The allure of high ceilings and quick fixes when free agency begins tends to camouflage the “buyer beware” signs strewn across the league landscape.
Each March, market-setting contracts with gargantuan guarantees are given out by NFL teams in search of veteran upgrades for their roster before the rookies are added through the draft and subsequent signings. The eagerness to make a splash or the unwillingness to see a targeted player join another club can cause executives to chase the sugar rush of an instant starter at the potential detriment of future salary cap management. The frustration of struggles at a particular position from the past season can trigger an overreach for replacements.
For the free agent class of 2016, there’s still time to make amends for an underwhelming first year of a rich new deal. So as the market opens for 2017, here’s a look back at some of the significant signees who didn’t pan out last season and are looking for a bounce back:
The best quarterbacks never become free agents, of course, but Brock Osweiler brought enough intrigue and promise with his 6-foot-7 frame after playing behind Peyton Manning in Denver that Houston doled out $37 million guaranteed on a four-year contract for the Broncos’ backup about a month after they won the Super Bowl.
Seven solid starts at the end of the 2015 regular season while Manning was hurt was a small sample size, though, and more exposure for Osweiler yielded some rough moments. The Texans reached the playoffs with an AFC South title in a weak division and even made it to the second round, but Osweiler was in the bottom five in the league in completion percentage, interceptions and yards per attempt.
Spending big on a team’s own players is generally viewed as wiser strategy than on those outside the organization, given the familiarity with schemes and surroundings, but that’s hardly a guarantee of success, either.
Tampa Bay brought back running back Doug Martin with a five-year deal featuring $15 million guaranteed after he rushed for 1,402 yards and was an Associated Press All-Pro pick in 2015. Martin was slowed by hamstring problems and averaged just 2.9 yards per rush, the lowest in the NFL among ball carriers with at least 100 attempts. Then he received a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Sean Smith built up his coverage credentials over seven seasons as a cornerback with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs before signing a four-year contract with Oakland with $20 million guaranteed over 2016 and 2017 to help the Raiders shore up a vulnerable secondary. He struggled from the start, and the Raiders were third-worst in the league in yards allowed per pass attempt. Smith needed shoulder surgery after the season. Former Raiders star Charles Woodson even called out Smith’s substandard performance in a radio interview last fall.
The tight end market has spiked in value over the last decade, and Coby Fleener cashed in with New Orleans last year after leaving Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. His first season with the Saints was unremarkable, after signing a five-year deal with nearly $15 million in initial guarantees. Fleener had three touchdown catches. Over the last four games of the season, he totaled 84 yards on eight receptions while playing in a pass-friendly offense directed by Drew Brees that tight end Jimmy Graham once flourished in.
Leaving Cleveland for a five-year contract carrying $12 million guaranteed, Gipson came to Jacksonville to fill a hole at free safety as part of an aggressive offseason makeover of the defense by the Jaguars. Though they finished in the top five in the NFL in several statistical categories for pass defense, the Jaguars fired head coach Gus Bradley while going 3-13. Gipson, who totaled 14 interceptions over his first four seasons with the Browns, picked off only one pass and expressed frustration with the conservative way he was used in the scheme.
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