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The Free Agency Fallacy

Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Who the free agents will be when NFL teams can officially begin signing new players on March 13 remains to be seen, because as we know many of the best players will be retained by their current clubs, either by franchise tag or extension. Last year, this kept players like Drew Brees, Demarcus Lawrence, Le’Veon Bell, Jarvis Landry, and Adam Vinatieri off the market, as well as many others. This year, Larry Fitzgerald re-signed with the Cardinals as soon as he could. So before looking ahead to Jadeveon Clowney, Ziggy Ansah, or anyone else, keep in mind: the opportunity may never happen.

Also remember this: free agency might be the most overrated aspect of the game. At least, the first wave is incredibly overblown. First, let’s take a look at how little the impact was for many entire position groups when it comes to free agency.

If for whatever reason you can’t read the tweet above, here’s what it says: out of 21 players to top 1,000 receiving yards this season, 19 did so with the team that originally drafted or signed them. Only two did so with a team that acquired them in free agency or trade and they both play for the LA Rams: Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. That’s it.

The FA Wide Receiver Mistakes

The next closest example would be Amari Cooper, but he gained some yards with the Oakland Raiders before going to the Dallas Cowboys and he was not a part of free agency. Not even close. Cooper’s still got one more year left before that. The next closest would be Jarvis Landry, who had 976 yards, but he also wasn’t a free agent.

Landry was tagged by the Miami Dolphins then traded to the Cleveland Browns. Even then, Landry still did about what Landry is expected to do. which to me is very underwhelming for $75 million: 12 yards per catch, four touchdowns, and now a career-low 54.4% catch rate. His numbers didn’t improve much with Baker Mayfield either, as he caught just 56.2% of throws from Mayfield with four touchdowns and a passer rating of only 80 as two of those attempts got intercepted. Plus just 6.5 yards per attempt.

Considered the biggest receiver get of the offseason by many, and costing $34 million guaranteed, Landry is a player you’d like to have but I’m not sure his value on the field matches his value at $15 million per season given what we know $15 million can get you. In a game against the LA Chargers this season, Landry had 11 yards on 10 targets and days like that are tough to swallow when you know he’s not likely to be the player who also takes over a game and wins it for you.

Yet Jarvis Landry is the most productive receiver of the 2018 free agent class and it’s not even that close.

I similarly did not understand the Allen Robinson love given that his last two years could just be described as “underwhelming 2016” and “injured 2017,” but the Chicago Bears gave him three years and $42 million. But at least he did have 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns as a 22-year-old with Blake Bortles, so it’s worth a shot, right? That shot came out “underwhelming and injured” most of the time, with a final tally of 55 catches, 754 yards, four touchdowns, and a 58.5% catch rate. He was 38th in receiving yards despite being 12th in AAV (average annual value). And if yards ain’t it, chief, then note he’s 48th in DYAR and 52nd in DVOA.

Sammy Watkins signed a $48 million contract and is sixth in AAV, but he had just 519 yards, three touchdowns, and has missed six games with injury, which was not all that surprising. Watkins is 22nd in DYAR, but fifth in DVOA. The team has been better with him than without him, but given the nature of the sport, it’s a constant risk that every player will miss significant times with injury; so when you pay a guy 4x as much as a different option you only raise your risk. Both Robinson and Watkins helped their teams in the playoffs, but both teams also lost to the New England Patriots, a team that almost never toys around with the first wave of free agency.

The Patriots have one player who is set to make more than $15 million next season: Tom Brady.

Instead of seeing a lot of good receivers on the list of 2018 free agents, we’d rather pay attention to the best values. These are rarely going to be the players who were acquired in the first wave, made the biggest headlines, consumed the most media attention and fan tweets of jealousy or celebration. It’ll usually be the ones you forgot happened.

Like the Seattle Seahawks agreeing to pay Jaron Brown just $1.7 million in 2018 and getting five touchdowns from him, tied for the most of any free agent with John Brown of the Baltimore Ravens. John Brown cost $5 million on a one-year deal.

Jordy Nelson produced well during short stretches, but also had a five-game stretch in the middle of the season with 36 total receiving yards, and didn’t score a touchdown over the final 10 games of the year. He signed a two-year, $14.2 million deal.

