“Low-Risk” Isn’t an Excuse for Bad Players

In the offseason, it’s easy for me simply to post updates and editorialize a little bit while leaving the debates to the comment section. I’d like to think I can do more than that, and I wanted to address something that’s come up a few times when I complain about a particular player being signed to the Vikings (and in the future, a player that may be drafted).

This isn’t meant to call anyone out or attack them; I just wrote a headline that best captures my feelings: many of us excuse a front office whenever they make a questionable signing by arguing that it’s “only for depth,” that they will “get cut in camp,” or that it’s “low-risk.”

While in the case of players like Derek Cox and Vladimir Ducasse, there’s reason to believe there’s potential for high-reward, I think that the Vikings (or any team) can do better when they make low-risk signings.

There are two finite resources that are of primary concern when it comes to talent acquisition in the NFL: money and space. Specifically, the salary cap and the roster limit both prevent teams from signing every available player and holding a massive competition every year in camp. That means, despite the fact that the use of those resources isn’t necessarily always expensive, it’s still a cost.

In some cases, there is an additional cost (a draft pick) associated with it, which increases the importance of making sure that a team maximizes its available resources.

Put simply: would you be OK if the Vikings drafted quarterback Cody Green from Tulsa with a seventh-round pick? It’s a low-risk pick, and he has some fairly significant upside. It doesn’t cost a lot, and he’ll likely be cut in camp anyway.

You probably wouldn’t, because there were better players to use those resources on (a draft pick, roster spot and cap space). So, with better potential players on the market to compete for a spot, why would you be OK with a low-risk signing who also happened to be bad?

To put the (alleged) Vladimir Ducasse signing in context, there were better guards on the market who were also “low-risk” (a term that should really mean low-cost, because I do not care about the other things put at risk, like a GM’s reputation): Daryn College, Harvey Dahl, Uche Nwaneri and Travelle Wharton are still looking for teams, and they have all looked better than Ducasse.

I don’t know everything about how the market looks; perhaps the Vikings were put out of discussions for all of those players and Ducasse was a potential signing that would have happened in a dried-up market because that’s how the Vikings were functionally operating. Even so, there are a number of marginal guards on the market (Garrett Reynolds, Geoff Hangartner, Rich Ohrnberger?) that could have been had.

But there’s another side to “low-risk,” which is that because something is still being put at risk there must necessarily be a reward to potentially gain, and the higher the potential reward, the better. Just because a player has immense athletic capability does not mean he has “high upside,” at some point, there is a low degree of uncertainty surrounding a player’s ceiling, and that there are other things that can limit them from reaching that potential. For example, Tori Gurley is probably on his last stop with the Cleveland Browns despite immense athletic capability; he’s been with six teams prior.

Jaymar Johnson and Troy Williamson are other examples that hit closer to home; despite potential, they weren’t entertained by too many teams after their initial stop with the Vikings.

That’s because there wasn’t a lot of uncertainty surrounding their talents. In theory, they both had excellent potential as players. In practice, NFL front offices knew the chances of reaching that potential were slim to none.

There is a significantly lower chance that the offensive line coaching that produced Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Matt Slauson and somehow turned Wayne Hunter’s career around are not wrong about Ducasse. They replaced him with a rookie that needed a lot of seasoning and stuck with him despite the fact that he was actually performing worse. The reason they stuck with that rookie is because his future hasn’t been written. While Ducasse’s future isn’t necessarily written in stone, there’s certainly a higher probability that he’s bad than Brian Winters is.

Low-cost doesn’t mean no-cost, and that salary cap space (and roster spot), could be better spent on a player who has a good chance of developing instead of a very poor one. For example, I don’t think that there’s a good chance that likely undrafted free agent Zach Fulton from Tennessee will develop into an NFL-level player as a starter or a backup, but I do think the chances he does so are higher than Ducasse, who, as it currently stands, has not shown he’s been good enough even to be a backup.

Often, backups are players who can perform at a below-average level for short periods of time while the starter is dealing with injury. Often, these backups are developmental players who are currently below average (or even bad) that can become good or very good. But players like Ducasse are not merely bad, they are abysmal. Just because someone started for a time does not mean that they are a viable backup (although I do think that we too often dismiss the potential for bad starters to be good depth).

