Mike Williams, Casey Hayward, NY Jets, Free Agent, Contract
Mike Williams, Casey Hayward, NFL Free Agents, Getty Images

Which contract-year stars should the New York Jets steer clear of?

One of the most infamous phenomenons in sports is the contract-year breakout. Players have been known to go all-out in the final season of their contract to earn a gaudy new deal, only to fall back down to Earth after earning their money.

This doesn’t always happen when a player breaks out prior to becoming a free agent, but it is certainly quite common and something that NFL teams should keep an eye out for.

Here are five free agents who might be fool’s gold after a breakout contract year.

LB De’Vondre Campbell (Packers)

Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell is someone who could be on the New York Jets’ radar due to his familiarity with defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Campbell spent the first four years of his career in Atlanta, where Ulbrich was his linebackers coach.

Over the first five years of his career, Campbell was a largely mediocre starter. His efforts over four years in Atlanta culminated in a one-year, $6 million with the Cardinals in 2020, and his performance for Arizona earned him a one-year, $2 million with the Packers in 2021.

At 28 years old and in his sixth NFL season, Campbell exploded with Green Bay. Previously a porous coverage linebacker, Campbell allowed career-lows of 7.0 yards per reception and an 87.3 passer rating in 2021. He ranked as Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 overall linebacker and No. 2 coverage linebacker on the way to being named a First-Team All-Pro.

Campbell’s 2021 production stands out as a massive outlier compared to the rest of his career. Since he is already 28, there is a decent chance that it was a random spike rather than a true step forward that will be maintained in future seasons.

Check out Campbell’s overall PFF grades and ranks among linebackers throughout his career.

  • 2021: 86.0 (2nd / 67 qualified LB)
  • 2020: 49.0 (49th / 67)
  • 2019: 50.1 (51st / 64)
  • 2018: 56.6 (51st / 62)
  • 2017: 69.1 (21st / 67)
  • 2016: 55.7 (57th / 66)

This career path is eerily reminiscent of former Jets linebacker Demario Davis. He returned to the Jets for a second stint in 2017 and had an outstanding career year that was much better than anything he had shown before. Just like Campbell, he was 28 years old and in his sixth NFL season.

New York allowed Davis to walk to New Orleans. There, Davis has been able to maintain the improved play he showed in 2017.

That is a unique case, though. Most players who have a random amazing season at that point of their career do not go on to maintain that level of play.

Will Campbell be the next Davis or will his 2021 season prove to be a flash in the pan?

LB Foyesade Oluokun (Falcons)

Foyesade Oluokun joins De’Vondre Campbell as another free-agent linebacker who played under Ulbrich in Atlanta.

Oluokun caught eyes in 2021 with a big year in the box score. He led the NFL with 192 total tackles, 75 more than his previous career high.

Advanced metrics are not as fond of Oluokun as the standard metrics. Oluokun struggled in his coverage as he allowed the eighth-most yards per reception among linebackers (11.0). Teams had particular success exploiting him down the field, as Oluokun allowed the second-most air yards per reception (6.2).

At PFF, Oluokun ranked 51st out of 67 qualified linebackers with a 45.8 overall grade.

What appears to be a breakout year in the box score doesn’t appear to be anything special in reality.

CB Casey Hayward (Raiders)

Casey Hayward was an excellent cornerback with the Packers and Chargers for a long time but was cut by Los Angeles after a 2020 season where he began to show signs of decline at 31 years old.

Hayward settled for a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Raiders heading into his age-32 season. He had a shockingly dominant season, allowing only 0.57 yards per cover snap, which ranked third-best out of 96 qualified cornerbacks.

That was a career-best number for Hayward by a wide margin, which is saying something considering how good he has been throughout his career. He had allowed a career-worst 1.27 yards per cover snap in 2020.

Hayward is going to be 33 next season. It would be risky to bank on him to replicate such a remarkable season of production at age 32.

One player who entered the 2021 free-agent market in a similar predicament is Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes was cut after an atrocious age-29 season with the Vikings and signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Colts in 2020. He responded with a very solid season at 30 years old.

Indianapolis re-upped Rhodes on another one-year deal, this time for $4.8 million going into his age-31 season. Sure enough, Rhodes was unable to replicate his successful 2020 season.

Hayward is a nice stopgap option for any team that needs cornerback help but his new squad has to be ready for the veteran to endure a steep regression to the mean.

