Top Free Agents: Who Are You Really Getting?

In the crapshoot that is NFL free agency, you never know if your guy will be a DeMarcus Ware or a Nnamdi Asomugha. A look at some best- and worse-case scenarios for top players in the ’16 pool  
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Free agency is a gamble for any team. Inherently, most free agents are players who weren’t valued enough by their former teams for those organizations to pay up and keep them around. Scheme and role changes make a free agent’s impact tough to predict, but one way of trying to look into the future for some of this year’s best available players is to examine the past. In speculating on the fate for a few of the top 2016 options, we decided to play a little Choose Your Own Adventure based on some recent free-agent history.

Josh Norman, CB, Panthers

Best Case: Asante Samuel
Worst Case: Nnamdi Asomugha

Dave Gettleman said last week that he’s “not afraid” to use the franchise tag, which is the likely fate for Norman this year. Before his All-Pro 2015, Norman turned down an offer in the realm of $7 million in hopes that by season’s end he’d warrant mention with the best cornerbacks in football. In the minds of fans, he’s there. The question is whether NFL teams believe he can step out of Carolina’s scheme and be the type of shutdown man-to-man corner who deserves the Revis/Sherman-type money that Norman is after.

In more ways than one, Norman’s rise in Carolina mirrors Asante Samuel’s with the Patriots. While playing on the franchise tag in 2007, Samuel turned in an All-Pro season for the best team in football. Because his franchise tender included language that prevented New England from tagging him again if he hit certain playing-time stipulations, Samuel hit free agency and cashed in with the Eagles the following spring. Even outside of Bill Belichick’s defense, Samuel was an effective player for three years in Philadelphia. Only after the Eagles brought in Nnamdi Asomugha on a five-year, $60 million deal did they ship Samuel to Atlanta.

The deal made Asomugha the richest cornerback in football, but a shift in his responsibilities and a steep decline quickly turned the contract into a nightmare. Asomugha was paid like a shutdown corner but never lived up to the billing. With Norman, that will be the ultimate fear for any team that pulls the trigger, whether that’s this offseason or next.

Marvin Jones, WR, Bengals

Best Case: Golden Tate
Worst Case: Torrey Smith

What makes Jones the most attractive option in a shallow pool of free-agent receivers is that his talent is undeniable. Though he’s average size for a receiver (6- 2) Jones is a viable deep threat with great speed and exceptional ball skills. But his ability to make an impact goes far beyond the long ball. He caught plenty of screens for a Cincinnati offense that loves to throw them. The concern with Jones is that teams still don’t have much to go by when evaluating him. After missing the entire 2014 season with an ankle injury, Jones has started only 21 games in his career.

As the Bengals’ No. 2 receiver (and with Tyler Eifert, it was more like 2a), Jones’s line this season bears a strong resemblance to Golden Tate’s during his final year in Seattle:

Jones: 103 targets, 65 catches, 816 yards, four TDs
Tate: 99 targets, 64 catches, 898 yards, five TDs

In his first year with the pass-happy Lions—thanks in part to Calvin Johnson missing some time—Tate obliterated the numbers he was putting up in Seattle (144 targets, 99 catches, 1,331 yards, four TDs). If Jones can find a similarly beneficial situation, he may have a chance to do the same. Partnering him with an all-world receiver and a solid quarterback—I’m looking at you, Falcons—would be the best chance at getting the most out of him.

The risk with players like Jones and a host of free-agent receivers like him is the chance that he’s miscast as a co-No. 1 option, similar to what Torrey Smith was last year with San Francisco. Smith’s $22 million guaranteed was 38 percent more than what Tate got in Detroit. There’s no doubt Smith can be a valuable member of an NFL offense, but in three of his four seasons with the Ravens, he topped 50 catches and 855 yards only once. Finding a true top-flight receiving option to shoulder most of the load is how to get the most out of players with a specific skill like Smith’s, and a team would be well served to give Jones a similar role. 

Eric Weddle, S, Chargers

Best Case: DeMarcus Ware
Worst Case: Jared Allen

The positions may be different, but these comparisons concern where Weddle is in his career. Their advanced ages made both Ware and Allen expendable to their teams (Dallas and Minnesota, respectively) after the 2013 season. Both would be 32 by Week 1 of the following year, but that didn’t stop teams from believing they still had plenty left in the tank and handing them each sizable long-term deals. Allen got $15.5 million from Chicago while Ware took home $20 million in guarantees from the Broncos. In the two years since, Allen has 7.5 sacks and was traded midway through the 2015 season. Ware, by comparison, has 17.5 sacks and played a significant part on the best defense in football.

