Caveat Emptor

[In response to yesterday’s article about Talib, here is Mr Scratch’s response to it.]

Aqib Talib’s first six games this season was a sight to watch. He effectively was “shut down” CB. His game clinching interception against the Jets, his ability to limit Julio Jones (at least mainly) and make the game ending pass break-up, shutting out Jimmy Graham… it was some great work early.

Now comes the difficult question: does New England re-sign him? Here are some things to consider before making a impulse buy.

Market Dynamics
No positional market is as ambiguous as CB this year. Two short off-seasons ago the cornerback market was thriving. The top two players to reach the open market were Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan. They each received 5 year contracts for $50M. At 27 years-old Eric Wright received $37.5M over 5 years contract. At 30 years-old, Carlos Rodgers parlayed a one year “prove it” deal into 4 years and $29M. Extensions were signed a year early for Lardarius Webb (6/ $53M) and Jason McCourty (5/ $43M). The market for CB was rolling along (the way had been for several years leading up to then).

Then the 2013 FA period began and it all changed. Chris Houston, Shaun Smith, Keenan Lewis, Derek Cox and Cary Williams all came away with remarkably similar deals in the $5M+ range per year. Talib, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Brent Grimes all decided to take one year deals in that $5M neighborhood to try to re-establish value with each having a black mark on their 2012 season. That’s a lot of players getting almost the exact same money and quite a difference from where the market had been. Now those three will rejoin the market where the list of players scheduled to join them includes: Alterraun Verner, Sam Shields, Vontae Davis and Charles Tillman this year.

Inversely to the supply factor is demand. And in that: the Dolphins, Jets, Bengals, Browns, Colts, Jaguars, Raiders, Packers, Redskins and Vikings are all well positioned cap teams who could be looking to add or keep secondary players. On top of that, Tennessee, Denver and Chicago can create the cap space to retain their free agents.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the other teams currently holding the top impending FA CB move to lock them up before FA begins or even use the franchise tag in some cases. That could leave Talib as the definitive top CB on the market among several cap flush teams looking to spend.

Performance/ Durability
Last season is the first time Aqib Talib has ever garnered any post-season awards. At the same time, there was a troubling underlier to that seems to somewhat define Talib overall:

First 6 games: 13-33-186-1-4-28.9
Next 3 games: DNP Injury
Last 9 games (including playoffs) 28-42-480-2-0-121.1

Talib alternately went from great to injured to poor. This isn’t exactly isolated or new. After a great start to his career in Tampa, Talib dealt with injuries, off-field issues and erratic play. After a suspension for PEDs, he was dealt away in the final year of his rookie contract. So far, he has averaged 12.8 GP per season in his career.

In his now 23 regular season games with New England he has already missed 5 while also playing in only 10 of 16 playoff quarters. That translates to an average of 12.5 games per year (almost his exact career average) with questions about how long he can hold-up into the post-season on top (62.5%).

Positional History
The track record of cornerbacks moving into their late 20’s is spotty at best. We can look to this year’s free agent class for examples:

Bears CB Charles Tillman has a long and solid career marked by reasonable durability and was still going strong at 32 until a triceps injury ended his season. Then there’s Dolphins CB Brett Grimes who will re-enter the market at 31 coming off a Pro Bowl season. Yet Grimes has only played 16 games 3 times in his career and only twice as a starter. He suffered injuries in 2011 and 2012 (at 28 and 29) that limited him to 13 games in those years combined. Then there’s a player like Rashean Mathis who started his career playing 16 G in each of his 4 seasons while recording 20 interceptions including Pro bowl and All Pro selections in 2006 at age 26. Mathis’ career went straight down hill from there as he played in 88 games over the next 7 years while recording only 10 interceptions. Then there’s Eric Wright who signed that 5 years, $37.5M contract 2 years ago at 27 years-old. Wright had a very disappointing season in Tampa and was cut one year into his deal. He signed in San Francisco where he was used primarily as depth this season and, although only 29 this year, is barely hanging on in the league.

