The NFL is ephemeral. Winds of change blow in new developments every week. Two years ago, the Bills signed Marcell Dareus, their star defensive tackle, to a six-year, $100 million contract extension. Here’s what was said at that moment:
[Mario] Williams signed a six-year, $96 million deal with $50 million guaranteed with the Bills in 2012. Dareus' deal now eclipses his as the richest in team history, though it falls just short of the free agent deal Miami gave to Ndamukong Suh this past spring. The Bills also gave Kyle Williams a one-year, $10.5 million contract extension earlier this offseason, and re-signed pass rusher Jerry Hughes to a five-year, $45 million deal with $22 million guaranteed in March, as well.
Long story short: Buffalo's ultra-productive defensive line are now seriously rich dudes across the board, and they're going to be playing together as a quartet for quite a while. And, in Dareus, the Bills have locked up the centerpiece of their defense for seven more years.
Narrator’s voice: “The quartet did not play together for much longer.”
The NFL is ephemeral. Coaches rotate in and out on the annual hire/fire cycle, free agents find new homes, and players fall in or out of favor.
Did you ever stop and count the number of defensive coordinators a player like Kyle Williams dealt with? Let’s work backwards. Leslie Frazier. Shadow-DC Rob Ryan. Dennis Thurman. Jim Schwartz. Mike Pettine. Dave Wannstedt. George Edwards. Perry Fewell. That’s eight names in nine seasons. He’s played in a Tampa 2, a two-gapping 3-4 defense, a 4-3 over, a 4-3 under, a “wide 9” 4-3, your dad’s “rush-four-drop-seven” 4-3, and an “exotic” two-gap defense. Different schemes suit different players. Different coaches seek different styles.
Remember how incredibly good that defense was in 2014? They allowed only 26 total touchdowns and generated 30 turnovers. They ranked second in net yards per attempt. They were 11th in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed, and 14th in rushing yards per attempt. Mario Williams led the way with 14.5 sacks, and Dareus and Hughes each contributed 10 as they came close to breaking the team record of 57 sacks that had been set the prior year.
Mario Williams didn’t enjoy playing in the new defense that next season. He and Hughes led the team with five sacks each, in what was the fourth-worst sack output in team history. By year’s end, the $96 million dollar franchise cornerstone turned out to be expendable in the eyes of the management.
Not to be outdone, Buffalo’s newest front office has shown that they don’t believe in any sacred cows. Star receiver Sammy Watkins? Traded for draft picks and an oft-injured cornerback. Were you drafted by Doug Whaley? Consider yourself in the hot seat. Only 9 players drafted by Whaley remain on this squad, and several of the remainder shouldn’t feel comfortable. John Miller has already been deactivated on game day, Seantrel Henderson has a suspension history, the team already tried to trade Adolphus Washington, and they appear to be open to trading Cordy Glenn as well. To paraphrase Brandon Beane, if they’re going to pay a high annual cost for a player, he needs to be one of the best at his position. If you can’t keep up, you’ll find a new home.
The NFL is ephemeral. A player can have no role, flip a switch or claim an opportunity, and suddenly turn into a star. A superstar can all-too-quickly lose his luster.
Remember Albert Haynesworth? The NFL’s first “$100 million man.” Coming off a franchise tag after his rookie deal expired, Haynesworth had accumulated 24.5 career sacks (14.5 in the past two seasons), swatted 18 passes, forced six fumbles, and racked up 271 tackles. He earned a massive deal through outstanding play despite a long history of anger management issues and in-game penalties.
Then the switch flipped. Haynesworth dropped from 8.5 sacks to four, then to 2.5. Some of the issue was schematic, with Washington’s coaches asking him to take on extra blockers. Some of it was motivational - having received his payday, Haynesworth didn’t need to earn anything.
Two years after signing a massive deal, Haynesworth was traded for a fifth round draft pick. Later that year, he was waived.
Let’s not forget that Dareus, the third overall pick in 2011, looked to be a star in the making. Sure, he wasn’t J.J. Watt. But out of the gate, as a rookie nose tackle in a bland 3-4 defense, Dareus had 32 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks. By year four, he already had 28.5 career sacks and 12 passes defended, looking like a star in the making. He’d been named to an All-Pro team. There’s a reason he signed that massive deal. Sure, he’d been arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, and for crashing his car while street racing a teammate, but the talent and production outweighed the off-field risk significantly.
Dareus signed his deal. Playing in Ryan’s defense, his sacks dropped from 10 to 2, then 3.5. He drew a four-game suspension for another substance abuse violation. The risks, in the end, were outweighing the talent.
Two years after signing a massive deal, Dareus was traded for a sixth round pick that may become a fifth round pick, if he can stick on his new roster.
The NFL is ephemeral. Contracts aren’t guaranteed and players and coaches are always shifting year-to-year. But sometimes, change is a constant. And sometimes, a situation plays out exactly like it had in the past.