Following the Martavis Bryant suspension, every fantasy site and podcast I follow has had something to say about him. And it sounds a lot like what many are still saying about Josh Gordon.
Usually it goes something like this:
They’re young, otherwise-healthy players with a history of great production. When they return, they’ll be highly valuable. So if you own them you should hold unless you can get top dollar. But you should buy if you can get them at any sort of discount.
My perspective runs contrary. I believe that if you own these players, you should absolutely be selling. And if you don’t own them, you really shouldn’t be buying. Here’s why.
We recognize that in dynasty formats a suspended player should be discounted; but I don’t think we discount them enough. NFL suspensions can be somewhat inscrutable, so we often revert to valuing suspended players based on something we understand better – injuries with known return dates. We assume that the suspended player will miss only X games, and then return to action. That assumption may not be true, which means we don’t define the discount sufficiently to account for the downside risk that the player may not make a sustained return. Allow me to illustrate.
War on Drugs
The total number of substance abuse related suspensions since 2011.
That upward trend has produced 111 suspensions in the past five years and if it continues, we’ll have more instances when we’ll have to decide what to do with a suspended player. Deciding to roster a suspended player means there’s an expectation of post-suspension production. Therefore I’ll attempt to answer the question, “How long does a player’s career last after a substance abuse related suspension?”
How the Suspension Sausage is Made
If I just use all the substance abuse related suspensions, I find that 47 percent of players don’t play again. That should be enough to get your attention. But that includes a number of problematic situations, so let’s define a reasonable cohort of players to consider. I’ll only look at:
- Players that have appeared in at least one NFL game, as a basic filter to eliminate undrafted free agent types that get suspended and immediately cut.
- Players who did not appear in 2015. I did this to make the average games post-suspension number as stable as possible. I’m assuming these players’ careers are most likely over. Some of them may actually return, but the combination of previous suspension plus missing at least a full season argues against that.
- Players that have been suspended under the league’s substance abuse policy – not the policies related to personal conduct or PEDs.
Some things to keep in mind. First, the discipline process works differently for violations related to different drugs. Marijuana, alcohol, and other substances have different penalty protocols – but media reports aren’t always clear about what led to the suspension, and to keep a decent sample size I’ve kept all substance related suspensions together. That may or may not be an issue. Having looked at the numbers, the outcomes for all suspended players appear similar. Second, although the league’s current collective bargaining agreement dates to 2011, the drug related policies weren’t fully hammered out until 2014. Ultimately I think the policies are similar enough that the impacts will also be similar.
Substance Abuse Suspensions and Career Length
Using that cohort, we see the following.1
In the past three seasons, players have been suspended much earlier in their careers. The number of games played prior to a first suspension dropped from 64.9 in 2011 to 14.5 in 2015.
The other thing that stands out is the growing number of follow up suspensions. In 2011, there were no second or third suspensions. Starting in 2014, we’ve seen both second and third suspensions each year. Since 2011, this narrowly-defined cohort has received 53 total substance abuse related suspensions. Following 33 of them, the player has not appeared in another game. In other words, 62 percent of suspensions have been effectively career-ending.
Let’s dig into each type of suspension for more detail.
If players are getting suspended earlier, we might expect longer post-suspension careers, since they could theoretically return to action at a younger age.
Players first suspended in 2011 or 2012 only played about five and eight games post suspension, respectively. Those suspended in 2013 or 2014 averaged about four post-suspension games. That could increase, if some find their way back in 2016, but it’s definitely not a good indicator. On average then, a player suspended once has returned to play less than half a season. That greatly reduces the potential benefit of holding a suspended player.
Now let’s talk about the average number of games played after a second suspension. It’s a smaller group so let’s use a table.
|Year||Player||Draft||Games Susp||Games Pre||Games Post|
Seventy-seven percent of these players did not appear in another game following their second suspension. I included the player’s overall draft selection (using 270 for undrafted players and 38 to represent the future pick Cleveland used to take Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft) to indicate that these aren’t bums. On average they’re top-100 picks, with over two and a half full seasons of playing time, suggesting perhaps that neither draft pedigree nor on-field performance protect a player against the career-threatening effect of being suspended a second time. These players managed an average of just 2.2 post-suspension career games.
The pool of players suspended for a third time is smaller still: Frank Alexander, Dion Jordan, Josh Gordon, and Justin Blackmon.2Alexander is injured though, and the Dolphins haven’t yet cut ties with Jordan, so there’s a chance those two make it back. But realistically, given the poor luck players suspended once or twice have had, should we expect a player suspended a third time to fare any better?
The Wild Card Risk Factor
Once a player gets suspended a third time, for a full season, their chances of playing again take a significant, unquantifiable hit. Let’s check the substance abuse policy fine print.