Marcus Trufant, Chris Gamble, Dunta Robinson and Leon Hall are other examples of players who had fantastic starts their careers, signed significant contracts and soon after (in the 27-28 year-old range) had dramatic fall offs in performance and health. And largely these had been very durable players to that point. The 6’1/ 200 lbs/ 4.4.5 40/ 40 inch vertical Chris Gamble had 24 interceptions in his first 6 seasons while only missing 3 games to that point. A year after he signed a 6 year, $53M extension he saw injuries hi and a drastic drop in play as he missed 18 games over the next 3 years while onlt recording 3 interceptions. He retired last year at age 30.

To an extent, New England already went down this road recently. Leigh Bodden, coming off a very good season in Cleveland was traded to Detroit where he signed a 4 year, $27M extension. After one rough season the Lions cut him loose and the Patriots picked him up for $2.25M. At 28, he had a stellar 2009 season for the Patriots who thought they were stuck at CB that off-season and had to re-sign Bodden giving him a 4 year/ $22M contract with $10M guaranteed. He played 5 games over the next 2 years before his career was over.

The scary thing about Talib is he already comes with injury flag at this point which seems to be about the age many cornerbacks simply start breaking down.

Return On Investment
Myth: A top paid corner is a good way to fix or solidify your pass defense…

The New York Jets lost all world CB Darelle Revis early in the season in 2012 after posting the 3rd best passer rating against (PRA) in 2011. Behind a (legitimate) Pro Bowl year from Antonio Cromartie surrounded by low to mid priced filler they hardly missed a beat fielding the #7 PRA defense in 2012. This year #9 pick Dee Milliner and Cromartie were both awful and the Jets posted the #20 PRA.
In 2012 the Bears posted the #2 PRA in the league behind Pro Bowl seasons from both Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. Both played well this year, but not as well, and Tillman missed half the season. The Bears dropped to #21.
The Buccaneers secondary was a mess in 2012 finishing #27 in PRA. They made huge off-season investments there, primarily in Darrelle Revis, and the $25M total they spent got them to #22 this year.
The Houston Texans have top paid CB Johnathan Joseph and after finishing 10th in PRA last year they dropped to 23rd this year. And Joseph is one of the few “mega FA deals” that has worked out fairly well.
The Rams paid Cortland Finnegan a huge salary and in 2012 were a fairly mediocre 14th in PRA. This year, with Finnegan struggling and then injured, they were #24.
The Packers were a stellar pass defense in 2012 with the soon to be FA Sam Shields, big money CB Tramon Williams and 2nd round find Casey Heyward as they finished 4th in PRA. This year Heyward went out early and despite Williams and Shields they finished #25.
The Cowboys paid a ransom to Brandon Carr, have a highly paid slot CB in Orlando Scandrick and moved up to get Morris Claiborne #6 overall. They’ve finished the last two seasons #29 and #26 in PRA.

Reality: Unfortunately, simply paying top players at CB does not guarantee much of anything.

Conversely, out of all of the top 10 teams in passer rating against there were only 3 players with free agent contracts or extensions that had an average annual value of over $6M. One was Pro Bowler Brandon Flowers, another was the barely average Carlos Rogers and the third was Leon Hall who played 5 games all season.

The Carolina Panthers were 10th in passer rating against and didn’t have a single secondary player who played more than 2 games and had a cap number above $1.1M.

Right now, New England’s situation is that they need to clear cap space just to be in a position to operate this season and retain mid to low market free agents. Barring cutting Wilfork or a gift from the caps gods, any plan to get reasonably substantial cap space would include borrowing from the future. A Talib signing itself would include borrowing from the future as the deal would likely include a good sized sign bonus, back loaded payments and sizable guaranteed money. Unfortunately, there is not much to borrow from as things will continue remain touch and go with several large salaries already on the books and players on deck for new deals.

At this point it seems quite likely that one year is not the death knell of the CB market and things will bounce back. Although, given the evidence, it would be quite understandable if teams are far more cautious moving forward. That said, multi-year contracts at $7-8M seem fairly realistic with $9M still in play for some of this years group.

While every signing comes with a modicum of risk, this one seems particularly risky at a point where New England really can’t afford a large misstep. I have seen the question: How do you replace Talib? And neither the question nor the answer is very simple. But in a nutshell, it all depends on which Talib you are replacing. The one in the first six games? You likely can’t no matter what you do including re-signing Talib. He’s never consistently maintained that level before. The one in the next 3 games? You already did. The one in the last 9 games? With anyone.

And that naturally begs the most difficult and pertinent question: How do you know which Talib you’re signing?

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