NFL Free Agency 2014: Biggest Boom, Bust Players on the Market
The start of NFL free agency in 2014 arrives on March 11. That's when teams will attempt to juggle value, projection and need with cap room and contract negotiations to find the best fits during a 32-team auction period.
Every year, clubs find players discarded by their previous employer who make a significant impact on their new team—players we'll elegantly label "boom" pickups.
Yet just as often—and probably far more frequently—teams sign players who don't live up to the money and contracts handed out during free agency. These are your "bust" players.
For the most part, every free agent has a certain "boom-or-bust" quality to him. There's upside and risk to every move—some much more than others.
In the following slides, we'll identify the biggest of these boom-or-bust players in the 2014 free-agent class.
WR Eric Decker
2013 Stats: 87 receptions, 1,288 yards, 11 TDs, 14.8 yards per reception
There are a few ways to look at the impending free agency of Eric Decker, a soon-to-be 27-year-old receiver with four seasons under his belt.
On one hand, you see a highly productive, ascending talent who is still relatively young. He should project well through his next contract, as long as he continues to stay healthy—which he's done for all but two games of his NFL career. He hasn't missed a game since his rookie season in 2010.
Since 2012, he has the ninth-most receptions and receiving yards and third-most receiving touchdowns among receivers.
But on the other hand, Decker could be considered a system receiver whose two-year numbers have been ridiculously inflated thanks to the right arm of Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. He had 172 catches, back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving years and 24 touchdown catches after Manning signed in Denver ahead of the 2012 season, but only 50 receptions, 718 yards and nine scores in the 30 games before Manning.
Teams will have to unravel this equation in free agency. Is Decker a true No. 1 receiver who is capable of joining an offense and overhauling the top of a receiver depth chart? Or is he more of a secondary option who can thrive in the right circumstances but is otherwise limited by separation deficiencies and the occasional drop?
There's a strong possibility that a receiver-needy franchise will pay Decker like a No. 1. At that point, he will become as boom-or-bust as any top free agent this spring.
DE Jared Allen
2013 Stats: 52 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, six batted passes, two forced fumbles
The NFL always appears to be an in-the-moment business, but free agency is mostly a game of future projections. And in that reality lies the difficulty for Jared Allen, a still-productive defensive end who is beginning to show his age.
His numbers in 2013 still look good: double-digit sacks for a seventh straight season, 65 total quarterback disruptions and another injury-free campaign. He didn't miss a single game in six seasons in Minnesota.
But his season needs to be taken with some context, too. Six-and-a-half of his 11.5 sacks came during the final five games of the year. He had one or fewer solo tackles in four of his first 10 games. His final grade at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was a seven-year low and ranked 34th among 4-3 defensive ends.
Allen can still help a contending team, as we outlined here. But his days of playing the leading role on a top defense are done, as he begins to slow down and hit the inevitable veteran wall.
A team might be seduced into looking at his baseline numbers from last season and giving him a lucrative, long-term deal. He'll bust in that role. He'll boom as a short-term pickup for a Super Bowl contender.
DL B.J. Raji
2013 stats: 17 tackles, three tackles for losses, zero sacks, zero batted passes
A classic boom-or-bust player, B.J. Raji has rare movement skills for a man his size (337 pounds) but also two season's worth of frighteningly absent impact.
The former first-round pick doesn't have a sack since 2011—a disheartening stretch of 40 games, including the playoffs. Last season, he played more than 600 snaps as a two-down, two-gap lineman in Green Bay but failed to register a sack, batted pass or forced fumble.
Cornerback Tramon Williams (four) and safety M.D. Jennings (four) both finished 2013 with more tackles for losses than Raji's three.
Part of his lacking impact comes from his role with the Packers, in which Raji was asked to occupy blockers on early downs and then come off the field during obvious passing situations. But a 600-plus-snap sample size—no matter how restricted by scheme—should still produce more statistical impact.
