The Vast NFL Free Agency Myth

This time of year, everyone has an opinion about free agency - whether it's in overall concept of a team and their needs or about picking up specific players, I'm always reading the same lie, repeated over and over again until most fans (now) accept it as hard fact. My more loyal readers know I can be long-winded at times, and this is necessarily one of them because the subject has so many facets and I'll use examples where I can in order to illustrate them. No time to start like the present, so on with it!

The Free Agency Myth

What IS the myth?

"If you're not getting better through free agency, you're getting worse."

In the NFL, I cannot think of a bigger, broader lie than least in the spirit in which most people think.

Most fans seem to think that if you're not acquiring a nice number of good-quality free agents, you're getting worse by standing still, and this line of thinking is demonstrably incorrect.

You see, the problem is that free agency IS a "zero-sum game," but not the simplistic one of which, again, so many fans have an incorrect understanding.

Free agents at this time of year (pre-draft) are, by definition, veterans of at least one season. Undrafted free agents can't be signed before the draft, for very obvious reasons, leaving only veteran players.

Some teams will have a net loss of free agents while others will have a net gain. Overall, the 32 NFL teams will have a net change of zero and always do with pre-draft free agency. Not all teams that gather a bunch of solid free agents get better, and not all the teams that lose a number of them get worse. It's all part of the process of building a team to put on the field in the fall, and free agency is but one tool in the bag to this end.

Still other teams actually get better by losing free agents to other teams. Yeah, you heard me right. The reason there is to get rid of under-performing veterans who might have good statistics but are under-performing their contract numbers: in fact, a great example of that is Minnesota Vikings WR Mike Wallace - the Dolphins got better by losing his huge contract, even if they went out and spent it and more on another huge free agent - they wouldn't have been able to take on a $19 million salary hit in 2015 with Mike "60 Minutes" Wallace still on the payroll. Wallace needed 80+ catches for 1500 yds and 15+ TDs to justify the expense.

Gosh, it's ASTONISHING how accurate it is to predict such things....yet, a few teams still do it and some in any given season always will! 

Regarding this part of free agency, "If you're not getting better, you're getting worse" is a horribly short-sighted view to take at best; at worst, it's plain ignorant.

Free Agency Considerations

Too many people just look at the names of people lost and gained then try to claim one group is better than another group, then make conclusions from there. What they aren't considering much is how the new team chemistry will mesh but that’s difficult at best to do beforehand. People don’t consider all the costs involved, and that's the key thing to look at. Some teams can actually lose good players and wind up being better off for it for any number of reasons. 

One reason? Performance. As I said, sometimes a player can perform well on the field, but not nearly well enough to justify a big contract. Sometimes it's better to get "worse" at a particular position, whatever position it is, to lose the player's contract in order to get several younger players that might improve several other positions. In that case, yes, you're getting worse in one area but better in, say, three others. It's a net improvement that isn't always visible in the "snapshot in time" when the news hits that your favorite team just lost its best player. If he's making a million per game and his replacement is making a million per season, you've just saved a ton of salary cap space, which brings me to my second reason which is related to performance....


The biggest free agency myth is the "free" part. The Carolina Panthers thus far have signed 12 free agents for about the price it would cost to keep the one "big" free agent we have this season in Greg Hardy. Most of those "free agents" were re-signed players, but here I'm talking more about free agents that actually change teams just so we're both on the same page. When fans talk about "signing free agents," much of the time it's with the unspoken qualifier being "new to the team" free agents.

The team that picks up your high-priced cast-off might get better if he's the final piece missing from what should be a playoff or Super Bowl run, AND if you have the money to spend, but even that will have an effect on their ability to maneuver people in following seasons. In such a case, both teams "get better," but through different means as each team's talent/salary equations at a given time are unique to them.

Without getting into the why's and how's or the events that led up to the decision to let Greg Hardy walk, one thing we can all agree on is that it's part of the business of the NFL. Money is what drives all the activity, or lack thereof, during this phase of the planning. 

Even teams that sign a lot of talent to try to instantly improve their team often fall short of doing so, and they waste a lot of money in the meantime.