Allen Hurns was meant to be the new number one for the Dallas Cowboys, signing a two-year, $12 million deal, but he practically fell off of the depth chart. Our old friend Paul Richardson signed a $40 million contract with Washington and he’s been far more underwhelming there than he was in Seattle. Donte Moncrief made $8 million for his season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Ravens might have done best with Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead, but still paid them $19.3 million this season, then became a complete running team. During their 6-1 streak to end the year, Crabtree had 135 yards and one touchdown, Snead had 203 yards and no touchdowns, and Brown had 114 yards and one touchdown. Brown caught 8 of 30 targets in that time.

The FA RB Mistakes

Moving onto another position that is thought to be even more applicable to upgrade through free agency — the running back position — you’ll similarly find little good value on the market. Much like wide receiver, it is still much better to acquire your running back talent through the draft or very early in their careers like UDFA or waivers.

The only free agent running back in 2018 to even go over 750 rushing yards was Adrian Peterson and he was available to be signed during training camp. He was an afterthought. He might not have even gotten an opportunity if not for the torn ACL of Derrius Guice.

The next-most was Doug Martin at 723 with the Raiders, and he came at $1.4 million for one year. Oakland spent more on Marshawn Lynch, who made $4.5 million and missed 10 games. Frank Gore had 722 yards and no touchdowns with the Miami Dolphins. Isaiah Crowell joined the New York Jets for $12 million over three years and had 4.8 yards per carry and six touchdowns, but also missed three games and had under 700 yards.

It’s hard to find a single notable “good value” add at the running back position in 2018 other than Peterson, who again, almost didn’t find a team at all.

More FA Offense Mistakes

Other high-cost free agents on offense include tackles Nate Solder, Chris Hubbard, interior linemen Justin Pugh, Andrew Norwell, and Weston Richburg, tight ends Jimmy Graham and Trey Burton, running back Jerrick McKinnon, and quarterbacks Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, and of course, Kirk Cousins and the fully-guaranteed $84 million deal.

Of those 11 players I just named, one went to the playoffs, and while Burton may be a quality tight end, he is by no means a star. He became this “Where will Burton land?” storyline pushed after the EaglesSuper Bowl win, but even then Burton only had one catch for 12 yards in the 2017 playoffs. The entire playoffs. And Chicago probably did need him to get where they are given their dearth of offensive talent (see again, Allen Robinson), but can you imagine coming out of the 2018 free agency period and saying: the team that just made themselves a playoff team is the Bears ... and not because of who you think it’s because of. (Well, it’s because of Khalil Mack more than any other player, a trade acquisition.)

You could argue that Chicago is a team with “foundational pieces” added through veteran acquisitions like Mack, Burton, Robinson, Akiem Hicks, Prince Amukamara, and Gabriel, but this is a team that drafted four of its five starting offensive linemen, its quarterback, its running backs, it’s nose tackle, it’s outside linebackers, it’s safeties, and it’s top cornerback. What’s the value tied to Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Charles Leno, Kyle Long, Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, Eddie Goldman, Adrian Amos, and Leonard Floyd?

A team without a core of drafted players to add that one or two missing pieces to is not much of a team at all. Hicks was signed on a two-year, $10 million deal before later signing an extension. Amukamara was a one-year, $7 million deal before later signing an extension. Afterthought free agents that turned into something more.

The Kirk Cousins Mistake and Other QBs

The Vikings gave Cousins $84 million over three years and while it is “fully guaranteed” I still think those words were overrated. If Minnesota hadn’t done that deal, a traditional deal for a free agent QB of his caliber might end up looking a lot bigger but still being a legitimate three-year deal with some extra years tacked on just in case he does do well. I actually think this deal benefits the Vikings more than it does Cousins because if next year goes as mediocre as this year was, then they’ll bring a young guy in to work in for 2020 and have no dead money tied to Cousins in 2021 or beyond. In fact, they should start looking for that young guy this year.

None of the top six QBs by AAV made the playoffs this year. The highest-paid QB for 2018 salary to make the playoffs was Joe Flacco, who is on the bench. Next is Andrew Luck, followed by Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Nick Foles. The remaining five are on their rookie contracts: Jared Goff, Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Dak Prescott. And of course Lamar Jackson, the new starter in Baltimore.

That’s six of eight division winners who are led by a QB on his rookie contract, the asterisk being that the Ravens are still paying Flacco. That changes next year, as they’ll shed $10-$18 million by releasing him, trading him, or releasing him with a post-June 1 designation.

