Free Agency is a minefield, and every year, in every major sport, some GM gets his leg blown off. Informed fans often find themselves wondering why a team even bothers signing over-priced veterans at all. The answer is, of course, teams often have no choice. Leaving key positions open for draftees and NRIs can leave a team hamstrung; well constructed, but with such glaring holes at key positions, incapable to compete. This, sometimes irrational, fear has for years escalated the price of pitchers in baseball. GMs clutch themselves at night, tossing to visions of fifth starter Billy Ballthrower or closer Joey Longball, provoking often disastrous panic signings. The vast Sabermetric community then find themselves, once again, pounding the macro that spits out their canned "replacement level talent" article, updated with contemporary snark.
The concept of replacement level is less well studied in the NFL. Some ideas have persevered, supported on an almost common sense level. Quarterbacks are extremely hard to replace, each year their are less competent Qbs than teams in the NFL. The same can be said about Left Tackles. Running backs are very easy to replace, every year a half dozen running backs break-out or break-down. But what about TE?
For years Hawks fans have heard the weekly declaration from minimally informed pundits that the TE position is a key to Mike Holmgren's modified Walsh offense. The repetition is enough to hypnotize. And for years the punditry has asserted that if only the talented but troubled Jerramy Stevens could "put everything together" he would be a star. Well, no more, because Jackass Stevens--the man who's unrealized talent is only bested by his reputation for being a dxck--is likely someone else's problem, now. But what should the Hawks do with this opportunity/obligation? Is Tim Ruskell having nightmares of Will "Catch-32" Heller starting next year? And so we wade back into the minefield.
Daniel Graham/Eric Johnson: These two are the same antique only with different provenance. In the malarkey of local sports-journalism-speak, Graham is the proven winner, the crafty veteran, the consummate community man from football's modern dynasty, the New England Patriots. Johnson is the unrealized talent, stuck with inferior quarterbacks and a losing franchise, the "what if" or "if only" guy. In reality, both are declining players with their best year now over two years behind them. That year, 2004, Johnson was 25 and Graham 26, not incidentally the average age (26.1) of the top 15 TEs as measured by DVOA in 2006. That is skewed a bit by top five performances by HOF Tony Gonzalez (30) and possible HOF Alge Crumpler (28). If you look at TEs ranked 5-15, a reasonable hope for whoever Seattle starts at TE next year, the average age actually drops to 25.4. That's because TEs peak quickly and decline rapidly. Like running backs, tight ends are asked to take a regular pounding and still maintain the otherworldly athleticism to outrun and outagile defenders.
It is therefore no surprise when top performers from 2005 like Jeb Putzier or Erron Kinney, 28 and 29 respectively, disappear in 2006. For an average TE, when the peak is over and the hits begin to add up, you are not long for this league--so why waste cap dollars and roster space signing them?
David Martin: Martin at 27 is about a half year older than Johnson. Martin, however, has never had a good season. His career has been wracked by injuries, and heading into the off season he is likely looking for a one year contract with a chance to prove himself. These injuries are a double edged sword. The obvious fact is that players who get hurt/who are hurt, tend to get hurt again/stay hurt. On the other hand, players who've suffered the aches and pains of random, but career-stifling injuries are also spared a lot of ware. Players like Priest Holmes and Jermaine Wiggins achieved late career break-outs after overcoming nagging injuries that limited their playing time early on.
Martin may be able to do the same thing. Last year was Martin's best, in 11 games and only four starting appearances, Martin bested Johnson and Graham both in DVOA--measuring his value per play--and also DPAR--measuring his overall value. While his catch percentage is a little low, 58%, Brett Favre is a little erratic, too. Martin isn't exactly a deep threat (he averaged an unimpressive 9.4 YPC) something the Hawks would like their TE to be, but he is strong at converting first downs. 13 of his 21 receptions achieved a first down in 2006. Most importantly though, Martin is a low cost, low risk player with decent potential.
Not having a first round pick has it's advantages. The Hawks should be flush with cap dollars this off season, and the lure to grab a name player at TE will be great. But why sign someone with almost no chance of contributing? Committing to Graham or Johnson may not ruin the Hawks' season, but it is a mistake, nevertheless.
To answer that magical question, what would I do if I were GM? I'd sign Martin to a contract el cheapo, while filling the long-term need at TE through a very deep draft class. Cheap depth at a position of need is an ideal recipe for success, and it saves money for more promising ventures in free agency, but that's another post for another day.