Everything has Consequences

Sure, Ndamukong Suh will help an already-stout Miami defense put more fear into enemy QBs and it's even likely that they signed him because Tom Brady won another Super Bowl. The AFC East has been making a lot of moves - especially the Jets and Bills - so I'm sure the ideas and thinking behind signing "Donkey Kong" were similar to how a lot of fans think, and the two things can and do often coincide: They need to be able to win the division first, which means beating Brady's Deflatriots, and that means pressuring him. Donkey Kong is the Most Beastly free agent on defense probably since the Minister of Defense himself was picked up by the Green Bay Packers about 20 years ago. Fine.

The flip side of this, however, is that the Dolphins just blew another huge wad of cash on a free agent only a single year after being bitten by a poor choice, and that was in signing WR Mike Wallace. They've just traded Wallace and a seventh-round pick to Minnesota for a fifth-round pick. 

But why such a pittance in draft capital for such a talented player?

Easy. That capital is more than counterbalanced by his massive salary. In short, they had to move on from a BIG mistake, which is always the risk you run signing expen$ive players. Sometimes, like Albert Haynesworth, they simply “lie down” once they get that big payday.

Whether Suh has an average season or an All-Time All-Pro season with 25 sacks is irrelevant in that his huge salary hamstrings the team from making future moves, not to mention the names they've either already gotten rid of (Wallace) or others (like Dannell Ellerbe, who went to Miami as a free agent himself) that they have to dump to make the numbers work.

How to Use Free Agency Intelligently

In short, watch Gettleman's dealings. I'm convinced he's a top-five GM if you want a stable organization that is nimble and a winning one over time. I don't think there's much coincidence in Gettleman's arrival and winning consecutive NFC South titles for the first time in NFL history. 

Free agency shouldn't be used to build a team, but to plug holes and upgrade prudently. Certainly, in free agency, it's rare to get a "great value." Sure, you might get a great player but as in Donkey Kong's case, you pay dearly for it. No free lunches here unless you get lucky on a cheap acquisition, as the Panthers did two years ago in signing safety Mike Mitchell....whom we couldn't keep due to....overpaying previous free agents!

In any business, it's important to have a long-range financial plan in place and not to deviate from it too much. The NFL is no different in this respect. Free agency is a tool not a means unto an end in and of itself. When you have glaring holes, you use free agency to help with the problem and not necessarily to solve it outright, although there are times when a good fit is available at a decent price. If that's the case, it's a good move because although you ideally want to get your talent through the draft, the numbers say that you cannot build an entire team via the draft.

In order to do so, you have to "hit" on every last pick every single season. Consider that the average rookie-contract today is a four-year deal (sometimes with a fifth-year option, like in Cam's case), and you have seven draft picks per year. That's a total of 28 players every four years, and as we all know, you start 22. That leaves very little margin for error and  free agency should be used to correct the poor system fits, replace the injured/unproductive rookies that may never have the light come on, and/or for low-priced, known-quantity veterans for depth purposes. 

How the NFL Draft Fits in

This is where fans, NFL organizations, and the public at large actually have it right: You build your team's identity through the draft. If it sounds obvious or even a bit patronizing, it should. It's an axiom for a reason.

Look at the "dynasties" over history. The only one I can think of that a bit more of a hodgepodge than the others were the same Miami Dolphins that are getting really "hodgepodgey" today, but the reason was quite different....they were an expansion team and Don Shula quickly built them into the NFL's best franchise partly through good drafting but largely through great trades - remember, free agency didn't exist in the same way back then.

Looking at the others, it's easy to see the draft as the defining moments for so many dynasties, it's almost silly to even consider another route these days. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted FOUR Hall of Famers in 1974 alone: Jack "Count Dracula" Lambert, Mike Webster, John Stallworth, and Lynn Swann. Just imagine what those four guys would command on the open market today. NO single team could begin to afford to acquire more than really two of them, let alone all four...and that's just one single draft class.

