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Free agency is bad

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Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

In my ongoing effort to push the idea that free agency promotes bad logic, here are some past free agent classes and the horror stories that accompany them.

First off though, here is another one of the reasons that free agency is often a failure for most teams. Players who become free agents after a great season are treated as though they are great. But as long as the universe has existed, I’m pretty sure nature has always had peaks and valleys. Paying players based on their peaks is completely backwards logic but it is how sports, and I think most industries, operate. Meanwhile, there are other players coming off of valleys and they can often be more likely to improve based on their previous season whereas the players coming off of great seasons are almost certain to regress in the opposite direction.

The Seattle Seahawks have rarely gotten into the discussion during the first week of free agency under Pete Carroll and John Schneider because they rarely find players who are coming off of great seasons and who they believe has more great seasons ahead. They usually only designate that a player is even capable of that if he is 27 or younger.

Sidney Rice was 25. Zach Miller was 26. Matt Flynn was 27. Percy Harvin was 25 when acquired by trade. Sheldon Richardson was 27 when acquired by trade. The exception being Jimmy Graham, who was 29 when acquired by trade.

Since 2010, tens of billions of dollars have been spent on NFL free agents. The Seahawks have had the richest owner in the league during that time and they’ve rarely been involved with all the activities you’ve seen over the last seven days. I don’t see many instances where it has hurt them. On the contrary, they’ve avoided many, many bad contracts. For teams like the New England Patriots, who also often stay out of the first week picture, they’ve been even more perfect in the contracts they avoid and shed. But the two franchises are again operating in similar fashion.

And yet, for some unknown reasons, most teams do not follow suit. They spend and spend and spend, and inevitably most of the contracts will be full of regret, regret, regret. Let’s check in on a few recent free agent classes:

2015:

Highest paid players to switch teams in free agency, in “total” value: Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis, Jeremy Maclin, Julius Thomas, Rodney Hudson, Jared Odrick, DeMarco Murray, Mike Iupati, Torrey Smith, Pernell McPhee, Charles Clay, Orlando Franklin, Chris Culliver, Antonio Cromartie, Jermey Parnell, Brian Orakpo, Dan Williams, Buster Skrine, Davon House, Da’Norris Searcy

It’s amazing how old these players feel now. These were the top-paid players in free agency just four years ago but it feels more like ten. Keep in mind that they all signed deals of at least four years and many of them were five, with Suh coming in at six! Suh signed for six years and played for the Miami Dolphins for three. They made the playoffs in 2016, Suh’s lone Pro Bowl season with the team, but I can’t say that he made a significant impact on the organization. His deal was for $114 million. I think he got around $60 million for three years. The Dolphins had a $9.1 million cap hit for not having him in 2018 and that jumps to $13 million in 2019.

Revis forgettably re-signed with the New York Jets, playing two years on a five-year deal.

Rodney Hudson remains with the team that signed him. That’s it.

Super Bowls on this list? None. Moderate playoff success? Not really.

2016:

Highest paid players to switch teams in free agency, in “total” value: Malik Jackson, Olivier Vernon, Josh Norman, Brock Osweiler, Janoris Jenkins, Kelechi Osemele, Russell Okung, Damon Harrison, Kelvin Beachum, Alex Mack, Marvin Jones, Brandon Brooks, Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, Coby Fleener, Tashaun Gipson, Rodney McLeod, Mitchell Schwartz, Mohamed Sanu, J.R. Sweezy.

Of those 20 players, 13 are no longer with the teams that signed them just three years ago. Those 20 players had 17 contracts that were at least five years in length (Jackson was the only one who got six and he was cut after three), and most of those were ended prematurely without the expected return at time of signing. Of the three four-year deals, Irvin made it the longest at 2.5 seasons. The only player of those 20 to win a Super Bowl has been Brooks, a remarkably good signing for the team and for him as a free agent choosing a good situation to walk into.

Some of these deals appeared to immediately pay off for those respective clubs. The New York Giants turned around from 6-10 to 11-5 after signing Vernon, Jenkins, and Harrison, but they lost 38-13 in the wild card round and then dropped to 3-13 the next season; and no team in the NFL has anywhere near the dead money right now on bum deals than the Giants do after parting ways with among others, Vernon and Harrison. Jenkins could be next.

The Jacksonville Jaguars went to the AFC Championship with a top-ranked defense that featured Jackson, Gipson, alongside other free agent signees Calais Campbell (2017), Barry Church (2017), A.J. Bouye (2017), and Marcel Dareus, who they traded for that season as well. The team dropped to 5-11 in 2018 and they’ve since cut Jackson and Gipson.

The Carolina Panthers tagging and then un-tagging Josh Norman in 2016 seemed like a huge deal, but in the three years since signing a $75 million deal with Washington, Norman looks more ‘capable’ than ‘cap-worthy.’ He could still be released or traded this year.