Which teams are led by quarterbacks they did not originally draft or sign? The San Francisco 49ers (if we’re looking at who the highest-paid is, at least), New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, Vikings, Eagles (they drafted Nick Foles but still had to acquire him back), Arizona Cardinals (again, going by salary), and Washington.

That’s seven organizations. The Cards actually drafted Josh Rosen to be the future, but wasted money on Sam Bradford in the present. The Eagles made the playoffs with help from Foles, but he was a $13 million backup making more than the starter. We won’t know what would have become of Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers if he’d been healthy, but their 1-2 start wasn’t spectacular. The Broncos and Vikings disappointingly missed the postseason with weak play at quarterback and strong play on defense.

The only success story all year of a free agent QB continues to be Brees, perhaps the most unique free agent story in NFL history. Who were the best success stories at quarterback in 2017? Keenum, before he cost anything. Foles, before his extension after winning the Super Bowl. The “Go find a franchise QB outside of the draft” mentality has rarely worked in the NFL. The highest-paid QBs this season by a team other than the one that drafted them: $37 million to Garoppolo, $24 million to Cousins, $24 million to Brees, $18.4 million to Alex Smith, $16 million to Tyrod Taylor, $15 million to Keenum, $13.6 million to Foles, $10 million to Josh McCown.

The top QBs thought to be available in 2019:

The top free agent is likely Teddy Bridgewater, followed by Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor, and Robert Griffin III. You’ll also see Brock Osweiler, another example of the free agency fallacy.

Potentially available through trade or release: Foles, Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, Flacco, Eli Manning, Blake Bortles, and perhaps C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens. All of these players are likely to only help you pass the time until they draft a franchise quarterback.

The FA Defense Mistakes

Does this change when looking at defensive additions? These are the players who changed teams through free agency in 2018 on defense.

Over $10 million per year: Ndamukong Suh, Star Lotulelei, Trumaine Johnson, Richard Sherman, Malcolm Butler

Playoff teams: One, the Rams, who were already stacked pre-Suh, and mostly on offense.

Over $7 million per year: Vinny Curry, Trent Murphy, Kareem Martin, Sheldon Richardson, Dontari Poe, DaQuan Jones, Avery Williamson, Demario Davis, Anthony Hitchens, Aaron Colvin, T.J. Carrie, Tyrann Mathieu.

Playoff teams: Saints with Davis, Chiefs with Hitchens, Texans with Colvin and Mathieu. Thankfully for Houston they weren’t hurt too much by Colvin being unavailable for about half of the season and Kansas City despite most fans I’ve talked to saying how huge of a disappointment Hitchens has been. Mathieu’s deal, like Amukamara’s before it, was a one-year, $7 million deal. That makes Demario Davis’s contract somewhat unique.

New Orleans signed him to a three-year, $24 million deal after six seasons with the Jets and Browns. I wouldn’t say that it was a “high profile” addition and I’d be surprised if more than 10% of fans could even name Davis as a player or know where he played if given just his name, unless you were a Jets fan. I would say he inconspicuously led the NFL in solo tackles in 2017 with five sacks on top of that.

Davis spent four years in New York, was allowed to leave via free agency which is when he signed a two-year deal in Cleveland, who then traded him back to the Jets after one season. For whatever reasons he has not been a notable name for most around the country but Davis seems to be a quality addition for a New Orleans defense that’s improved from 23rd against the run by DVOA in 2017 to third in 2018. (While also seeing their pass defense erode, for what it’s worth.)

When looking for free agent signings in 2019 then, should you be more worried about the headline grabbers like Suh and Sherman or the second and third waves, if not the August additions? We know what Pete Carroll and John Schneider would answer.

The Mistakes You Don’t Want the Seahawks to Make

Seattle built their championship team almost exclusively through the draft and second, third-wave free agency or trades. We know that the core was built on drafts from 2010-2012, while they traded mid-round picks for Marshawn Lynch, signed Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to “small” deals in 2013, added Brandon Browner from the CFL, and acquired defensive tackles Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald when most teams weren’t that interested. They did make high-profile acquisitions: Percy Harvin, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller — and none of those moves worked out like they had hoped they would.

