“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.