Where's the loyalty?
That's what former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was wondering when the team announced that it would not bring back free agent return man Devin Hester this season. Hester was one of the most recognizable Bears players and is still a very dangerous return man. The Bears unceremoniously dumped Hester, one of the greatest returners in history, in a manner similar to their release of Urlacher last offseason. "It's frustrating as an ex-Bear and a player to see that happen," Urlacher told FOX Sports, lamenting the lack of a "loyalty factor."
The short answer, Brian: the loyalty is in a magical fantasy gumdrop kingdom of our imaginations. There has never been loyalty in major professional sports, ever. There was only the one-way servitude of the pre-free agency era and the slightly more balanced system currently in place. Employee-employer loyalty has always been a myth here on Midgard where the mortals dwell. With the exception of some mom-and-pop bait shops in Upper Nowheresville, employers have always been exactly as loyal as contractual law required them to be.
You cannot blame Urlacher for getting a little whiplash last week, however. Players who merited king-sized contracts two years ago were dumped onto the open market just prior to the start of free agency. Not all of the dumpers were teams in dire cap shape, either: the cap-healthy Eagles released beloved slot receiver Jason Avant after squaring long-term deals with several of his teammates and the Colts cut starting center Samson Satele despite being flush with cash. The message is clear: new furniture is coming, so forget dabbing club soda on those sofa stains. Just leave it by the curb.
Some of the veterans released last week are unsalvageable. Some will prove incredibly useful to their next employers. Let's sort out who is who by breaking down the game film of some of the biggest names to change their Facebook status in the past week. We don't have time to cover everyone, of course, so we'll go deep on a handful of the most interesting players. Some will prove to be great bargains. Some may even prompt the kind of bidding war that got them into this predicament in the first place. A few may still be unemployed long after the upcoming week's feeding frenzy is just a sticky entry on a 2016 salary cap spreadsheet. But don't turn your nose up at some of these free agents because they just got fired: as every cool kid knows these days, some of the best deals are available at the thrift shop.
Who is He: A former All-Pro who once looked like he was developing into a Revis-caliber defender, Finnegan was one of the big prizes of the 2012 free-agent class. The Rams signed him away from the Titans for a five-year, $50-million whopper. Finnegan had a solid-but-unspectacular season in 2012, but the bottom fell out last year. He had a miserable season opener against the Cardinals (two long bombs allowed, three penalties), was sidelined for several weeks with a thigh injury, returned in a strictly-slot role for a few games, then suffered a fractured orbital bone.
Finnegan's cap number this season would have been around $10 million. For a 30-year-old coming off multiple injuries who has not been to the Pro Bowl since 2008, his release was a no brainer. But that does not mean he is completely finished.
The Good: Even in his best seasons, Finnegan was most effective when sliding into the slot whenever it was possible. He is an incredibly rangy zone defender, a fine underneath tackler, a good pattern diagnostician and an effective blitzer: four reasons to keep him close to the line of scrimmage and facing the quarterback.
Finnegan looked very sharp in the Colts and Titans games between his two injuries. Despite the nickel demotion, Finnegan played multiple roles. He blitzed often, and he often raced down the seam to a deep zone after starting the play man-up on a slot receiver. Finnegan tackled Andrew Luck a few times on scrambles as an underneath zone defender, and picked off one Jake Locker pass that, frankly, was the typically inexplicable Jake Locker pass. The few times he lined up wide and covered receivers downfield, he showed that he still has the wheels to blanket Nate Washington-types.
Finnegan still hustles hard until the ends of plays and covers a ton of ground when racing around the field to put out fires. He cleaned up a 57-yard screen-and-run play in garbage time against the Colts on which he started on the opposite side of the field and probably ran about 90 yards through traffic to prevent the Colts from cutting their deficit to 23. Chris Johnson tried to pull a Marcus Allen highlight on a sweep to the right by cutting completely back to the left sideline; Finnegan was far downfield covering a clear-out post route, but he spotted Johnson's reverse and sprinted back to make a shoestring tackle for a short gain.
The Bad: Finnegan was always a hothead, and he committed several dumb penalties in the Cardinals game, including lunging at a player already on the ground and trying to body slam Larry Fitzgerald when well out of bounds. Coaches can live with a little over-aggression from a cornerback blanketing No. 1 receivers, but Finnegan looked like a too-slow, too-late defender taking out his frustrations.