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EDGE Randy Gregory (Cowboys)

A second-round pick in 2015, Randy Gregory finally established himself as a high-quality pass rusher in 2021 after years of struggles both on and off the field.

In 12 games, Gregory set new career highs with 17 quarterback hits and 43 pressures. He was a very efficient rusher, creating pressure on 13.9% of his pass-rush snaps. The 2021 NFL average for edge rushers was 10.2%.

Gregory’s performance in 2021 was not much of an outlier from a performance standpoint. We have seen him produce with excellent efficiency as a pass rusher throughout his whole career. In 2020, Gregory had a 13.7% pressure rate. He had a 13.8% pressure rate as a rookie in 2015. Gregory just played more this year than he typically does, allowing him to rack up better volume numbers.

On-field play is not the risk with Gregory. The issue is that teams cannot be certain he will be available.

Gregory has only played in 50 out of 113 (44.2%) possible regular season games since being drafted (7.1 games per season). He has an extensive history of both suspensions and injuries that makes him impossible to count on.

In 2021, Gregory missed five games with a calf injury suffered in late November. His performance dipped noticeably after returning. Gregory had five sacks and an elite pressure rate of 16.2% in seven games prior to the injury, but only one sack and a solid pressure rate of 11.5% in six post-return games (including playoffs).

Gregory is one of the best edge rushers set to hit the market but teams should be wary of committing to him for more than one year. Teams simply won’t want to tie themselves to a player who is a coin flip to appear in any given game. Bidding a high number to acquire Gregory on a one-year contract could make sense, though.

With one more full season of off-field reliability and fairly decent on-field durability, Gregory can put himself on the map for a lucrative multi-year contract in 2023. While he’ll be 30 when the 2023 free-agency period rolls around, he is talented enough to still get himself a handsome contract at that age. He’s just got to prove he can be relied upon to stay on the field.

WR Mike Williams (Chargers)

Mike Williams set career highs in receptions (76) and receiving yards (1,146) for the Chargers this past season, while also catching nine touchdowns.

Teams pursuing Williams need to be certain that he can maintain the improved consistency he showed in 2021. After years of boom-or-bust play, Williams finally showed more stability in his fifth NFL season as he averaged a career-best 4.8 receptions per game. He was averaging 3.0 receptions per game over the previous three seasons.

Here is a look at Williams’ 2021 season compared to his previous three campaigns.

  • 2021: 16 games, 129 targets (8.1/G), 76 receptions (4.8/G), 1,146 yards (71.6/G), 9 touchdowns
  • 2020: 15 games, 85 targets (5.7/G), 48 receptions (3.2/G), 756 yards (50.4/G), 5 touchdowns
  • 2019: 15 games, 90 targets (6.0/G), 49 receptions (3.3/G), 1,001 yards (66.7/G), 2 touchdowns
  • 2018: 16 games, 66 targets (4.1/G), 43 receptions (2.7/G), 664 yards (41.5/G), 10 touchdowns

That huge spike in targets and receptions is what pursuers will be keying in on.

Williams will likely earn a lucrative deal on the strength of the solid production volume that he accumulated in 2021. However, over the three seasons prior to 2021, he was merely a sporadic explosive-play threat. While a player like that is still valuable, he is not worth as much money as a consistent receiver who can be counted on to be a focal point of the offense each and every week.

It seems unlikely that Williams’ next team will truly regret adding him, as at the worst, he should give you the occasional enormous game and highlight play. The man has always been a good player thanks to the incredible height of his peaks. But he’s going to be paid to be consistently good – as he was in 2021. Can he do that on a yearly basis going forward?

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at]jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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Bruno
Bruno
9 months ago

Agree on this list, I don’t think their price is worth it on any.

Jets71
Jets71
9 months ago

I don’t think they will be signing anybody over the age of 28-29 years old. I also am cautious of players because they are “familiar” with coaches, especially on poor teams. Those teams aren’t good because they don’t have good players. Jarred Davis is a prime example of taking players off bad teams. I do like Mike Williams. He shares targets with one of the best slot WR’s and one of the best receiving RB’s in the league. I wouldn’t break the bank for him since they have enough draft picks to grab a top WR. Gregory doesn’t strike me as the type of consistent player they are looking to add to the team.

Reprocity
Reprocity
9 months ago

Using William’s averages doesn’t really support your narrative. Maybe show some stretches where his #’s are really good and/or really bad to show the inconsistency? He would’ve been our #1 WR easily on avg, which is more sad than anything.