As bust rate rises, NFL free agency carries more risk than ever
This can’t be the way the NFL envisioned it back in 1994, when the league first began awarding teams compensatory draft picks in relation to their free-agent losses from the year before. The Bengals are slated to receive either a mid-round pick this year for losing pass-rusher Michael Johnson to Tampa Bay during 2014 free agency, and yet they’ve already re-signed Johnson after his disappointing one-year tenure with the Bucs, who cut him this month.
You could make the case that Cincinnati inadvertently gamed the system, in essence loaning Johnson to Tampa Bay for one underwhelming season and then getting the player back with an extra draft pick for its trouble. That’s earning a pretty sweet interest rate on your money if you’re the Bengals, who last season proved they can make the playoffs and lose in the first round with or without Johnson. It raises the interesting question of whether the league should give a team the extra draft choice in the first place if it manages to reacquire the player before it gets to spend the pick.
Cute coincidence or not, Johnson's boomerang trajectory highlights something of a recent trend in NFL: the propensity of early flameouts in free agency, with so many teams willing to cut their losses and move on from players who were hailed as major acquisitions not long before.
Roughly 10 days into this year’s free agency shopping season, winner labels have been affixed to the Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Eagles, Colts and a few select other clubs. And yet as Tampa Bay showed this spring in cutting loose three of the main cogs of what was once considered a strong 2014 free agency class—Johnson, offensive tackle Anthony Collins (another ex-Bengal) and quarterback Josh McCown—the picture can change dramatically almost overnight, and the notion of success in free agency is fleeting. The Bucs lured those three free agents with deals that reportedly totaled $83.75 million, with Johnson alone collecting $16 million from the Bucs for his one injury-plagued season and set to make another $7 million from Tampa Bay in 2015 while he plays elsewhere.
Not only did the Bucs not get better after their spending spree of last spring, they bottomed out in spectacular fashion, going 2-14 to earn the first overall pick in the draft for the first time since 1987.
But the Bucs aren’t the only team swallowing hard and admitting their recent mistakes, feeding into free agency’s flameout factor. How about the interesting little cautionary tale that Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings represent? Both accomplished veterans hit the jackpot with sizable deals befitting No. 1 receivers two years ago in free agency, with Wallace jumping from Pittsburgh to Miami and Jennings from Green Bay to Minnesota, where they were supposed to use their successful postseason experience to help elevate the Dolphins and Vikings to perennial playoff contention.
Not so much. Neither man played on a winning team once, and saviors they were not. Jennings struck the wrong tone from the start of his Vikings tenure with pettiness and bad blood toward his former quarterback in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers. His lack of a difference-making connection with any of the four starting quarterbacks the Vikings used the past two years limited his effectiveness to 127 catches for 1,546 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Jennings signed a five-year, $45 million deal with Minnesota in 2013, shortly after Wallace spurned a larger Vikings offer to sign a five-year, $65 million contract with the Dolphins. In many ways, Wallace’s time in Miami was even worse than Jennings’s stay in Minnesota, even though he had decent production with 140 receptions for 1,792 yards and 15 touchdowns as a Dolphin.
Wallace never seemed entirely on the same page with young Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and late last season he argued with Miami coach Joe Philbin, ultimately either quitting on his team or being benched for his poor attitude in the second half of the season finale. The Dolphins put him on the trading block this offseason and could only get a fifth-round pick in return for the receiver who was supposed to be a game-changer for the Dolphins.
Wallace landed, of course, in Minnesota, the team that coveted him when he was on the market in 2013. And less than 24 hours after the Vikings acquired him for a late-round pick, they released Jennings, in effect replacing him with a receiver three years younger who hopefully learned something from his tumultuous tenure in Miami.
Cashing in during free agency used to buy you some time with a new club, because patience was thought to be necessary in order to get a sufficient return on what was usually a sizable investment. But many NFL general managers and decision-makers today seem much more willing to make quicker, bolder moves to cut ties with a player who has not produced, big-ticket free-agent investment or not. Get it done early, or get lost.
This year, Jacksonville released defensive lineman Red Bryant a year into the four-year, $19 million deal it gave him, having already addressed their defensive line needs by signing ex-Dolphins defensive lineman Jared Odrick and re-signing end Tyson Alualu early in free agency.
The Lions parted ways with running back Reggie Bush on the heels of his injury-shortened 2014 campaign, a disappointing follow-up to his strong first season in Detroit. Bush was only halfway through a four-year, $16 million contract he signed in 2013, but the Lions didn’t think he was worth a $5.27 million cap hit in 2015 after rushing for only 550 yards last year.
And the quick exits aren't just free agent busts. The 49ers traded a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft for Bills receiver Stevie Johnson last May, then saw him post an underwhelming season for his hometown team (35 catches for 435 yards and three touchdowns). Rather than ride it out, San Francisco cut Johnson this month in a salary cap move, shortly after signing ex-Ravens receiver Torrey Smith in free agency.
Two teams gave up on dangerous receiver-return man Percy Harvin in the span of about five months. Seattle acknowledged he was a bad fit and shipped him to the Jets in a surprise trade last October, and New York released him this month, just days after acquiring receiver Brandon Marshall through a trade with the Bears. Harvin ultimately signed with the Bills, his fourth NFL team since March 2013. Marshall is himself now on his fourth NFL team, continuing a vagabond-like career that has seen him spend three years in Chicago, two in Miami and four in Denver.
By comparison, clubs and free agents who struck one-year deals last season fared far better and got instant production, with headline names like Darrelle Revis (the second year of his contract with New England was never realistically going to be honored), Brandon Browner, Antonio Cromartie and Owen Daniels all paying off handsomely as short-term answers. All four of those players have re-located again this offseason, improving upon their 2014 salaries in the process.
But the latest lesson of free agency is if you think you’ve arrived, you’re probably already on your way out. With the big deal and big dollars comes the temptation to rest on one’s laurels. But beware: The journey from being seen as part of the answer to part of the problem is a short one in today’s NFL.