Next, the San Francisco 49'ers. They drafted Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and even took a track guy like Renaldo Nehemiah and made a quality WR out of him. After that, there are the Dallas Cowboys...and the Herschel Walker trade. Three rings followed. It’s easy to forget 4-time Super Bowl losers too. Those wagon-circling Buffalo Bills may not have actually won a Super Bowl but they were the AFC’s best team for much of the 1990’s. They drafted Andre Reed, Jim Kelly, and Thurman Thomas as their own version of Dallas’ “triplets” without signing high priced free agents as core players.

Even last year's Super Bowl champion, the New England Deflatriots, happen to be the franchise best-known for "trading back" in many drafts, acquiring more draft capital, and using the extra picks so that they could be nimble and move around to grab whoever they wanted. They have also won more Super Bowls in the 21st Century than any other team...even the New York Giants, who won both of theirs at whose expense, again? Oh - that team that builds through the draft so much and gets to The Big Game about every third season on average since Tom Terrific's arrival....with the 199th pick in his year's draft, speaking of hitting on draft picks.

As Pendulums Swing, they Must Swing Back

I used the Miami Dolphins as an example to also illustrate two organizations on completely different paths. The Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins are actually working in about as opposite directions regarding free agency as they possibly can. As I said, the Panthers were doing what Miami currently is about four or five years ago when Hurney signed all those players to big, long contracts. It's easy to get into, you get in the newspapers for it, and often fans get excited. It's natural to be excited. What Panthers fans would NOT want to have a talent like Donkey Kong even WITH Kawann and Star...if you don't think about the money or in his specific case, the dirty play?

Any team that heavily delves into paying a few veterans top dollar WILL find itself cash-strapped down the road and usually sooner rather than later. Teams are always "re-negotiating" players' contracts to work Cap Magic, but there's only so much you can do and wind up kicking the can down the road a year or two. At some point, the can-kicking must stop, the organization must swallow their wasted money and overpaid roster, and play through some lean years as a result.

Like living on credit, at some point the bill arrives. The teams acquiring big talent through free agency are often in “win-now” mode, and often for the wrong a GM and head coach trying to improve significantly so they can hold on to their OWN jobs but this approach rarely works.

Dave Gettleman's Role may be Bigger than Rivera's

Without Dave Gettleman's penny-pinching ways, I think it's safe to say that Ron Rivera would be working elsewhere by now. Overspending got John Fox booted out of Charlotte, and he's actually one of the NFL's better head coaches. If you can win in the playoffs with Tim Tebow under center, you're a damned good coach.

Rivera's first head coaching job obviously came in Charlotte and he has taken the team to two division championships in three seasons - both coming in the last two years as we all know. However, it's Gettleman calling the shots as to whom they draft. Rivera undoubtedly has input, but the final decisions are Gettleman's. He is not following the path of instant gratification that the Dolphins are, but of the measured, long-term sustained success that marked the trajectories of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970's, the San Francisco 49'ers of the 1980's, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990's, and the New England Deflatriots of the 21st century.

It's early yet and the competition is even more fierce, in part, DUE to the proliferation of free agency; it's harder than ever to assemble a championship team and keep them together for multiple Super Bowl runs in the name of league parity. Dave wants to pluck his core players out of college AND have the ability financially to retain the best of those players while using free agency to fill a couple of problem areas until they can be further improved with young talent in the draft. It's a good cycle to be in, having a young, talented, tough team with a distinct identity and the stability that consecutive playoff appearances helps give you. 

Good drafting of talent and developing that talent in the mold of the vision of the head coach is a great start. Dave Gettleman is trying to perfect that delicate balance of production, contract value, youth and upside, and veteran stability and give Ron Rivera the tools HE needs to put the Carolina Panthers in position to win the division and proceed to the playoffs...hopefully each and every year. 

In order for Rivera to be in a position to do what he has in the last two years, Gettleman has to be the one to keep the numbers under control while delivering a group of young men for Rivera to work with. I recall when Dave G was in his first year, he was asked about his philosophy and he summed it up in typical blunt fashion: He said something to the effect of "I don't want to be in a position where we can't keep a great young talent we draft because of the salary cap. That would be the worst thing." 

Thus far, the strategy is working well.

Coincidence? I think NOT!

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