FAB 4. Re-Signing Players Can Be Quite A Dilemma
One of the biggest fears of any general manager is letting a good player walk away. It’s hard enough to find good players in the draft and free agency, so when they leave it’s a real blow because not only did a team lose a strong asset, there is substantial risk is trying to find a replacement that is just as good if not better.
When it works out, it’s simply a given that the general manager should have re-signed that player. But when it doesn’t work it, the narrative becomes, “What were you thinking?”
Three years ago, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin was the second-leading rusher in the league, earning his second Pro Bowl berth on the heels of rushing for 1,402 yards. The two previous years were filled with injuries and disappointment, as Martin didn’t even crack 500 yards in in 2013 or ’14.
When Bucs general manager Jason Licht was faced with the prospect of re-signing Martin just days before he hit free agency in 2016 or risk losing the league’s second-leading rusher he knew he was in an impossible situation.
If he didn’t re-sign Martin, Licht would be crucified by Tampa Bay fans for letting him walk in free agency.
If he re-signed Martin and he didn’t live up to his contract, underperformed and got hurt again, Licht would also be crucified.
The only way Licht and the Bucs would come out of this dilemma on top is if Martin signed his five-year, $35.75 million and continued to be a 1,000-yard rusher. Unfortunately for the Bucs, that’s not what has happened.
Licht negotiated up until the last minute before free agency began to re-sign Martin. Given the running back’s injury history, there was no rush to get a deal done because with two really good years and two really bad years in the league there was a 50-50 chance that Martin would disappoint.
After rushing for a career-low 421 yards and three touchdowns on 144 yards (2.9 avg.) last year, Martin has just 379 yards and two touchdowns on 119 carries (3.2 avg.) this season. In the first year of his new contract, Martin injured his hamstring and then was suspended for drug usage. That caused him to miss the first three games of the 2017 campaign and he hasn’t been very effective since returning.
Martin missed most of the Atlanta game and last week’s Green Bay contest with a concussion, which will further limit his production this year. I’ve said before that Martin is a “feast or famine” type running back. But with four seasons with less than 500 yards rushing and only two years of 1,400 yards rushing, Martin has become way more “famine” than “feast.”
In hindsight, re-signing Martin was a big mistake – a mistake the Bucs need to move on from in 2018. But at the time in 2016, re-signing Martin made all the sense in the world given how well he performed in Tampa Bay’s fifth-ranked offense in 2015.
Licht faced a similar dilemma this past offseason with defensive end Will Gholston. A big, 6-foot-6, 285-pound run-stuffer, Gholston was a key cog in Tampa Bay’s defense last year. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith likes big defensive linemen and Gholston certainly fit the bill.
After recording a career-high 67 tackles, three sacks and one forced fumble in 2015, Gholston notched 49 tackles, three more sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in his contract year last season. When Gholston missed the last two games of the year the Bucs’ run defense suffered, especially in a loss at New Orleans, which caused Tampa Bay to miss the playoffs.
The Bucs knew just how important he was to their defense, so Gholston was re-signed to a five-year, $27.5 million contract extension. Licht knew that the team was thin at defensive end to begin with, and the 26-year old Gholston had demonstrated that he was a young, ascending player that fit well in Smith’s defense.
Of course some fans, especially in hindsight, wanted Calais Campbell instead. But the Bucs had a hard time swallowing the fact that the 31-year old Campbell was worth the four-year, $60 million contract he received from Jacksonville that included a $6 million signing bonus and $30 million in guaranteed money.
No one – not even the Jaguars – expected Campbell to produce a career-high 12.5 sacks through the first 12 games this season.
Instead, Gholston has been disappointing this season. He’s got just 27 tackles on the year, zero sacks and was beaten badly three times on zone-read runs by quarterback Brett Hundley last Sunday in the overtime loss at Green Bay.
Most general managers would rather re-sign their own productive players rather than sign free agents from other teams. What’s the old saying? The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t?
But it presents a dilemma for general managers like Licht because even re-signing players is not a sure thing. Licht has had success re-signing the likes of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and offensive tackle Demar Dotson.
But getting burned from the likes of Martin and Gholston after re-signing them to big-money contracts might make Licht even more hesitant to re-sign some Tampa Bay’s impending free agents next year, such as cornerback Brent Grimes, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, guards Kevin Pamphile and Evan Smith and safeties T.J. Ward and Keith Tandy.
This isn’t just about Licht. This applies to every other NFL general manager and the guessing game that occurs when you had a player a big-money contract. What happens to the player’s desire? Does complacency set in? Do they become comfortable with their haul, or do they feel even more pressure to live up to their big contract and earn every penny?
The one lesson that every GM finds out the hard way when it comes to re-signing some free agents is that past performance does not always indicate future results. Sometimes it turns out that re-signing a player to even more money is more of a mistake than letting him go.