What’s the risk in signing JaMarcus Russell?

The Oakland Raiders finally put an end to the misery and parted ways with the top pick in the 2007 draft, JaMarcus Russell. I detailed the enormous cost to the Raiders in December when Russell was demoted in favor of Charlie Frye (yes, Charlie Frye). As you can see, the contract is jaw dropping when juxtaposed against Russell’s production -- a record of 7-18, a total of 18 touchdown passes and a miserable passer rating of 65.2 -- in three years.

So much for so little

Russell leaves with $36 million and another parting gift of $3 million, the amount still guaranteed on his contract, an amount that has no offset. In other words, as we’ve seen this offseason with the “no offset” guarantees of Jake Delhomme and Alan Faneca, Russell can keep the $3M from the Raiders on top of whatever he might make from another team.

Russell will now become the leader in the clubhouse as the NFL player who has done the least for the most money. And he will maintain his position as Exhibit A for management to the union as to what’s wrong with the rookie compensation system (something the union agrees with).

To add to his resume, Russell also becomes the heavyweight champion for the biggest bust in the NFL. The reason: Like everything else, follow the money. While the money given to players such as Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich, Tim Couch and others was substantial, it doesn’t rival the $39M prize for Russell. The financial implications, along with the (lack of) production, qualify him for that label.

A better comparison for the “bust” argument would not be other rookies but marquee veteran free-agent signings who provided momentary euphoria for the team and its fan based followed by a trail of disappointment and wasted money (Albert Haynesworth, anyone?).

The $6.45M risk

The timing of Russell’s release was surprisingly after the Raiders’ post-draft minicamp. Russell was carrying a $9.45M number in 2010 with, as noted above, $3M of it guaranteed. So one cut the wrong way or a buckling of the knee could have cost the Raiders $6.45M. Some have even wondered if Russell would take a hammer to his knee one night during minicamp and show up in the trainer’s office the next morning (I can’t prove it, but I’m certain that happened with a player or two at the Packers in my time there).

Whither JaMarcus?

The question that’s now being asked is whether Russell will join another team, what team and when. My colleague Matt Bowen says no team should waste its time. I say someone will, and the question to ask is not who or when but for how much?

We know Russell is a talent. We know that if the Raiders didn’t select him first in the 2007 draft, he would have been scooped up soon thereafter. The issue has been his work ethic, discipline and willingness to get better. And a big part of that problem, in my opinion, has been the fact he already had “screw you” money that ensured his status on the team, no matter what his level of performance.

Now he would come to a new team in a completely different situation. Would I consider signing Russell if I was with a team? I’m not a personnel expert, but to me it comes down to risk. If the risk were minimal – a contract that the team could get out of at any time with little to no consequences – and the coaching and scouting staffs were on board, I would do it.

In Green Bay in 2004, after passing on options such as Kerry Collins and others, we signed Tim Couch as a potential backup to Brett Favre. Couch, another former top pick in the draft who had made more than $20M with the Browns, was a low-risk investment and a good guy who was excited to join the team and understood his changed status. Tim had made his money, now he had to make a team (he didn’t and was released in training camp).

Someone will take a chance on Russell and add to his $39M three-year career earnings. The issue is making sure that whatever that is, it represents minimal risk for a player who may only be on the roster for months or even weeks. As to whether that will happen, it will come down to the number of teams interested and any leverage created by more than one suitor.

Sign JaMarcus? Sure, but at his risk, not your own. He’s had too much of the other way around.

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