Admittedly, this is a more difficult issue with guards and quarterbacks, where there is very poor depth in the league but the  larger point remains.

So, when we dismiss a poor signing because he’s “depth” or “low-risk,” we should really ask who the 91st player on the roster would have been, and if he had a better chance to compete for a spot.

Good NFL teams will find ways to grab as many good players (or even just “OK” players) at the margins. Often, because it is difficult to tell who that will be, that means taking as many chances as possible with fringe players who will probably be cut, because it’s always a good thing when one of them wrests a spot away from someone who otherwise would have been secure. Even if every one of those players only has a one percent chance of developing into a valuable contribution, consistently eschewing that chance lowers your odds of building a good roster, and that’s not good football.

I don’t think the Vikings have had a poor offseason. In fact, I think it’s been great! But that doesn’t mean I’ll be OK with questionable signings merely because they’re camp bodies. Low-cost isn’t no-cost.

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  1. Agree, managing opportunity costs essential in competitiion. Size&NFL camp experience has value in practice situation. Bad reps in practice while a true rookie tries to figure out drills, tempo, and assignment has costs for entire line group. Some players are better at practice and give better controlled situation looks for starters to practice against and are then cut with little cost. I agree with you in this case. Vikes guard situation is far from settled unless you consider Baca and C Johnson sure answers. They need players with a chance to improve this position on game days. Vikes need a guy with a chance to start at guard – not Ducasse.

  2. Since this is considered a deep draft will that lead to a lot of players not selected in the draft to be brought in .

    1. Ole,
      My favorite was when Dugan introduced himself to the ref during the Steelers game.

  3. Yeah, this is good. Share your skepticism of the Cox signing too (Cook is probably better, maybe he actually did annoy Zimmer with that little twitter spat).

    FWIW Ducasse probably replaces JMWebb (also bad), and projects to RT not LG in MN.

    “Daryn College, Harvey Dahl, Uche Nwaneri and Travelle Wharton” = Ages: 32, 32, 30, 32. Ducasse is 26.

    They’ve kept some older vets in the mix with resignings (Johnson, Berger, Simpson, Evans, even Brinkley), but they’re mostly aiming for younger guys. Munnerlyn, Wootton and Griffen are 26. Joseph is only 25 (younger than several guys in the draft this year).

    1. Thanks for the commen,t Krauser.

      It’s true, I also projected Ducasse to RT (and then OG swingman). But I don’t think the point changes all that much, especially when you consider the number of UDFA’s I could have used to replace those four names at either OT or OG.

      I get that Ducasse is younger and that it fits a particular philosophy of the Vikings, but I think in this case I’d rather violate the philosophy and get a guy that can only help out for a few seasons than Ducasse, who I strongly believe can help out for 0 seasons.

  4. I completely understand what your saying Arif, but I would have agreed with you more before the Vikings choose Zimmer as the new HC. Part of his intrigue as a DC everywhere he has been is taking guys who have flamed out elsewhere and turning them into key parts of a great unit by placing focus on what they do best. As a HC, it isn’t surprising that he would try to expand this philosophy to the offensive side of the ball as well. If they are planning to do this, bringing in guys with elite athletic skills isn’t a bad way to go. I’m also a bit of a believer that the point of camp isn’t to bring in the best 90 guys, it’s to bring in the right 90. I believe in your own article you pointed out that Ducasse is by all accounts a good teammate and a guy who puts the work in at practice…to me that sounds like the kind of guy who might push a player who does make the roster to be at his very best every day, and that makes both him and the guys he’s going against better. Obvioulsy we’ld hope any player the team brings in would put their best effort out there, but that isn’t always the case. The money on these bottom of the roster deals really doesn’t matter..it’s a cost of doing business, if the owner doesn’t look at it that way he shouldn’t own an NFL franchise. Teams should always bring in the best players they can, but its the best player according to what the team thinks it needs. For all we know, the teams plan for any of these guys may just be to replicate a certain look in camp to help other guys get better. If that guy surprises you along the way and turns into one of your final 53, that’s a bonus.