Kelechi Osemele has never played like a signing you would regret, making the Pro Bowl in 2016 and 2017 and helping Oakland’s offense enough to actually return to the postseason, but he’s also an example of how an incredibly valuable guard can still only add so much value to a team. The Raiders could no longer convince themselves of the need to pay that much for a guard, and the Jaguars will probably feel the same way soon with 2018 signing Andrew Norwell as their highest-paid player in 2019.

2017:

Highest paid players to switch teams in free agency, in “total” value: A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore, Kevin Zeitler, Campbell, Riley Reiff, Matt Kalil, Okung, Ricky Wagner, Pierre Garcon, Mike Glennon, Ron Leary, Larry Warford, Tony Jefferson, Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth, DeSean Jackson, Kenny Britt, Micah Hyde, Mike Remmers, Logan Ryan

Zeitler, Kalil, Garcon, Glennon, Jackson, Britt, and Remmers are now no longer with the teams that signed them to four and five-year contracts just two years ago. That’s 35%! No one should be surprised if a few more names are added to that list this year.

Like the Giants a year before, the Jags immediately improved to a top-ranked defense and a playoff team, but also like New York, they collapsed immediately and are left with more debt than trophies. Don’t get me wrong — it is valuable to have playoff seasons, and these teams did buy singular opportunities to win a Super Bowl, something that is extremely rare for everyone but the Patriots — but there are plenty of teams that experience the postseason and gain opportunities without getting heavily involved in free agency so we have to look at every avenue to success and weight them properly.

The LA Rams are another great example of this. They used free agency to improve their offense tremendously in 2017 (last to first) and then with those additions, like Whitworth, Woods, Jonathan Sullivan, and eventually Sammy Watkins then Brandin Cooks to improve to a Super Bowl-attendee offense (as well as Ndamukong Suh-sized spending on defense), but long-term stability and success for Sean McVay will probably have to include superior drafting success in the near future because of the nature of the salary cap and Jared Goff’s impending contract extension.

Now you will see the Patriots listed here and like the Eagles, they won a Super Bowl two years after a big free agent signing. In the case of Gilmore, he’s been a fantastic addition to New England’s defense with, and I couldn’t argue against a great signing like that with the benefit of hindsight. But in terms of causation, Gilmore’s effect on the Patriots is presumably as impactful as Matt Kalil’s on the Carolina Panthers, even if those impacts are going in opposite directions. How do you know if you’re getting a Gilmore or a Kalil, especially when the Kalil and Okung and Wagner signings are much more common. Even compared to Bouye, another good signing in terms of getting a positive return on production, how far does that actually get a team? The Patriots did other things in 2017 and 2018 that helped them win another Super Bowl too and those transactions far outweigh the singular signing of Gilmore.

Also, can you believe that Kenny Britt got a $35 million contract only two years ago?

In the cases of the last three years, we saw how quickly a free agent class can age when looking back at 2015, just four years ago. Now look at 2016 and I think you’ll agree that most of the names on that list also seem a little bit closer to washing out or bouncing around as a “vet” signing than they were not long ago — and that’s literally what’s happening with a few of them. This is a big reason why rebuilding through free agency doesn’t work. Not only is there no such thing as a rebuild in the NFL, but think about it this way:

  • Your team has very little talent
  • Little talent often equals few big contracts
  • Few big contracts means a lot of cap room
  • A lot of cap room means getting to sign 2-3 big money free agents, at least
  • 2-3 good or great players on a 53-man roster is not enough to win a Super Bowl unless one of those players is a great quarterback (in free agency this is the case maybe once a decade)
  • So you have added a couple good to great players and maybe if you hit on a couple draft picks and had a couple in the fold already, you become a playoff team, but that’s it
  • You want to believe that you can keep adding to the pile and sustain success to a point where your free agent signing in 2015 will have an impact in 2018, but it does not work that way. You only have a small window to compete unless you have a great franchise quarterback. As you can see, big free agent signings rarely sustain success at their level of pay beyond one or two years; this is often because as I mentioned earlier, they’ve already had their career peak season
  • Team has one competitive season and then fades into obscurity, only to repeat the free agency madness cycle again in a year or two

I believe that teams can only plan to win the Super Bowl this year or next. But that does not mean that you push all-in. It means you find the best way to utilize your cap and roster each and every season, which does mean that you wouldn’t promise a player a lot of money three seasons from now. Three seasons from now isn’t this season or next. I can’t plan that far ahead unless you are a franchise quarterback or in rare cases, Aaron Donald.

But even in the case of Donald, that’s a player that the Rams will have for at least eight seasons because they drafted him. They might get eight seasons of a Hall of Fame player with the benefit of 4-5 of those seasons coming on a rookie contract. If a GM winds up with a great player from the draft, then he can plan ahead 3-4 years and say “Well, I have this player in the mix and I don’t have to worry about how it affects me from a money standpoint to a significant degree.” And when you do re-sign those players to large extensions, as Seattle has done with Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, KJ Wright, and others, they can already feel assured that the players work in the system, work with the coaches, and have had success in a sport where variables are as ridiculously important as they are countless.

Keeping your own players is good. Signing others’ stars to exorbitant deals is rarely a sound plan and I’m glad the Seahawks mostly stay out of it.

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