Weddle is 31, so any team that wants to roll the dice on a three-time Pro Bowl safety will have to hope his production is closer to Ware’s since he arrived in Denver. Based on Weddle’s play each of the past couple seasons in San Diego, there isn’t much reason to think it won’t be. There’s a strong chance, if he lands with a contender, that he can play the sort of transformative role that Ware did early on with the Broncos.

Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets

Best Case: Calais Campbell
Worst Case: There isn’t one

Finding comparisons for Wilkerson—in terms of his market value and the possible outcomes—isn’t easy. Few players with a skill set as diverse as his ever truly hit free agency, which is a big reason the Jets are expected to slap Wilkerson with the franchise tag.

Most of the players with anything close to Wilkerson’s versatility—the likes of Calais Campbell, Cameron Jordan or Jurrell Casey—were all locked up long before hitting free agency. As Wilkerson’s agents come to the table in hopes of securing a long-term offer, the five-year, $55 million deal (with $33.47 million guaranteed) given to Jordan is probably a good place to start. Both Jordan and Wilkerson have two double-digit sack seasons since being drafted in the first round in 2011, and Wilkerson probably has the edge as a run defender. It’s still too early to pass judgment on whether the Saints or Titans will get long-term value on the deals given to Casey and Jordan, but Campbell just finished the fourth year of his five-year contract, and despite relatively modest sack totals, he’s been a vital piece on some excellent Arizona defenses.

Kelechi Osemele, G, Ravens

Best Case: Ben Grubbs
Worst Case: Andy Levitre

As someone who’d love to see Osemele on the Bears, I’m hoping his price tag doesn’t get as high as Levitre’s did when he signed with the Titans for $16 million guaranteed in 2013. But with the way the market for guards has escalated, Osemele may even exceed that. Mike Iupati got a five-year, $40 million deal with Arizona that included $22.5 million guarantees, and there’s an argument to be made that Osemele is actually the better player.

A 26-year-old who fits best at guard but can play tackle in a pinch, Osmele is among the most physically dominant players in football when he’s healthy. The hope for any team that brings him into the fold is that his career arc fits more with Grubbs’ than Levitre’s. After leaving the Ravens in free agency in 2012, Grubbs was still among the best guards in football for two of his three years with the Saints. If he can stay on the field, Osemele would be giving the prime years of his career to any team that’s willing to pay up.

Olivier Vernon, DE, Dolphins

Best Case: Cliff Avril
Worst Case: Ray Edwards

Sack numbers can often be deceiving, and in Olivier Vernon’s case, that goes both ways. Vernon’s career-high in sacks, 11.5, came in 2013, but his 7.5-sack total last season was more impressive, in more ways than one. He was a more consistent pass-rushing force in 2015 despite bringing down the quarterback fewer times, and for much of the year Miami was without edge-rushing terror Cameron Wake. When Vernon was racking up the sacks in 2013, Wake was among the best pass rushers in football and as a result, the main focus for any protection plan. When Ray Edwards had 16.5 sacks in his final two years with the Vikings, he did it with Jared Allen bothering defenses on the other side of the formation. That run ended with a five-year, $30 million deal in Atlanta. Two years later Edwards was out of the league.

Wake missed nine games in 2015, but even with him on the bench, Vernon enjoyed the luxury of playing next to Ndamukong Suh. Cliff Avril enjoyed that same luxury in Detroit, and when he did finally hit free agency, he only netted a two-year deal with the Seahawks, despite averaging double-digit sacks over his final two seasons with the Lions. Avril turned into a bargain for Seattle, and for the team that does eventually land Vernon, the best outcome would involve him maintaining his level of production without the NFL’s richest defender playing next to him.

Doug Martin, RB, Bucs

Best Case: Too Few to Actually Find One
Worst Case: Too Many to Name

Martin is among the most fascinating free-agent options not only this season but also recent memory. The former first-round pick finished 2015 with 1,402 yards—second in the league—on just 288 carries. Martin’s 4.9 yards-per-carry average was comfortably the best of his career, and he did it behind an offensive line that, while improved, could still use a bit of seasoning.

That’s just one way in which Martin is different from the top free-agent back available last year—DeMarco Murray. At least part of Murray’s rushing title can be credited to the Cowboys’ excellent offensive line. But another problem is just how much work Muarray got during the 2014 season. He ran the ball 392 times for Dallas that year—104 more carries than Martin got for the 2015 Bucs. For his career, Martin has only 868 carries, and when next season begins he’ll still only be 27. The history of free-agent running back signings is littered with poor decisions, but a team willing to take a chance and give Martin a sizable deal may be getting a player on the upswing, rather than the other way around.