and '14 seasons, Thomas scored touchdowns on approximately 22% of his receptions. (To put that mark in some perspective, last year's NFL leader in touchdowns, Dez Bryant, scored on 18% of his grabs; Jimmy Graham, who has caught 26 touchdowns in the past two years, was at 15%.)
There are two ways to look at this: 1) Thomas has red-zone abilities that are almost unmatched in the league, especially at his position; or 2) like a baseball player who posts a .360 average on balls he puts in play, Thomas' pace is not sustainable and is bound to drop at some point in the near future. The second argument could be of particular note if Thomas leaves Denver, where he had Peyton Manning throwing to him in a favorable scheme.
Because of the mismatches the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Thomas creates, he will have plenty of suitors this offseason. It's worth noting that Thomas may be just scratching the surface of his potential—he played just one season of college football and did not break into Denver's lineup until 2013.
The problem is that Thomas needs that astronomical red-zone success in order to measure up to his value. He had just 31 catches outside of his touchdowns last season and is merely a so-so blocker. With a less productive offense and less heralded quarterback, Thomas could find the going rather rough.
• Torrey Smith, WR: Smith scored a career-best 11 touchdowns last season, while posting a career-worst 767 yards receiving. Therein lies the difficulty in figuring Smith's value: he is among the best big-play threats in all of football, but how much more can he bring to the table?
Smith and quarterback Joe Flacco developed a strong rapport over Smith's time in Baltimore. In fact, Flacco often relied on heaving the ball deep to Smith when his other options were not available. Smith wound up leading the league last season in pass interference calls drawn, at 12.
After Randall Cobb and Jeremy Maclin come off the board, Smith stands atop the list of free-agent receivers. However, he's not really a No. 1 guy, but rather a complementary piece that can stretch the field for more reliable threats underneath. Will a team pay him to be more?
• Jason Worilds, OLB: The Steelers' brass keeps talking about how Worilds, now 27 years old, is on the verge of stardom—particularly after placing the transition tag on him last season at a cost of nearly $10 million.
We're all still waiting to see that leap.
Worilds played more snaps than any other Steelers defender last season, and he's led the team in sacks two years running (8.0 in 2013, 7.5 in 2014). Still, the flashes have not given way to extended stretches of dominance.
With edge-rushers in demand all over the league, Worilds stands to make a killing as a free agent. Look at the other DE/OLB options for an explanation: Greg Hardy is a 4-3 DE and Jerry Hughes should stay in that spot, too; Brian Orakpo's been unable to stay healthy; Pernell McPhee's yet to handle the snap volume with which Worilds is familiar.
So, the money will be there for Worilds. It is fair to wonder at this point, though, if he ever will be better than he already is.
• Nick Fairley, DT: With Ndamukong Suh on the verge of leaving Detroit for a record-setting deal, it is easy in hindsight to question why the Lions did not pick up the fifth-year option on Fairley's deal. Many people had the same thought when that decision was announced last offseason,a move that set the stage for Fairley to hit free agency this month.
But a quick refresher on the Lions' thinking. Headed into the 2014 season, there were concerns over Fairley's fitness level and work ethic. While Fairley chalked up a combined 11.5 sacks in 2012-13, he also proved inconsistent against the run and led the Lions' defense in penalties in both of those years. Add in some off-field issues, and his value becomes less clear-cut.
Unfortunately for Fairley, he was en route to putting a lot of those concerns to rest in a contract year when he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Thus, the jury remains out on what sort of investment Fairley actually would be for any team, Detroit or otherwise.
• Brandon Spikes, LB: Fairly straightforward explanation for Spikes' spot on this list. He wants to be—and wants to be paid like—a three-down linebacker. In reality, he's not that guy.
"The new staff sees a different role than maybe he does, so I told him to see if he can get a team that sees him the way he sees himself," Bills GM Doug Whaley told the team's website of Spikes. "If not, come back to us and then we can talk."
Spikes played just 519 snaps last season, a nod to his limited role in the Bills' defense. Rookie Preston Brown was on the field more than twice as much (1,057 snaps).
Spikes remains a physical, aggressive hammer against the run, and that's how the Bills view him. Should a team side with Spikes' belief that he can handle three downs in spite of his obvious deficiencies in pass coverage, the resulting contract probably will wind up overpaying a very good but somewhat one-note player.
• Tramon Williams, CB: Packers GM Ted Thompson has not batted 1.000 in talent evaluation over his career. He has been pretty darn good, however, which makes it easier to trust him in cases like this one. All signs are pointing toward Green Bay letting the 31-year-old Williams walk, which falls in line with Thompson's general plan of bailing early on players before they become financial liabilities.
One has to wonder, then, if Williams will be some other franchise's overpaid liability.
Williams, who turns 32 later this month, has started every game the past three seasons, but there was a little drop-off in his play last year. Per Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks had more success throwing at Williams than ever before (63.6% completion rate) and he allowed more touchdowns in 2014 (10) than in any previous year.
That's not to say Williams was sub-par in 2014 or that he'll be exposed outside of Green Bay. The window, however, should be closing on Williams' time as a top-flight option.