If we learned anything from last year's offseason, the humbling of Champ Bailey has only just begun.
The Denver Broncos started the process by releasing the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback on Thursday, basically because he is coming off the worst season of his career. The next shoe to drop will come when he starts waiting for the phone to ring from other teams. Given his age -- he will be 36 by the time next season begins -- and the way this league now operates, he had better be an extremely patient man.
As phenomenal as Bailey has been during the vast majority of his career -- he's a surefire Hall of Famer -- there are no guarantees he will find anybody eager to sign him just because of his past accomplishments or even his willingness to move to safety.
Last year, we saw a slew of similarly accomplished veterans searching for lucrative deals on the open market because they thought they could still play at a high level. Less than a handful of those players found situations that seemed worth their while. Most vanished from the league, fully content to call it a career instead of playing for what they considered substandard contracts.
Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was one such player. He eventually retired after failing to negotiate a new contract with the Bears or find a better deal elsewhere. Other productive players with Pro Bowls on their résumés -- such as former Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and former Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton -- also wound up out of work after nobody offered them a desirable contract. Even those players who did find jobs only did so after extensive searches. That list included Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson and linebackers Dwight Freeney of the San Diego Chargers and John Abraham of the Arizona Cardinals.
The primary lesson that these players learned is one that Bailey should prepare for: The days of scoring one final fat NFL contract for the older generation is becoming a thing of the past. It makes more sense for teams to invest in younger, less expensive talent. It's also riskier to make a sizable investment in a player who has moved far beyond his prime. It's one thing to throw big money at Peyton Manning as he nears 40. It's an entirely different story when Quentin Jammer is looking for one last big payday.
There used to be a day, not too long ago, when a player as productive and classy as Bailey could expect to find some franchise looking to offer a three-year deal for a strong presence in the locker room. With the way his past year has gone, that could be a risk most general managers wouldn't want to make. Bailey didn't merely appear to be a player who had lost a step in 2013. He looked more like a washed-up talent, one who would have a tough time holding down even ordinary receivers.
Part of Bailey's problem was a lingering foot injury that limited him to only five regular-season games in 2013. One could argue that he was never really healthy once he did return to the lineup, as he rarely displayed the supreme confidence in his coverage skills that had long been his trademark. The truth is that Bailey's game was showing signs of decline toward the end of the 2012 season. The minute the Baltimore Ravens attacked him in Denver's AFC divisional playoff loss that year -- with Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith beating him on receptions of 59 and 32 yards -- you knew something was amiss in the Broncos' secondary.
At his best, Bailey had been the league's most gifted silencer. Say what you will about Woodson or Darrelle Revis, but Bailey was the closest thing we've seen to Deion Sanders since Prime Time hung up his cleats for good in 2006. But now Bailey has to prove he can help a secondary without the most valuable talent in his skill set. He also has to show he can do that at a time when some teams have been burned by pursuing aging defensive backs.
Jammer gave the Broncos nothing worth remembering after signing with them last offseason. The Kansas City Chiefs thought they had a nice addition in free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson as well ... until he produced no impact at corner or safety. Let's also not forget the disaster that was the seven-game marriage of safety Ed Reed and the Houston Texans. After they gave Reed a three-year, $15 million deal last March, he missed all of the team's offseason workouts while recovering from a torn labrum and then produced 16 tackles in six starts.
The scary thing about Bailey is that he could end up in a similar situation to Reed, who has been to nine Pro Bowls himself. Even when Reed was banged-up late in his career with the Ravens, he could still make enough splash plays to keep his name mentioned among the league's best safeties. Nobody could've ever predicted his rapid decline. Yet that's exactly what happened to Reed in the past 12 months.
There will be many who will compare Bailey to Charles Woodson and Rod Woodson, two stellar cornerbacks who proved adept at playing safety toward the end of their careers. It says here that we should wait to see how that one plays out. Both Woodsons were sturdier and more physical cornerbacks than Bailey ever was in his prime. That's not to say Bailey didn't like to hit people. It's just that his game was smoother and more graceful than many cornerbacks who easily transitioned to safety.
The other major challenge to Bailey is keeping his pride in check in the coming months. Even though he has never been a huge talker, you have to imagine he has as much ego as any player to ever work in the NFL. You can't play cornerback at a high level without it. That also means it will be more difficult for him to consider contract offers that won't blow him away.
Of course, there could be a call from the New England Patriots, who often seem interested in high-character veterans with strong résumés. The Chiefs also have holes to fill in their secondary, especially at safety, and they know Bailey well. After that, it's difficult to know exactly where the next step in Bailey's journey will lead. The only thing that is for certain is this: It will be much rockier than anything he has already experienced in the NFL.