Reviewing the Case for Kerry Rhodes Being Blacklisted: Is it an Age Thing?


Kerry Rhodes is not on a NFL roster right now. This led Drew Magary of Deadspin to tell you why every team in the NFL sucks and opine that Rhodes was being blacklisted by the NFL because of internet rumors that came out in April about Rhodes being gay. With an assist from Pro Football Talk, plenty of other sites picked up on the storyline, including Yahoo.

The gist of this assertion is this– rumors came out that Kerry Rhodes was gay when a website published photos of the former Arizona safety on vacation, seemingly, with his male personal assistant. Rhodes went to TMZ to deny them. At the time, Rhodes was a free agent. According to Magary, he is a really good safety in a league full of bad ones, yet he still remains unsigned. Therefore, it must be that Rhodes has been blacklisted because of his rumored gayness.

It’s an easy tale to accept. The premise that Rhodes was one of the league’s best safeties is largely based on him being ranked the 4th best safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus in 2012. If one accepts that premise, then yes, it is difficult to imagine every team in the league would pass on one of the very best safeties in football.

Kerry Rhodes turned 31 in August. He has been a solid playmaker in the secondary for nearly a decade, starting 116 games between age 23 and age 30. There has, though, been a disconnect between the PFF rankings and the perception of Kerry Rhodes, and that pre-dates the internet rumors from this April.

In 2009, he was the #1 ranked safety according to PFF. That was in a season when he was temporarily demoted by head coach Rex Ryan in favor of hard-hitting Eric Smith (who is currently 30 years old and also a free agent). At the end of that season, Rhodes was traded to the Cardinals for a 4th and 7th round pick. When reached on his cell phone, former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum declined comment on why the Jets traded Rhodes. It would be difficult to imagine the Jets viewed him as the best safety in football, though, just based on the trade.

Rhodes has never been selected to a Pro Bowl in his career. That is, perhaps, an oversight by the league, or could be the result of playing in a conference with Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, and Bob Sanders of the Colts. A review of safeties with similar careers to Rhodes through age 30 (guys with an approximate value of 46 to 66 through age 30, one pro bowl or less), shows that in the NFL, it is age that comes before rumor.

Of the 41 similar safeties who also started 10 or more games at age 30, 14 of them (34%) started two or fewer games at age 31. The average number of starts at 31 was 8.4. Rhodes is 31 now, and the average age for that group of comparables the last time they started at least 8 games in the NFL? Also 31.

Perhaps George Atkinson was blacklisted because of his activities as a hit man, or Mark Kelso because of discrimination against really large helmets. If you are not considered an elite Hall of Fame-type performer as you move into your 30s, finding work can be tough, especially if the price doesn’t match up for the team.

So it comes down to how elite Rhodes is viewed. We have this 4th overall ranking in PFF for safeties, but how certain are we that is an accurate measure of reality? Would it change your view to know that in the three years in Arizona from age 28 to age 30, Rhodes was ranked 62nd, 32nd and 4th by PFF? Saying he averaged being the 32nd best safety on average from ages 28 to 30 sounds a lot different.

Those individual rankings are quite variable. This is not a knock on PFF at all. You would see the same thing just looking at things like yards per carry, or yards per reception, or sacks. The top 10 safeties in PFF’s rankings from 2008 to 2011 averaged finishing at #32 the following season. Nearly a third of them (12 of 38, 2 did not qualify with injury) were ranked outside the top 50 the following season. Safety is even more variable than some other positions, trying to assess the play based on film, without knowing all the calls and responsibilities. The top 10 offensive tackles, for example, averaged finishing at #20 the next year, an indication of the relative consistency of evaluation between those positions.

The problem is taking that single year ranking and then making a value judgment that Kerry Rhodes is one of the best safeties in the league. That perception was not shared commonly before April 11th, 2013, when the photos emerged. Weeks before the photos hit the web, ESPN compiled this list of the top 50 safety free agents, and Rhodes was ranked 17th, behind Michael Huff and Dawan Landry. That would put him in borderline starter range.

According to this article from the end of March, again pre-dating the rumors, the Cardinals tried to convince Rhodes to take a pay cut, but still got an offer potentially in the neighborhood of $2 million a year. He declined. The Big Lead contacted Rhodes’ agent Todd France for comment on any offers made to Rhodes, but we have not received a response.

That article also noted that there were “a glut of veteran safeties looking for work.” In looking at the ESPN list of safety free agents, a few re-signed with their teams early, or signed with a new team after being released early in the offseason. After Rhodes was released, but before the internet rumors hit, nearly a month passed. Teams signed 20 different safeties during that period, the most active in free agency when teams are setting their rosters before turning to more concrete draft plans.

Ed Reed was on the market for nine days in free agency before agreeing to a deal with Houston. Bernard Pollard lasted eight days between being cut and signing with the Titans. Adrian Wilson went eight days between being released by Arizona and signing in New England.

One would have to try to explain – if the league perception is that Rhodes is otherwise one of the best available safeties – why 20 teams went a different route when one of the four best safeties in the NFL was on the market, before April 11th. I suppose you could hypothesize that the league already knew and rumors were out there, though there is no indication at this time of that possibility.

That leaves the other explanation – Rhodes wasn’t willing to take what the market was willing to pay, and he wasn’t valued very highly by the market. It is not sexy, but nothing required Rhodes to accept whatever amount was offered. Arizona reportedly offered Rhodes somewhere around $2 million, then instead signed veteran Yeremiah Bell right after free agency began for $905,000 on a 1-year deal.

At the end of March, Michael Huff (Baltimore) and Will Allen (Dallas) both signed for cheaper deals. They were two of the last dominoes to fall for teams looking to sign safeties. The final activity came right before the Rhodes rumors surfaced. New Orleans signed Jim Leonhard as a backup on April 8th, Dawan Landry signed with the Jets on April 9th, and the Raiders signed Usama Young (who we should note was 12th in PFF rankings) on April 9th, along with Reggie Smith on April 10th.

No other player was signed by any team at safety until after the draft. Only three safeties in ESPN’s top 40 free agents have been signed by any team since April 10th: Charles Woodson by the Raiders in May; Chris Hope at the end of June by Detroit (he was cut in the preseason); and Quintin Mikell by the Carolina Panthers on September 2nd after Haruki Nakamura went on IR.

Mikell is a thorn in the side of this conspiracy theory. He is also highly valued by PFF rankings (From 2008 to 2012, ranking 1st, 9th, 1st, 35th, and 5th). He was ranked 4th in ESPN’s free agent safety rankings. A story on why the 5th ranked player in the PFF rankings was not signed until September would not have as much sizzle, since there is no convenient narrative related to him.

Now that Mikell is signed, I think you can make the argument that Rhodes is next up, assuming he is willing to meet the teams on contract issues. Rhodes just had a workout with the Giants on Tuesday, and will likely get inquiries from others as injuries or poor performance by younger guys roll in this month. No one says that NFL franchises have to always act optimally or make wise decisions. Sometimes they place too much emphasis on youth only to get burned. Let’s wait until the teams bypass Rhodes when injuries mount, because right now, I see a league that was not exactly knocking down the door to sign Rhodes before mid-April, and has not exactly bypassed him in favor of other veteran safeties on the market since the draft. I’m not ruling out that an individual team has less than stellar motivation, but I highly doubt it is a league wide issue, and the evidence certainly does not point in that direction. I am going to need to see teams bypassing Rhodes for players other than Charles Woodson and Quintin Mikell, to believe that something more sinister is going on.