After the completion of the one-year banishment period, the Commissioner, in his sole discretion, will determine if and when the Player will be allowed to return to the NFL. [Emphasis added.]
Oh, there are other criteria too. The player has to remain compliant with their treatment and testing plan for the entire year – something that, by definition, they’ve previously been unable to do.
Ultimately the bottom line is that reinstatement is at the Commissioner’s sole discretion. And the policy is also clear that the suspension is indefinite, having a minimum length of one year. Theoretically, even a player that complied with their treatment plan isn’t entitled to reinstatement. That’s a wild-card that’s difficult to account for, and adds another layer of risk to rostering such a player.
In my narrowly-defined cohort, 10 of 39 unique players received multiple suspensions. That works out to a 25 percent recidivism rate.3 So the general takeaway is that once suspended, a player should probably be discounted indefinitely, due to the rather substantial risk of re-suspension.
Josh Gordon, Martavis Bryant, and More
Remember when Justin Blackmon kept hanging around on dynasty rosters? I think we’ve finally given up on him. Whenever you think about rostering Josh Gordon, remind yourself of Justin Blackmon.
Let’s talk Josh Gordon though, since he’s been in the news. On March 23, 2016, Cleveland.com reported:
“Roger Goodell ‘might choose to’ meet with Josh Gordon about reinstatement…”
Not “Roger Goodell ‘will’ meet with Josh Gordon.” He ‘might’ meet with him. The story continues:
Goodell acknowledged that he doesn’t know yet if anyone in the NFL or its medical personnel have met yet with Gordon to see if he’s adhered to his treatment program and passed his drug tests over the past year of his indefinite suspension under the substance abuse policy.
To be clear, this report comes about 60 days after Gordon applied for reinstatement. Call me crazy, but it seems like Goodell has little knowledge about, and even less interest in, Gordon’s reinstatement.
But what about the Browns, do they care? From the same story, quoting Cleveland’s VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown:
“I would just say probably enough Josh chatter…”
What about the coaching staff?
“Coach Hue Jackson admitted he’s installing the offense without the All-Pro receiver.”
Remember, Hue Jackson didn’t make any investment in Gordon. Neither did the Browns current front office. Goodell is in no hurry, and the Browns are moving on. I think it’s time we do too.
How about Martavis Bryant? Here’s what Mike Tomlin said when asked about losing him for the season.
“Does it matter? We will deal with it…We’ve played without him in the past. So we are not overly concerned about playing without him in 2016, to be honest with you.”
Maybe it’s coach-speak. But is there a reason to doubt him? Pittsburgh did draft Bryant doppelganger Sammie Coates last year, and signed Ladarius Green this year. Based on what we’ve explored in this article, I think he is being sincere.
Let’s consider the obstacles to a successful Bryant – or Gordon – comeback:
- The history of players suspended multiple times is not good.
- Bryant may also be dealing with a mental health issue.
- These suspensions are for a minimum, not maximum, of one year.
- Reinstatement requires previously undemonstrated behavior.
- Reinstatement is at the Commissioner’s discretion. The Commissioner doesn’t seem interested in reinstating Gordon.
- Pittsburgh’s offense may be just fine without Bryant, and Cleveland’s current regime has no connection to Gordon.
- Even if all goes well for Bryant, Pittsburgh gets at least one, and maybe two, drafts in which to select another WR before he gets reinstated. And unless he gets reinstated real quickly, Cleveland gets another draft before Gordon returns.
So what should you do with Bryant? RotoViz recently made an argument for getting out ASAP. That’s a fine ploy. I don’t want to tie up a roster spot with an asset that appears to have little chance of ever returning value.
Could I be wrong? Sure. But it’ll be at least a year before we know. By then my dynasty team, like the Steelers, will have had plenty of time to adapt, and may not even need him.
A few final thoughts. Bryant isn’t the only current Steeler who’s been suspended. Le’Veon Bell sat out two games last year and has a growing list of injury concerns. I’m trying to sell while his value is still high. Speaking of high, Jaelen Strong is a player I’m fading. Conditioning problems and an inability to get on the field ahead of Keith Mumphery were already concerns. A likely suspension is another big red flag. For IDPers, Randy Gregory and Sheldon Richardson merit attention as first-strike club members.
- The number atop each bar is the N of players in that group. (back)
- Jerome Simpson is the only thrice-suspended player to get back on the field. He’s not listed here because he was active in 2015. (back)
- If I expand the cohort to include all players to receive a suspension, whether or not they’ve appeared in any games, or are still active players, the re-suspension rate drops to 19 percent. But in 52 of 111 cases, the player has failed to play after a suspension, a 47 percent rate. (back)