You could argue that because the Seahawks don’t have as good of a core and only have four draft picks in 2019 that they are now even more dependent on making big moves in free agency, but you’d be making a really poor argument (in my opinion) and would actually be actively making Seattle a worse team with a much dimmer future.

For one, because Russell Wilson is now a $25 million quarterback with a probable salary bump in 2020 and beyond, the Seahawks have less wiggle room for high-paid players, not more. The salary cap is higher now than it was in 2013, but not that much higher: Seattle has about $24 million less to spend than when Wilson was on his rookie deal. That’s more than the cost of Duane Brown, Tyler Lockett, and Bradley McDougald combined next season. The Seahawks have less wiggle room.

Number two, pushing “all in” for a single season and hoping to fix financial issues in the future when that time comes up is how the Giants went from 6-10 to 11-5 and a quick playoff exit to being 8-24 over the last two seasons. It’s how the Jacksonville Jaguars went from 3-13 to 10-6 and a loss in the AFC Championship to being 5-11 with less than no cap space in 2019. It is highly improbable that any big name free agency acquisitions will help the Seahawks win the Super Bowl next season. Highly.

The Patriots only have one such player on their roster: cornerback Stephon Gilmore. And New England has made the Super Bowl in both seasons with Gilmore, though he’s made $8 million in each of those two years, a low sum for a top-ranked corner. He has a $15 million AAV over the next three years and that’s when they’ll lose some value, but it was a smartly structured deal and is among the type of contracts Seattle should be looking to give out:

  • One-year deals. These are the most common types of deals that the Seahawks give out to free agents. Bennett was a one-year deal originally. So was McDougald. And so was Luke Joeckel. If it works, you have a good shot at re-signing. If it doesn’t, you have no further commitments.
  • Two-year deals with low first-year commitments. These are the deals they gave to Barkevious Mingo, Ed Dickson, and Jaron Brown last year. They can now get away from all of those deals with little dead money if they want to. It’s also similar to the deal that Avril signed in 2013 and when it worked out well, they extended him.
  • That’s it?

I can’t imagine a scenario where signing an outside player to a long-term deal makes a ton of sense. Unless it’s a perfect storm like Gilmore where the team says, “This guy is young, he’s great, he’s being undervalued, and he’ll be cheap for the first two years.” That is rare. You can pitch players that fall into this category, but there are not many.

I can’t identify a single player on offense that falls into the 26-and-under, great, affordable category. Defensively, the pass rushers include Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, Demarcus Lawrence, Trey Flowers, and Grady Jarrett. You’ve also got Anthony Barr at outside linebacker, and Adrian Amos, Landon Collins, and Tyrann Mathieu at safety. I wouldn’t say any of these corners qualify as “great” yet, but Bradley Roby, Ronald Darby, and the far-too-injured Jason Verrett are also out there.

If the Houston Texans don’t franchise or re-sign Clowney, then I can’t imagine him being “cheap” in any form of the word. He’s like to be looking at $17 million annually, if not more, and frankly I don’t feel comfortable that he’s a fit in the Seahawks defense. You’d much rather extend Clark, and know you still have enough money for Jarran Reed. Same goes for Lawrence. Seattle could also take a look at the safeties as a possible younger option to replace Earl Thomas, but it’s hard for anyone to say what the safety market is going to be valued at given all the uncertainty there in 2018.

There’s really just one free agent I’ve had my eye on beyond the area that the Seahawks are most likely to be involved in (the second and third wave) and that’s Ezekiel Ansah of the Detroit Lions. He’s turning 30 in May, he’s a former top-five pick, he’s had two seasons with 12+ sacks but has also been injured for much of the last three years. To me this all adds up to him signing a one or two-year deal and having greater value potential than any of the pass rushers mentioned above.

Signing Ansah (if this is indeed the contract he gets) feels like an Avril, Bennett, or McDougald type of move. Which I think has a lot more long-term value than signing Calais Campbell to a four-year, $60 million deal or Olivier Vernon to a five-year, $85 million deal. Hey, they are good (Vernon) to great (Campbell) players but the payoff for each seems to be one trip to the playoffs followed by years of trying to make all your other moves around it.

The Seahawks should not be signing players that they have to plan their other contracts around, unless they are Wilson or players we’ve already seen work in their system (Clark). Seattle could have a very fun and exciting free agency period this year, you just have to readjust your viewpoint of what is “exciting.”