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Ben Margot/Associated Press
Risk is a big part of NFL free agency.
Every team takes one when betting precious cap space on a player’s ability to fill an immediate need.
If the risk doesn’t backfire, teams that made the call look great. When a player doesn’t pan out, it does more than hurt perception—it affects the team on the field.
The New York Jets learned this when they gave running back Le’Veon Bell a four-year deal worth $52.5 million despite his devalued position and the fact that he had sat out the year prior amid a contract dispute. He responded with a 3.2 yards-per-carry average, and the Jets cut him early in his second season in the Big Apple.
This year, players who had outlier production in 2020 or are unlikely to live up to the contracts they will command on the open market are the riskiest bets in free agency.
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Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press
Like Bell, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones plays a devalued position but has a chance to receive a top-tier contract.
Just 26 years old, Jones has averaged 5.2 yards per carry over four seasons with 3,364 yards and 37 touchdowns. He has another 1,057 yards and six scores as a receiver.
Given Jones’ age, usage and versatility, he’s bound to earn a massive contract on the open market if he and the Packers can’t agree to an extension. Considering the Packers sit almost $13.6 million over the cap, there’s a chance they could use whatever space they free up on more important positions.
The risk, of course, is that the wheels could fall off, as is often the case with running backs. There’s also the chance his effectiveness dips when he isn’t playing in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense.
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David Becker/Associated Press
Hunter Henry looked like the next big thing at the tight end position.
Over his first two seasons in 2016 and ’17, he scored 12 touchdowns while serving as an incredible mismatch creator. He then missed the 2018 campaign with a torn ACL and has scored just nine times since.
Granted, touchdowns aren’t the only metric that matters, and the Chargers made a change under center in 2020. But Henry has looked slower since missing a season. There’s a reason his Pro Football Focus grade in 2017 was 87.2 compared to last year’s 69.3.
But after playing on a franchise tag last season, Henry could command top dollar amid a so-so tight end free-agent class (assuming Rob Gronkowski stays with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay). A team that wins a bidding war for Henry, 26, in the hope he can still realize that 2016-17 upside could end up regretting the signing.
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Zach Bolinger/Associated Press
Matthew Judon seems like the next Baltimore Ravens edge defender to cash in elsewhere.
Judon, who will turn 29 in August, has 34.5 sacks over five seasons but posted just six over 14 games while playing on the franchise tag in 2020. Teams in need will likely overlook that slight regression, though.
It’s a tough call. As Ben Linsey of PFF pointed out, the Ravens only ranked 24th in pass-rushing, with Judon having a higher percentage of pressures than win rates, meaning he wasn’t winning and finishing sacks.
Judon could end up being like Preston Smith, a guy the Green Bay Packers gave a $52 million contract in 2019—the same year they brought in former Raven Za’Darius Smith—because of his pass-rushing upside. He had 12 sacks in his first season with the team before regressing to four.
Teams will assuredly pay Judon huge money because pressuring the quarterback is so important, but there’s a good chance of it backfiring.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Pittsburgh Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has primarily lined up in the slot position, is one of the riskiest players this offseason.
He caught 97 of his 128 targets for 831 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020, averaging just 8.6 yards per reception (126th). That’s a far cry from his 1,426 yards and seven scores with a 12.8 average alongside Antonio Brown in 2018.
And yet, Smith-Schuster is just 24 years old and should generate plenty of interest.
According to John Clayton of 710 ESPN Seattle (h/t Andrew Fillipponi of 93.7 The Fan), the Las Vegas Raiders are one team taking a close look at the wide receiver. But the Raiders are in the red in projected salary-cap space, and Spotrac has Smith-Schuster with a market value of $16.1 million annually.
While a free-agent wideout like A.J. Green is just as risky, he won’t sniff that sort of money. A team would be counting on Smith-Schuster break out once again. If he’s unable to do that without Brown in a pass-happy attack, he’s going to have a hard time matching his contract.
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Wade Payne/Associated Press
Corey Davis of the Tennessee Titans could end up being a cautionary tale.
The 26-year-old wide receiver was the fifth overall pick in 2017 but had serious issues living up to that billing until last season, when he caught 65 passes for career highs of 984 yards and five touchdowns.
But the Titans had already denied his fifth-year option, and A.J. Brown—a second-round pick in 2019—surpassed him in the passing attack once again, turning 70 catches into 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Teams will pay up in the hope Davis can reach new heights after a slow start out of Western Michigan in a run-first Titans attack. Spotrac seems to agree, giving him an estimated value of $9.8 million per year.
But 2020 could prove to be an anomaly, and a team that signs Davis for that type of money may end up kicking itself given that the 2021 draft class looks like it has a lot of talent at the position.
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Kyusung Gong/Associated Press
Patrick Peterson could be one of the biggest names in free agency this offseason.
But he is an interesting case study in name recognition versus production. After missing games for the first time in his career in 2019, the 30-year-old cornerback played all 16 in 2020 and posted a grade of 55.2 at PFF, by far the worst mark since his rookie season in 2011.
Opponents didn’t seem to be afraid to throw in Peterson’s direction, and he allowed a 67.1 percent completion rate with five touchdowns on 79 targets, the most he’s received in coverage over the last three seasons.
He seems to be on the decline, yet Spotrac estimates he’s worth $10.4 million annually. A team that needs help in the secondary could get into a bidding war for him given his past track record and name recognition.
Given the risks, Peterson’s contract should be incentives-laced in case he can’t turn things around in his age-31 campaign.