    1. Thanks for the comment and different take.

      I think I’m going to stick to my guns on this one. I don’t think the Vikings will be looking for an example to be set by a third-string player likely to be cut, and I’m not sure that Ducasse is the kind of player that really fits the “not the best individual 90 players, but the best whole 90” because ta;ent is still a significant part of that equation, even once you accept that the best group of 90 isn’t always the best individual 90 players–that group still must be very, very talented.

      The question is what added value a player brings to make up for the fact that he may not be the next-most talented player that could have been on the camp roster. If it is that Ducasse works hard and has a great attiude, I’m just not sure. There are plenty of 26-year-old NFL players with more talent that share these qualities and many that are younger.

      Chemistry is important, but I don’t think it’s so important that players who are very, very likely not to grwo should be preferenced above those who can grow and still share many of the same intangible qualities. If that were the case, Tebow would still be on a roster.

      As for money on the bottom of the roster… yes, it matters! It affects rollover space for next year and your ablity to sign a vet to fill his spot instead of a UDFA! I’d rather have Zachary Bowman, who had a great attitude and good intel on the bears than a Vlad Ducasse. And with the Vikings carefully managing cap space, that might be the cost. With a limited cap, ALL MONEY MATTERs. Ducasse will count towards the Top 51, which means he affects cap space, which in turn creates opportunity costs. Three of these low-risk, low-reward deals and suddenly you’re out of the running for a mid-tier vet.

      That money is going to be spent either way. So why not spend it on a low-risk high-reward vet or a low-risk high-reward UDFA?

      1. I should clarify what I mean on the money. You are correct, even at a vet minimum Ducasse as a 5th year player will likely count on the top 51 for cap purposes. My point was more that with little or no guarantee’s, you can cut the guy the day after you sign him if a better player is available and it isn’t going to hurt you (the guarantee would be the cost of doing business money out of the owners pocket and would hit the cap). I also do not expect the Vikes to be close enough to the cap where his salary would make a significant difference. His roster spot is actually more important than the money they spent on him. By that I mean that you could almost fit two minimum wage rookie FA’s contracts for the same cost of Ducasse’s deal, but subtracting Ducasse from the roster itself still only leaves one available spot. As far as the carryover space that isn’t going to apply unless he actually makes the team, and that isn’t going to happen if he isn’t the best guy for the job.
        One other sidenote on this we haven’t factored in is comp picks. Signing guys like Brinkley and Cox came with the added value of them being released by their former teams, so they don’t count in our comp pick formula for next year. I think a team is always wise to check out younger players that were cut for this very fact. Ducasse is the flip side of that coin, if he makes the team he will zero out one of our FA losses this year which could have turned into a 6th round pick that claimed the next Tom Brady…or Joe Webb who was also the 199th player taken in the draft. Anyway, I think everyone is right to an extent on this. Every roster spot is extremely important and the team needs to treat it as such, that’s the main point your trying to make and I agree whole heartedly.

  5. Purple Charlie, Dugan threw down the ref and sprung Percy Harvin for a game winning TD on that play. Who do the Vikings have on the current roster who would even attempt that Back Judge blow out move perfected by Dugan? No one.

    Third team all ACC honorable mention when he dominated at Maryland

  6. If you think there are better OL’s than Ducasse, then the question isn’t money or who gets cut later or any of this other stuff. It’s talent evaluation. Why did the Viking choose Ducasse over the guys you feel are better? Is your talent eval or theirs the one that’s in error? We must wait to find out. Which may never happen because all of the low rent OL’s out there could end up out of football in short order, including Ducasse. Normal NFL job hazard applies.

    Frankly, it’s obvious that picking players for one’s NFL team is a crapshoot to some degree.

    1. I don’t think there’s any question that Ducasse has played poorly with New York. I am confident everyone would agree that turning on his games would lead people to the same conclusion. He has been obviously bad. The question is whether or not his upside is worth it, and that is where the Vikings and I disagree for the reasons I outlined above (in that I think he has had ample time to show even a little bit of growth and hasn’t).