Maybe a team running a four-man front will find a player in Raji that needs to escape a limiting scheme and play more attacking, one-gap football. Or maybe he is simply overrated as a disruptive talent, and the last two years have exposed his limitations.
There's probably no middle ground. Either he is going to find a career revival in a scheme that better fits his attributes, or he'll continue to be an underachiever who provides little impact for a player of his perceived skill. Some team will pay to find out.
RB Ben Tate
2013 Stats: 181 rushing attempts, 771 rushing yards, four TDs, 4.3 yards per attempt, 34 receptions
It's a good year to be a free-agent running back. Only a few big-name backs are likely to hit free agency (Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew), while the incoming draft class appears average, at best.
Ben Tate, a 25-year-old back with less than 500 career touches under his belt, might be the belle of this ball.
During his three years of working behind Arian Foster in Houston, Tate put together a 4.7-yard-per-carry career average, with 10 rushing scores and more than 50 catches. He has ideal size and can run, providing starting-quality traits at the position.
But he also has red flags, which should give any team that is willing to sign him to a starting-level deal a moment of pause.
He has never played a full 16-game season since being drafted in 2010, and he missed his entire rookie season to a significant ankle injury. He's seemingly always fighting injury, including broken ribs in 2013.
Overall, he's missed 24 games in four NFL seasons.
Also, during seven starts last season, he averaged just 64.7 yards per contest, breaking the 100-yard mark only once (vs. New England).
Tate is arguably the most talented back set to hit free agency. He'll likely get paid as such. But with that talent also comes an extensive injury history and the uncertainty of his ability to carry an offense as a No. 1 back.
QB Michael Vick
2013 Stats: 1,215 yards passing, five TDs, three INTs, 306 yards rushing, 86.5 passer rating
Michael Vick might be the most obvious pick of this bunch.
At 33 years old, he is still one of the better athletes at the quarterback position. He can improvise from the pocket or be effective in the option-run game, and he has improved his ability to throw from inside the pocket in recent seasons.
But for all the good he can bring to a quarterback-needy franchise, the negatives also follow. He's still wildly inaccurate for a starting quarterback, and his occasionally frantic way of playing the position leads to too many turnovers.
Additionally, Vick is always just a hit away from another injury. He missed significant time in just the last two seasons due to various bumps and bruises.
A relatively weak crop of free-agent quarterbacks will give him a legitimate chance at landing an attractive opportunity elsewhere this spring. The team that eventually signs him will either be getting an exciting, potentially productive stopgap option or a frustrating, injury-prone mistake.
More than likely, it'll be a mix of both.
RB Darren McFadden
2013 Stats: 114 rushing attempts, 379 rushing yards, five TDs, 3.3 yards per attempt, 17 receptions
Despite already playing six NFL seasons, Darren McFadden enters free agency still young in age (26) and relatively fresh in terms of career touches (just more than 1,000).
He's also shown flashes of running talent. The stretch from 2010 to 2011 represented the best of his NFL career, as he averaged 5.3 yards per rush over almost 350 total carries. In 2010, he tallied almost 1,700 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 total touchdowns, including three receiving.
The limited-touches part of his free-agent profile can be explained by injuries, which have robbed the former first-round pick of 29 career games and 19 of his last 41. It's been a constant battle for the physically gifted back to stay on the field.
Availability is an important measure for any football player, and teams will be turned off by his 3.3-yard average over the last two seasons. But every club wants to be the one that polishes off a diamond in the rough, and McFadden can be such an addition if he can stay on the field for a better offense.
The bust factor here is marginal, as McFadden shouldn't command a big salary. The reward potential will be tempting.
DT Henry Melton
2013 Stats: Three games, five tackles, zero sacks
Henry Melton suffered through every ascending player's worst nightmare: a severe, career-altering injury while playing on the one-year deal of a franchise tag.
A torn ACL in Week 3 ended his 2013 season. Instead of entering free agency this spring with more ammo in his negotiation holster, he'll now have to convince teams that his knee is fine and he can be the player he was before the injury.