At 5-foot-10, Finnegan always needed scrappiness and elite quickness to match up with big Michael Floyd-type receivers. Those traits no longer appear to be enough now that Finnegan has gotten older.
Finnegan's performance fluctuated wildly even during his prime years. Football Outsiders charting stats listed him as a liability one year (2010) and a league leader the next (2011). This should not be too surprising, since we are talking about a short, temperamental defender who has spent much of his career since 2008 on unsuccessful teams. Finnegan's performance is matchup, situation and mood dependent. Throw injuries and age into the mix, and you get the kind of player who is not worth a $10 million risk.
Bottom Line: On the other hand, you do get a player worth a one-year prove-it deal, with some escalators based on the number of snaps he plays or other factors. Finnegan settled down after that awful Cardinals game, and he appeared motivated, focused and still pretty fast during his midseason window of health. Finnegan could be a killer slot cornerback, or a No. 2 corner who slides into the slot, for a good team. A team like the Packers could insert him into the old Charles Woodson role, blitzing often and sitting in the hook zone waiting to cherry pick mistakes. Finnegan can be an excellent value for a team that knows what to expect, and how to use the player they are getting.
Who is He: A career slot/possession receiver, Avant was with the Eagles long enough to share the huddle with both Jeff Garcia and Matt Barkley. He has been a team captain and was the "designated guy with a clue" in the locker room during the lean years. Avant started 14 games last season, as Chip Kelly used a three-receiver base package, but he caught just 38 passes, his lowest total since 2008. After Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin and other Eagles signed new deals, the team released Avant to maintain cap maneuverability.
The Good: Avant still has the classic possession receiver skill set. He knows how to sit down in zones for short passes and can make nifty little moves at the stem of his pass pattern to get away from defenders. He still runs the post-corner route well enough to break free of the nickel defenders and safeties who are usually covering him, so Chip Kelly had him run that route frequently. Avant was a natural in the leader/captain/chaplain role and stood tall during some difficult situations, like the death of Andy Reid's son and Riley Cooper's racial slur.
The Bad: Opponents are often content to use safeties to cover Avant, who was never a burner and can now only outrun the slowest defensive backs. The Cardinals lined up Tyrann Mathieu against Avant last year, which was fascinating. Avant used his post-corner trick to catch a deep pass against Mathieu early; after that, the Honey Badger looked like he was orbiting in circles around Avant as he completed his pattern.
Avant was a great "bad ball" receiver in his prime, hauling in passes that were too high (Michael Vick) or too low (Donovan McNabb). He still flashes that talent, but some of his agility is gone. When the Eagles needed him to be a vacuum cleaner in the first Cowboys game (Nick Foles was playing injured, then Matt Barkley was playing Barkley), Avant just could not adjust to the ping-pong balls flying at him the way he used to.
Avant made an impact on special teams early in his career and will do anything he is asked, but he has not been a regular coverage team contributor in years and has little experience as a return man. As teams seek third-to-fifth receivers, lack of special teams versatility becomes an issue.
Bottom Line: Two of Avant's recent coaches, the Chiefs' Andy Reid and the Jets' Marty Mornhinweg, will be in the market for receiver depth for their rosters. Avant's coaches love him, but Avant would be an odd fit for the Chiefs, who need a dose of speed. The Jets are a better fit. Thinking outside the Reid Family box, the Broncos could use Avant if they lose Eric Decker: Insert him as the fourth option in their passing game and he can do Brandon Stokley-type stuff.
Avant is not destined to have a Stokley-like endless career as a lovable try-hard slot guy, however, because his skills are clearly fading. Avant can still help as a safety valve for a contender or camp counselor for a rebuilding team, but his next contract will be his last.
Who is He: The Dolphins' second-round pick in 2007, Satele has been just good enough to hire but not marry throughout his career. Dependable, tough and (early in his career) durable, Satele bounced from Miami to Oakland to Indianapolis as Starting Center X.
Satele signed a huge five-year deal in 2012 to be Andrew Luck's veteran bodyguard and the stabilizer of a completely rebuilt offensive line. Satele did the job, more-or-less, between nagging injuries. The proration years of Satele's contract had not kicked in yet, and releasing him saved just $4 million in cap space (the Colts are in good fiscal shape), but the team may want to upgrade and change priorities in the middle of its offensive line.