      While I’ll always hold out a little bit of hope that I am wrong, my bigger issue is with folks who do not think a questionable signing is worth skepticism because it is only depth–not that the Vikings made a decision.

      I don’t accept “low-risk” as the only explanation. I think a more fruitful line of argumentation is along the lines yours (that the coaches see something I don’t) instead of “well, he’ll just get cut in camp anyway, so no reason to worry.”

      I’m willing to accept that the Vikings have a different view of things than I do. I just dislike the attitude that says “well, it’s not going to matter anyway,” when I have reason to criticize a move.

      1. Arif, I think your reasoning is sound. But we have no idea why the Vikings picked Ducasse. Maybe they have some scouting metric which he possesses more of than the other low-rent free agent O linemen. Or maybe for the same reason they thought Christian Ponder was the answer, i.e. it’s just a mistake plain and simple.

        No NFL g.m. hits the target every time but certain hits count a lot more than others. So if Ducasse is a fail, it’s not nearly as bad as a fail at say, overall pick #12, or #8. Which is why I don’t think the team is taking a qb this year unless Bridgewater falls to 8. But that’s another topic.

  7. One example of low risk high reward is Mick Tinglehoff. Undrafted out of Nebraska, signed as a free agent in 1962. Was a starter in his rookie season. Biggest HOF snub of all time. In fact, I refuse to directly call it the “Nfl HOF” because true National Football League HOF would not be so fricking stupid as to omit the greatest center to ever play.

  8. Arif, do you think it is about reputation of the GM in this case? I sometimes wonder if RS is trying to build a legacy of “that guy who salvaged careers everyone else thought dead” or bring known as the guy who “drafts players in pairs”. I feel like he sees 4th, 5th round picks as the place to take a chance… see Ellison, Locke, Childs, when a team with so little quality depth needs all those picks, and needs quality there. Sometimes I think it is more about his his legacy than the reality of bulding a team with depth. He is a home run hitter, but yoy need those singles and doubles to win games too.

    1. I think that’s a strange comment. That RS would be focused more on “building a reputation” than just finding guys who make the Vikings winners. That in itself would build a reputation much more readily than focusing on late rounders and scrub f.a.’s who might pan out 1 in 10 times.

      RS’s well known silence and unwillingness to dole out meaningful information seems to have led to a notion among many fans that every move of his contains some machiavellian subplot which of course is about his vanity or fear or achilles heel, whatever that may be.

      The truth is, RS simply has a philosophy of keeping things in house and not giving anything away to opponents in what is a very competitive business. I doubt he thinks he is going to build a rep on 5th rounders and other team’s castoffs. He wants what you and I want – a Super Bowl winner and I don’t see anything particularly conspiratorial about how he’s going about it. He’s just working his ass off and hoping to find the right formula, like 31 other NFL front office guys.

  9. Arif, you are doing a great job selling your point. And it is a noble
    There are a number of reasons why players get signed other than talent alone at this time of the year.
    Most contract are based largely on future potential rather than past performance anyway.

    Factors that will trump talent.
    Scheme fit
    A coach that believes in a certain type of player
    Front office factors or outside interest or lobbying that might be going on: example, maybe by signing a certain player (Ducasse) at this time the Vikings are scratching an agents back so that the Vikings could get a leg up on one of his other clients down the road. (maybe an undrafted free agent client that the Vikings might have an eye on after the draft)

    I believe that there are many factors other than talent that go into signing players at this time of the year. It is unfortunate that fans can’t see some of the behind closed doors decisions that happen in the NFL.

    Anyway, I love the post Arif, but my question is why pick on Cox and Duccasse? The Vikings have other players with less talent, less potential and less NFL experience on the roster.
    Why not pick on CB Kip Edwards or OL Josh Samuda?

    1. I picked on Cox and Ducasse because they’re known NFL quantities. Edwards and Samuda are not, and have a higher degree of uncertainty about their ability to perform at a high level, which in this case means they are more likely to do that than Ducasse.

