Between now and the start of free agency, Stampede Blue will profile free agents the Indianapolis Colts could and should target when the new collective bargaining agreement is signed and the lockout lifted.
Free Agent Target: Plaxico Burress, WR, Oneida Correctional Facility
Matt Grecco wrote an article a month ago discussing why the Colts should take a look at former-NY Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress. With a new NFL collective bargaining agreement that is, apparently, closer to getting completed than many people realize, it's a good time to re-visit that article and, possibly, add a few more details to it.
As you all know, Plaxico Burress has spent the last two years in jail after he please guilty to a charge of criminal possession of a weapon. Burress discharged a loaded firearm in a Manhattan nightclub in 2008. He was charged with the crime, plead guilty, and has served his time. Prior to serving his sentence, the New York Giants released the troubled wide receiver. He now enters the 2011 season as a 33-year-old free agent who has not played in a football game since Week 11 of 2008.
Burress has several knocks against him, and is a longshot to get himself back to the kind of dominant player he was prior to, nearly literally, shooting himself in the foot. However, the potential outweighs the negatives in this case, and the Colts could definitely use some depth at wide receiver in 2011, in particular someone who can take the top off the defense.
When Dallas Clark went down with a wrist injury after the Colts Week Six victory over the Redskins, the Colts lost their most consistent deep threat. Dan Dakich at 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis often spoke about Clark's deep threat ability last season, and without Clark the Colts lost the ability to push the ball down the field. Yes, Pierre Garcon can jet down the sidelines (just ask Antonio Cromartie), but he is not a consistent deep threat. He just drops too many passes.
Clark is consistent, especially off play action, running routes down the seam.
Now, players like Austin Collie offer some big play ability as well, but the concerns about Collie involve his health going forward after sustaining two official concussions (three unofficial) last year. Reggie Wayne's knee problems have limited his big play ability in recent years. Though he caught 111 passes last season (a career high) he averaged on 12.2 yards per catch, which was a career low. Remember, from 2004-2009, he averaged 14.1 yards per catch! To provide some fans a little perspective on just how impressive that is, Texans wideout Andre Johnson (who many consider the best in football) has averaged roughly 14 yards per catch since 2006.
Overall, the Colts wideouts are older, slower, and lacking in big play ability this season than in years past. Gone are the days when people trembled at the thought of covering Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley all in their primes.
It's in this department, the 'down-the-field-big-play' area, that Plaxico could help the Colts.
In his article last month, Matt focused on Burress's ability to catch passes at 'middle distance':
Burress, however, is most like Garcon, in that he is/would be used deeper down the field than the other guys (including Wayne). In Burress's last season in NY, he caught almost half of his passes at "Middle" distances, according to Football Outsiders. In contrast, last season Wayne was only at 30% (and 43% on "Short" passes), Collie was 20% (and 59% "Short"), and White had 29% "Middle" distance passes (45% "Short"). In contrast, Garcon was at 37% for both "Short" and "Middle" distances, which is the closest match to Burress that the Colts have.
Burress also ranked at 19% on deep passes in 2008, and his catch rate overall was 53%. Compared to Pierre Garcon in 2010, who had a catch rate of 56%, that's not great. In fact, Burress has never had a catch rate above 53% since Football Outsiders started tracking him. For comparisons sake, Austin Collie had an absolute INSANE catch rate of 82% in 2010 before he got his bell rung three times.
But, with Collie, his deep percentage rate was just 10%. Garcon's was (once again) 13%. Reggie Wayne's was 14%. Pittsburgh Steelers deep threat Mike Wallace had a 16% deep percentage in 2010. Jets wideout Santonio Holmes was 20%.
Again, Burress in 2008 was 19%. By comparison, that's pretty good.
Also, factor in that, from 2005-2008, Burress averaged 14.8 yards per catch. Had he finished out the 2008 season, that number would probably be up to 15 yards per catch. On the Colts roster right now, there is no one who can consistently average that number. Garcon has the ability to do it (he averaged 16.3 in 2009), but he has not demonstrated that he can do it consistently.
In many ways, Burress (when he was with the Giants) was a taller, more consistent version of Pierre Garcon. He dropped about as many passes as Garcon does, but unlike Garcon he was able to consistently stretch the field. Should the Colts try and sign Burress, and I think they will, it will be because they want someone else to help push the top off the defense, opening up the underneath and seam routes to guys like Collie and Clark.
The key question is does Burress still have that speed?
In terms of 'culture fit,' I personally think the Colts are perfect for Burress. He craves structure at this point in his life, and is looking for a talented team in a low key market. It also doesn't hurt that Peyton friggin Manning is the quarterback. One-time Colts coach Tony Dungy is personally mentoring Burress. So, there's a Colts connection right there. Burress will have veterans like Reggie, Peyton, Dallas, and Jeff Saturday to lean on.
Overall, Burress signing with Indy just makes sense. The one drawback is that, in August, Burress will be 34 and an unlikely candidate to help on special teams. When you consider that Wayne, Garcon and especially Collie are unlikely to play on special teams, the addition of Burress (who won't start) would add another receiver to the active roster who is unable to play for Ray Rychleski's crew.
Signing someone like Burress likely means Anthony Gonzalez is a goner, because, like Burress, Gonzo has no value as a special teams player while Blair White does. So, in essence, the team would be switching Burress for Gonzo. Personally, I'm OK with that. The irony in comparing the two is that despite Burress being in jail for two years, he's played in about as many football games during that time as Gonzo has.