The Good: Satele's first name doubles as a convenient label. Pure muscle has always been the focal point of his game. Satele can still block quality nose tackles with little help from a double team. He did an exceptional job against Brandon Mebane in the Seahawks game, and when Mebane gave way to quicker sub Clinton McDonald for a few snaps, Satele knocked McDonald into the end zone turf during a Donald Brown touchdown run.
The Bad: Satele is not laterally quick, even by the standards of a center. That appears to have been a major issue in Pep Hamilton's offense. Hamilton likes his linemen to pull and trap, but Satele often missed blocks or winds up on the ground when asked to leave his box universe. Satele also whiffs on second level blocks.
It is impossible to evaluate a center's ability to make line calls, and Satele has experience in a variety of systems. There were times, though, when the Colts' blocking scheme looked a little odd: Satele would trade an A-gap defender to a guard while chasing another defender (remember that he is great at stand-up blocking but bad at chasing), or two or three interior linemen would block no one as an opponent blitzed both edges. Watch the Patriots playoff game and you will see several situations where Satele and guard Thomas Austin appear to be arguing about where to have dinner right up until Satele snaps the ball.
Again, laying these issues on Satele's shoulders would be irresponsible: Austin had just been promoted to the lineup, for example, and both Satele and Hamilton had to deal with revolving guards all year. But it may be a sign of a disconnect between player and system, the kind that makes a cap cut easier to swallow.
Bottom Line: Any center who can block Seahawks defensive linemen one-on-one is still valuable in the NFL. For Satele, it may be a matter of scheme. He needs an opportunity to block straight ahead: no Pep Hamilton-Jim Harbaugh pull-trap schemes, no Gary Kubiak-Mike Shanahan zone blocking.
There are not a lot of teams with major needs at center, and at press time Alex Mack was still the top free agent at the position. A team in search of an all-around stabilizer at the right price -- the Giants perhaps -- could get a lot of value from Satele. The Jaguars must replace Brad Meester, and while there is a lot of zone blocking in their playbook, they may be in the market for a steadying presence to snap to a rookie quarterback. It's a role Satele has handled well enough to take the Colts from a rebuilding project into the second round of the playoffs.
Who is He: The fifth player taken in the 2007 draft, Brown has been a frustrating player throughout his career. He was just capable enough to survive as a starting right tackle for very good Cardinals teams early in his career, but he was always a step-slow pass protector vulnerable to better pass rushers.
The Cardinals moved Brown to left tackle in 2010 and developed a somewhat insane blind spot about his performance. He blew 12.5 blocks in 2010 and 10.5 in 2011, placing him among the league leaders both years, but the Cardinals signed him to a five-year, $30-million contract for his efforts. Brown suffered a triceps injury not long after signing the new deal.
After four ugly starts for the Cardinals in 2013, the Steelers traded for Brown to cover an injury rash. Brown suffered another triceps injury soon after arriving in Pittsburgh, never playing a down. On the hook for a chunk of that 2012 contract, the Steelers eagerly cut their losses.
The Good: Brown is big enough to merit his own beltway. He has 79 games of starting experience, so he does not make any ridiculous mistakes. His footwork is good, his approach to faster pass rushers makes sense (he tries to take them wide, then drive them to the turf as they torque around him) and he can recognize a blitz or stunt and find the right guy to block. There are times when Brown still engulfs smaller defenders and eradicates them from the play.
The Bad: Brown played like a blocker with a triceps injury in 2013. He let defenders get right into his body, instead of using his arms to lock them out. It was amazing, and a little depressing, to see just how often defenders jolted Brown backward with their initial contact. This is a 330-pound man. Even when he had his defender blocked, Brown could be driven backward.
Quickness still gives Brown fits. Junior Galette (Saints) used a simple outside-in move to get past Brown several times. The Buccaneers threw a lot of stunts at Brown, and while Brown usually recognized the stunt, he was a step too slow to pick up his defender. When you are slow to engage a slicing defender, then get knocked backward once you start blocking him, bad things happen.
The most disturbing element of Brown's game film is his inability to finish blocks. Defenders get away from him too easily late in plays. Carson Palmer took some hits he did not have to take because Brown did not sustain his block long enough. The inability to finish can be a focus-motivation issue or a conditioning issue, and conditioning issues are often focus-motivation issues in disguise. Brown has essentially been on scholarship for his entire NFL career; it may have taken a new coaching regime, reevaluating him with open eyes, to recognize just how far Brown had fallen short of his potential.