      As for the other things, I understand it. But “potential” is a catch-all term that applies to a ton of players, and saying that Ducasse has a lot of potential ignores the fact that his play in the NFL has lowered his potential ceiling, because it is increasingly likely he won’t live up to his athletic upside.

      I am not sure that Ducasse is a scheme fit, either, unless he’s ONLY projected to play RT, because he can’t move as often as the guards are asked to move in this scheme. He’s quick and light on his feet, but he’s not fast and pulling guards need to be extremely assignment-sound, which he’s not.

      I get the age thing, but like I said in an earlier comment, I’d rather have an old player for a few years that I know is about average then a player for ten years that is very likely below average.

        1. Norseman, I was talking about the older guards I outlined up there (Dahl, Colledge, Nwaneri and Wharton), not about Johnson.

          Although I think you are overstating your case anyway. It is in the 40th percentile, which is below average, but not WELL below it. Regardless, those four players I talked about would have been better than Johnson and Ducasse.

          1. I still think the Johnson signing was a waste of money and a roster spot. Obviously a weak link in the line that has to be improved either by free agency or the draft.

  10. I do not mind the signing. It depends on if he received guaranteed money or not. But as Krauser said above, many of the alternatives you listed are old. Only Reynolds & Ohrnberger are young as Ducasse.

    Also, you mentioned how the Jets coaches did well with Mangold and Ferguson. As first round picks they probably did not have to do as much as they did with Slauson. I do agree they should get credit though.

    But what of the Vikings offensive line coach? Do you not have faith in his abilities? He did coach up Fusco right? He is coaching Kalil, and trying to improve Loadholt (he has) and Sullivan. I think that you should give the Vikings coaches some benefit of the doubt.

    I would like to believe that Davidson had some say in the signing of Ducasse. If he thinks he can get him turned around then it is worth a shot. They will bring in some other guards as well.

    I do not mind this signing or the Cox signing. It is reminiscent of the Chris Carr and Zachary Bowman signings a couple of seasons ago. Neither ended up making the 53 man roster.

    I think you could make a better case once the money is known and the final 90 man roster for camp is known. Then you could list some guys that you would want more than Ducasse.

  11. How does Troy Williamson correlate to your disdain for signing two presumably veteran back-ups? Troy Williamson was a first round reach that came out of nowhere. And, drafting Cody Green? You mean like Joe Webb or MBT?

    1. I used Troy Williamson to make one point: that unlimited athletic upside only goes so far after the rest of the league has seen a player play. After Williamson left the Vikings, he was only a low-risk signing for one team.

      MBT wasn’t drafted, as it should be. Joe Webb was projected to be drafted, so the only way to grab him was the draft. Drafting Cody Green would be a waste, because he’s not going to be drafted, you can grab him in UDFA. If you really, really want him, you can offer him a higher signing bonus than anyone else will and a better chance to compete.

  12. Still not picking it up. Comparing these two signings to a swing and miss in the draft regardless of the outcome makes no sense to me. Our depth at OL has been weaker than Larry King doing chin-ups. Using late round picks for back-ups hasn’t worked out too well either. So, every player we drafted that didn’t work out was a low-risk signing after they left here. So, we should never sign low-level back-ups with experience?

    1. I am NOT comparing the signings to drafting Williamson. I am ONLY using Williamson to demonstrate the point that a player with a lot of athletic potential can be drummed out of the NFL quickly. The point made in the post is that Williamson only signed with one other NFL team after he left Minnesota, even though to those other teams, he was a low-risk signing.

      Forget that the Vikings drafted Williamson. Why didn’t he sign to another team after the Jaguars dropped him? Because there was no uncertainty about him. He could not compete at a high level. I am saying that with more play, the more we reduce uncertainty about a player’s level of reachable talent. And therefore, not all low-risk signings with massive athletic capability really, truly are perceived to have great potential.

      You are putting words in my mouth. I am of the opinion that Ducasse does not even have backup-worthy talent. I am not saying they should not sign low-level players, I am saying that we are blinded to a player’s reachable level of talent because of their athletic capability when in reality, there are less athletic players who they pass over with more football talent that can be a backup-level player.