It'll be a tough sell. Melton struggled to start last season and then was arrested in December, just months following his injury.
However, teams that are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt will fall back in love with his 2012 season, when he put together a dominant year as an inside disruptor. He had six sacks and two forced fumbles and was a handful against the run.
Melton can be a "boom" pickup if he's closer to his 2012 form than 2013. But there's also serious bust potential if his surgically repaired knee is still cranky and the inconsistency that showed up early last season lingers on.
CB Charles Tillman
2013 Stats: 41 tackles, three INTs, seven passes defensed, three forced fumbles
Charles Tillman falls into the same free-agent boat as Jared Allen. Teams have to be wary of future projections while also staying cognizant on how a player such as Tillman can help in the short term.
Last season was arguably his worst in some time, but only because injuries robbed him of eight games. He was still a turnover machine, causing six takeaways in only half a season of work.
When completely healthy, he is one of the more instinctive and aggressive cover corners in football.
But age (he turned 33 this month) is now a definite concern, and with it comes the increased likelihood of the kind of injuries that hurt the veteran corner last season.
Teams will have to weigh the factors and decide: Is Tillman still capable of providing the same impact plays every week, or have age and injuries now made him too risky? A two- or three-year deal could be a waste of money if the trends that rocked his last season in Chicago continue on into 2014.
TE Jermichael Finley
2013 Stats: 25 receptions, 300 yards, three TDs
Jermichael Finley is one of the great unknowns of this year's looming free agents.
While part of the game's evolving definition of a matchup-busting tight end, he is still in rehab mode after undergoing spinal fusion surgery last October. Some recover from the operation (see: Peyton Manning), and others don't (see: Nick Collins).
Obviously, if Finley isn't cleared to resume playing, there's no chance of him becoming a boom-or-bust free agent. His career would be over.
But if he is cleared, there's always the chance that his shelf life as a football player has already been drastically reduced, and even a clearance from team doctors wouldn't guarantee that he will be the same player he was before the injury.
Like so many of the players on this list, Finley's case revolves around a very delicate balancing of projections. At age 26, he can still be an impact player in a variety of offenses. But he's also now a much bigger risk, with a dicey injury situation and a checkered past of inconsistent production.
DL Everson Griffen
2013 Stats: 26 tackles, 5.5 sacks, one forced fumble
Everson Griffen's breakout season in 2013 never materialized, but that doesn't mean he put together a poor season.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the versatile defensive lineman tallied 52 quarterback disruptions over roughly 700 snaps. His total was good for 18th among 4-3 defensive ends, which isn't a bad ranking considering he was a rotational player behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison.
The success of multi-dimensional pass-rushers such as Michael Bennett in Seattle should raise Griffen's stock in free agency. But how high?
The Vikings should want him back, and there's a decent chance he won't even hit free agency. But if he does, teams with innovative, forward-thinking defensive coordinators will be lining up to add him. Players as athletic as Griffen (he plays on special teams) who can rush the passer from both the inside and outside are worth their weight in gold.
His boom potential is high. But there's also the inherent risk in paying big bucks for someone who has never been a full-time player.
S Malcolm Jenkins
2013 Stats: 67 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two INTs, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles
Malcolm Jenkins would not have placed among the NFL's top-half of starting safeties in either of the last two seasons. But an evolving NFL and his future projections might make the former first-round pick an attractive signing this spring.
He entered the league as a college cornerback before transitioning to safety, where he's played the entirety of his NFL career. Yet he can still play at the line of scrimmage and cover inside receivers man-to-man, and his blitzing skills are among the best at the position. These skills translate well to the way top defenses are now attacking modern offenses.
Jenkins needs to clean up some obvious flaws, such as tackling (too many misses) and his propensity for mental mistakes in deep-half coverage. But there remains the potential for a good football player underneath the apparent problems.
Continued progression could make him a useful asset for an attacking defense. Any unforeseen regression, however, could make him a waste of both time and money at an important position.