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Players keep screwing themselves over with 'prove it' deals

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One-year, "prove it" contracts almost never work out for free agents looking to show they are worth more than teams think.

Al Bello/Getty Images

When free agency opens, many NFL players hit the market with the idea that their hard work will result in a huge contract that is a long time coming. Instead, some find that teams have concerns that scare them away from offering big money. So, players will take a one-year, "prove it" deal with the notion that a season's worth of proving those doubters wrong will result in a big contract a year later when free agency rolls around again.

It almost never works out that way.

Last year, seven players switched teams and played the 2015 season on a one-year deal worth more than $3.5 million. It didn't work out well for any of them:

Player 2014 team 2015 team Yr Contract value
Greg Hardy Carolina Panthers Dallas Cowboys 1 $11,311,600
Aldon Smith San Francisco 49ers Oakland Raiders 1 $8,000,000
Percy Harvin New York Jets Buffalo Bills 1 $6,000,000
Nick Fairley Detroit Lions St. Louis Rams 1 $5,000,000
Terrance Knighton Denver Broncos Washington 1 $4,450,000
Sean Weatherspoon Atlanta Falcons Arizona Cardinals 1 $3,850,000
Henry Melton Dallas Cowboys Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 $3,750,000

Teams were wary of signing Hardy and Smith, while the two former Pro Bowl pass rushers had possible suspensions on the way and a pattern of behavior that suggested more trouble could be on the horizon. Neither player was bad in their time on the field in 2015, but they weren't the same dominant forces either.

One year later and teams are even more concerned with the idea of committing any money to Hardy or Smith.

Teams aren't jumping to sign Harvin either. The receiver got a one-year deal with the Bills after years of injury concerns and contentious relationships with teammates and coaches. While he didn't piss off anyone in Buffalo and the team is open to the idea of bringing the receiver back, his injury woes followed him to the Bills and continue to hurt his value.

For the four players at the bottom of the list, there weren't any character concerns to answer. They were just players looking to prove they were worth more than teams thought, and none of them managed to prove that.

The Broncos' defense did just fine without Knighton and the Washington defense couldn't stop the run. Fairley finished 2015 with 0.5 sacks, Melton had just two and Weatherspoon tallied just 11 tackles with the Cardinals before returning to the Falcons on another one-year deal.

Meanwhile, most of these players were applauded for "betting on themselves" and looking to "maximize their opportunity." Just like Prince Amukamara is for his one-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars signed on Friday.

That's not to say they never work. Sometimes the spin of the roulette wheel lands on the right number and a player is able to prove they are worth a giant contract. Darrelle Revis was coming off a solid season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots in 2014, although there were concerns about the 29-year-old cornerback's ability to remain one of the best in the game for much longer, especially after tearing his ACL in 2012.

The deal was worth $12 million and carried a $20 million option for a second season. Revis had a Pro Bowl season with the eventual Super Bowl champs and when the Patriots chose not to pick up his option, he cashed in with a five-year, $70 million deal with the New York Jets.

One offseason prior, Michael Bennett signed a one-year, $4.8 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks that he turned into a four-year, $28.5 million deal after a season with 8.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.

Players like Amukamara or Keenan Robinson, who signed a one-year deal with the New York Giants on Thursday, may be able to turn their short contracts into big ones a year later, but history suggests they need to play at the level of players like Revis or Bennett to do so.

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