      I did not say the Vikings should not pursue OL depth. I even pointed out seven or eight options that would give the Vikings that ability! I am saying that when you sign people, you should have a reasonable understanding of whether or not they can be a backup. I say Ducasse can’t. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t sign other players.

      1. I think your point about players who don’t have what it takes bears repeating Arif, because it’s a consistent notion among fans that a turd from some other team becomes a nugget of football gold once he puts on purple.

        I don’t know how true this is in other NFL cities but in Vikingland it’s been an especially persistent theme for years. I can point you to a message board right now where there are several posts expressing excitement about Ducasse, including mentions of Zimmer’s history of player turnarounds, as if they somehow apply to an offensive lineman.

        We all like to think that every player who is doing poorly just needs better coaching, team, scheme, scenery or just a purple uni. But the sad fact is, some guys like the aforementioned Troy W just don’t have what it takes to succeed at this level. And there is certainly a good chance Ducasse will end up in that category. He might not even make the practice squad.

  13. And, drafting this Cody Green in the 7th rd wouldn’t be as bad as drafting Williamson or Ponder when they did. There’s no name QBs drafted late ALL the time.

    1. You are missing the point. Why would you compare Ponder to Green? I am saying that we care about low-risk decisions because we intuitively recognize that they do not carry no-risk. If we drafted Green (or the Logan Kilgore from Middle Tennessee State or Charley Loeb, the backup backup at Syracuse) it wouldn’t make sense, even though the seventh-round pick doesn’t cost that much. The reason is that they have a lower chance of making an impact than even a normal seventh-round pick (like say, Jordan Lynch or Stephen Thomas or Tom Savage) and that they wasted a useful resource to do it.

      Of course there are no-name QBs drafted all the time. You miss the point. Some no-name QBs are worse than others. Drafting James Vandenberg last year would have made no sense, and drafting Everett Dawkins made more sense even though Dawkins didn’t make the roster, because Vandenberg stood no chance to make the roster and Dawkins had some.

      Don’t assume that all these marginal QBs at the bottom of the order are the same. Morris may be the 250th best player in the draft, but that is a far cry from Green or Kilgore or Loeb, who are somewhere around the 1000th. It’s a waste of a pick to draft one of them. It is not a waste to draft someone like Lynch or Savage.

      1. The Troy willamson bit isn’t about us drafting him, it’s about him being signed (I’m not going to look it up but it was Jax I think) after he spent years demonstrating why Chris cook is a more viable receiver. Arifs point is, do you really want to sign proven commodities when they are proven to be garbage.

        This entire article screens joe Webb. No, I have no doubt he was a viable WR project coming out of college. That ship sailed.

        The only reprise is coaching. It happens, a guys confidence gets destroyed. That’s where the cox signing is interesting. Being a ____ whisperer ., making any scrub with the shell of what you’re looking for work is essentially why we hired Zimmer, and why he hired Norv.

        An aside Arif, maybe don’t use the most speculative pick in the past 10 years in an article about “low-risk no reward”

        1. Yea, that’s my mistake. First person that came up in my head for “tremendous upside that had a short career”

          Perhaps Aromashodu would have been more instructive.

  14. We’re both missing points. I’ve admitted I’ve been missing a point. I wasn’t the one who used a bust WR pick to prove a point with a FA crappy OL signing. I’m not saying he’ll rock it here, or defending the signing either. It’s pointless arguing at this point because it’s a meaningless signing. Roster is so huge going into training camp. So, i’ll state my intial response, not too defend the signing rather state what it is: depth.

    1. That’s fair. Unfortunately we’re at a stage where we need to be looking for upside, rather than depth. I think you will agree that Arifs aiming point is better defined by Devin Aromashado.

      The argument for depth makes sense for two reasons, one, you need bodies for ota’s. We get extra ota’s with a new coach. Nice way to measure guys against. Two, you can cut him.

  15. You guys keep using WRs for an example with Ducasse. Totally different. People are always gonna hope a WR busts out and makes plays. If he doesn’t, there’s virtually nothing else they can do. Even a bum OL can be put use. Punt and Punt return lines, FG, what-have-you.