Bottom Line: Brown's triceps must pass a physical before any team thinks of touching him. Then, a coach needs to look him in the eye and verify that Brown still has faith in his upper body and himself. To be blunt: teams will be wary of signing Brown so he can suffer the next twinge that lands him on paid injured reserve. Brown may not be that kind of guy, but he has some convincing to do.
Brown might be tempting to a cash-flush team willing to roll dice on a player who was once an elite prospect. The Raiders essentially did that with Andre Gurode and Khalif Barnes last year, and look where it got them: often, the rebuilding team ends up with a broken-down starter, just good enough to keep them in a holding pattern. A healthy Brown might be a better fit for stacked contender in win-now mode like the 49ers, who can bring him to camp on a risk-free, incentive-heavy deal. If Jim Harbaugh likes what he sees and finds Brown's pilot light, the 49ers get a backup swing tackle with years of starting experience, capable of quelling an injury emergency. If Harbaugh is not completely satisfied, he can cut Brown, and everyone will forget the experiment two weeks later.
Who is He: Bess had a "Wes Welker Junior" reputation for the Dolphins, the team that failed to identify the original Wes Welker as an impact player. Bess was a durable short pass gobbler in the slot for years, catching over 70 passes in his best seasons.
The Browns traded two mid-round picks to acquire Bess during draft weekend last season. They expected to get a reliable safety-valve receiver to help sort their quarterback situation out. Instead, they got a player with terrible hands and, we would later learn, deeper issues. Bess was arrested in January for erratic behavior in an airport: he was dancing and singing with his pants drooped, then attempted to fight the police who arrived on the scene. He Tweeted some suspicious photos before and after the incident. Deeper digging revealed that police had to confront and sedate an out-of-control Bess at his home early in 2013 (before the trade). Family members have mentioned some serious personal matters, as well as severe insomnia. The Browns released Bess this week.
The Good: There were flashes of the Welker-lite Bess early in the year. At his best, Bess slips into flats and underneath zones, hauls in passes in traffic and can fight upfield for extra yards. Bess has the quickness to break suddenly on underneath routes. When focused, he knows how to do all the little things slot receivers have to do: throttle down and sift through zones on crossing routes, anticipate the quick throw into the flat based on the coverage, and so on.
The Bad: Bess dropped a ton of passes last year. Numbers vary based on the source, and Browns quarterbacks threw so many off-target passes that it can be hard to separate flat-out drops from passes Jerry Rice would need a butterfly net to do anything more than tip. But Bess let several short, easy passes bounce off his hands or chest. Bess did not come down with many contested passes, a major problem for a slot-possession receiver.
Bess was never a downfield burner, and he rarely got separation from tight man coverage even at his best. The ability to exploit zones made him effective in his Dolphins prime, but Bess was very inconsistent at finding soft spots, settling down and making the small adjustments to give his quarterbacks an inviting target. Whether the problem was the quarterbacks, scheme or focus issues is not clear, though recent events really steer you toward that third option.
Coaches lost confidence in Bess late in the season. He played just 20 snaps against the Bears and 27 against the Patriots, both high-scoring games in which teams would typically expect a lot from their slot receiver. Second tight end Gary Barnidge saw much more offensive action than Bess in those games. When you remember how talent poor last year's Browns were behind Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron at the skill positions, the decision to limit a receiver of Bess' pedigree is telling. Of course, it did not help that Bess inevitably dropped the first shallow cross thrown to him every week.
Bottom Line: The Bess on the 2013 game tape is unemployable: no one needs a slot receiver who drops five-yard passes. The Bess on the airport arrest report is a young man being driven off the rails by some combination of drugs, family problems and emotional issues. Yet the Bess of 2008-2012 was a very productive role player and a quiet, reliable citizen. Maybe that Bess is just a wake-up call, some counseling, and a lifestyle change or two away from returning.
If Bess was 6-foot-3 and had 4.4 speed, some team would take a chance on him this year, airport kung fu and reefer photos be damned. But Bess is a short, quick possession receiver: reliability is such a player's calling card, and Bess was unreliable on the field and off in 2013 and so far this year. Jason Avant will get extra chances because coaches know that, at worst, he will run his drills, give great tips to the rookies and accept his fate if he can no longer crack the roster. No one has a clue what Bess brings to a team headquarters and he doesn't have the elite gifts to make him worth the risk.
We can revisit Bess in a few months if we learn more about his problems and/or the steps he is taking to solve them. He will be unemployed for the foreseeable future.