Bob Sanders is reportedly in Jacksonville today to be checked out by team doctors. The signature GM Gene formula appears to be there: free agent with Pro Bowl abilities, team leader, character guy, can provide big help at a position of need, and likely for a reasonable price. Sound familiar? Wayne Weaver and GM Gene brought Aaron Kampman to the Jaguars last year even though he was coming off of a major injury because he was deemed ahead of schedule in his recovery, was the type of guy to work hard to rehab himself, and his upside was undeniable. Before a freak injury in practice that tore his other ACL (therefore, unrelated to his previous injury), Kampman had played 508 out of 520 (99.2%) defensive snaps in the first half of the season for the Jaguars, had the elite production the front office had hoped for, and had become a powerful leader in the locker room. Could Bob Sanders be worth taking that same chance?
There’s little contention that Sanders is a Pro Bowl-caliber safety when he’s healthy. He is the defensive version of Maurice Jones-Drew: compact, powerful, aggressive, and entirely fearless. His hits are some of the most brutal in the league, regardless of size. The mentality that Sanders plays with is what makes him such a valuable asset to the defense – his recklessly violent pursuit of the ball carrier led to Tony Dungy dubbing him “the Eraser”, for his propensity to erase the mistakes of his teammates (someone’s gotta do it on a Colts’ defense). If a runner breaks through the front seven or a receiver tries to take a short pass upfield for a big gain *BOOM* – he gets stood up by Sanders without gaining another inch. In the Colts’ 2006 season, Sanders was out for 12 regular season games and the Colts finished the season with the league’s worst run defense; when he returned for the playoffs, the Colts had the #1 run defense in the post season, surrendering only 73.3 yds/game and went on to win the Super Bowl.
Whether his style or his size has been more of a detriment to his career, we can’t be certain, but Sanders has been unable to stay on the field. He has never played all 16 games in a season and has played in a total of only 9 games in the last three seasons. He missed 10 games his rookie year with knee and foot injuries. He missed 12 games in 2006, but returned to make a huge impact in the playoffs. He played 15 games in 2007 and earned the AP Defensive Player of the Year award. He missed several games in 2008 with a high ankle sprain and then injured his knee in his first game back, which kept him out for the rest of the season. He was placed on IR after two games in 2009 with a Biceps injury and tore a tendon in his other Bicep in the season opener of 2010, which kept him out the rest of the season. It must be disappointing for him to think of what we could have done in that time.
The obvious risk of signing Sanders is his inability to stay healthy, but there are several other problems that make this an unlikely signing. He is a far different case than Aaron Kampman, who had proven to be very durable over his career aside from his ACL injury in the 2009 season. A knee injury to a pass rusher is typically seen as a death knell, but kept away more suitors than Kampman would have normally had during free agency and allowed Gene Smith to acquire him at what will be a bargain price if he recovers from his second injury as he did the last one and his production matches what he did in the first 8 games of last season. Sanders has had injuries all over his body and seems to keep finding new ways to hurt himself before the new season is hardly underway. The only type of contract the Jaguars could justify for Sanders would be similar to the ones we signed Tra Thomas and Torry Holt to in 2009 – short term, for minimal guaranteed money, with incentives based on playing time and/or production. Sanders was released by the Colts because they couldn’t agree on a restructured salary, which means that he probably values himself above this type of contract. Also, Holt and Thomas were patches before the draft – the Jaguars were desperately thin at Wide Receiver and Left Tackle before the 2009 season. Yes, the Jaguars are in need of MUCH help in the defensive backfield, but if Strong Safety seems to be the most solidified position with the emergence of Courtney Green. Sanders is a very similar player to Greene – he specializes in getting down in the box and helping defend the run and the short passing game; where the Jags really need help is in man-to-man and deeper coverage, which are not Sanders’ strong suits. We could certainly use a new cornerback or two – Rashean Mathis isn’t getting any younger, Derek Cox appears to be more of a #2 or “squat” corner, due to less than elite speed, and there isn’t much depth behind them. Don Carey proved he is not the answer at Free Safety – the Jaguars need a player with sideline-to-sideline speed, great instincts, and ball-hawking skills to fill this position. But Sanders wouldn’t patch what truly needs to be patched in our secondary.
This is a deal that I just don’t see working out. His visit could very likely be a stunt to drive up his market price and get the Colts to agree on better terms, much like the Darren Sharper dealings last year. I don’t see Sanders accepting a low-base, high-incentive deal to play in Jacksonville when he’s made it clear that he likes playing in Indianapolis and I don’t see Gene Smith overpaying a guy who is undeniably injury prone. Factor in that there are better places for the Jaguars to spend their money in free agency and the surprisingly impressive skills Courtney Greene displayed last year, it makes sense to see if Greene’s ceiling may rise with another year of development.
GM Gene, if you’re reading this and I know you are: do the right thing – just kick the tires on this old lemon and go get one of those 2011 models fresh off the lot, hopefully one with some speed.
– Andrew Hofheimer