Divergent Trends of the NFL Free Agent Market

Casey MoritzCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2008

With so many NFL teams having key needs and so few marquee players entering the free agent market, competition for the available free agents has been stiff and requires front offices around the league to pay more than the usual due diligence to find the right players, as well as the right deal to improve the team on the field - and still keep the books balanced as teams approach the NFL draft.
Many teams, such as the Indianapolis, eschew the free agent market almost entirely, preferring to focus their energy on the draft and developing players from within the system. However, for most of the teams in the league, that is not a a viable option. Especially for teams such as the Dolphins, Jets, and Falcons - which are undergoing internal restructuring, scheme changes and player-personnel renovations - the free agent signing period offers an opportunity to restock the shelves with players who are proven, or at least known quantities in the league, rather than gambling so much on rookie players in the draft.
Cleveland has invested the future of the franchise in the free agency market, by being very active in swapping draft picks for current players in order to rebuild a defense that was a small step away from terrible. This seems to be a reversal of policy from last year when the Browns were aggressive in the draft.
Philosophies abound as to the reason why players leave their teams, why they sign with certain teams and eschew others. There are a myriad of forces that effect player decisions, money being the most obvious, but agents have relationships with front office management, players have family needs, location preferences and the desire for either flexibility or security out of their contracts.
Additionally, certain organizations have accrued reputations for being better to players than others. The front offices of the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons are a good example of franchises that have had adversarial relationships with several players and agents over the years, a reputation for using the dreaded franchise tag to trap players, as well as recent high-profile players desiring to leave the organization, which may be a deterring factor for free agents sign there.
On the other end of the spectrum are the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, and Baltimore Ravens - who have built a player-oriented culture, in which players often cite "feeling valued" or "respect from management" as reasons why they resign or gravitate to certain clubs more than others.
Most of the teams in the NFL fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. 
So why do players sign the places they do? Randy Moss certainly could have drawn more money than New England was willing and able to give him, but after a record setting year, and making it to his first Superbowl, Moss has said that he is most interested in playing for a contender, and he felt New England and Tom Brady gave him the best chance at success. Asante Samuel and Randal Gay (players the Pats would have loved to re-sign) both left in favor of more lucrative deals with other teams, though neither broke the bank in Philly or New Orleans.
Examining some of the players who signed free agent deals this year puts the spot light on certain archetypal reasons for players to choose the options which they do.
Calvin Pace had career year with the Arizona Cardinals last year, making the conversion from DE to OLB in Arizona's multi-front system. Pace hit the free agent market  looking like a prize for several teams that are making the conversion to a 3-4 front and need conversion OLBs. Among them the Dolphins and Jets, where he eventually signed. So why did Pace take to the road? Pace was playing in Arizona due to other player's injuries, and was not going to hold onto his starting job after three years of underachieving. Pace looked good in the Cardinals system and played well at OLB, so he shopped the teams who were making the switch and had money to spend on a player who posted good numbers the previous year. Pace needed to leave Arizona to capitalize on his career year, and draw money equal or greater than players with several good years on their resume. Will Pace be able to replicate his success in New York? The answer to that question is a gamble that the Jets seemed willing to put a lot of money into. Pace took the money while it was available, capitalizing on the lack of other players at his position and the momentum of a high caliber performance in the last year of his contract.
Donte Stallworth has had some difficulty finding a home. After playing in New Orleans and Philadelphia, Stallworth became part of a flurry of off season activity in New England. Though he was never really included as a major part of New England's passing game he played well enough to show the same play making ability that made him attractive to the Patriots the year before. Stallworth signed a deal with Cleveland which was worth less money than other teams in need a of a receiver could have fronted to get the speedy Stallworth into their colors. Stallworth, reportedly, was impressed with the level of young talent in the Browns club house, and thought it would be a good situation for his talents on the field, neither overshadowed by true superstars nor being forced into the spotlight on a team where he was going to be expected to carry the bulk of the receiving load. Stallworth took less money in exchange for security and playing for a competitive team.
Lance Briggs has had a contentious relationship with the Chicago Bears. After being franchised last season Briggs, an all-pro OLB, swore he would never play another down for the Chicago Bears. Following limited talks around the league, Briggs' agent pimped a deal with the much hated Bears that will keep Briggs in town likely for the remainder of his NFL career. So why would an all pro performer, who was an unrestricted free agent sign with a franchise he hated? Certainly the success of the Chicago defense may have had something to do with it, but more to the point, Briggs is a cover-2 system linebacker, with limited applicability to many teams in the league. New Orleans showed some interest but wasn't going to part with the kind of money Briggs would demand after acquiring Johnathan Vilma from the Jets. The case was the same with Tampa and Indy (two other teams needing linebackers and playing a cover-2 system). Briggs had no where else to go, so his agent cashed in with the only remaining bidder. Chicago. Could Briggs have been an impact player in another system? Probably, he is very talented and athletic, with a good head for playing in space, but it is doubtful he could have replicated the success he had in a system designed to put him in good positions. (case in point, Joey Porter had a down year in Miami playing outside of the Pittsburgh zone-blitz system that made him a star) Like Stallworth, Briggs no longer wanted to be eclipsed by the Superstars on the Bears defense, but was unable to engineer a move that would be financially viable.
There are many reasons for a player to move, or to stay, to sign or take a deal with a team or a system they prefer. Money matters, but only up to a point. Players realize that no amount of money will keep them from being the next big "bust" if they take the wrong deal. (potentially costing millions in endorsements) The business of the NFL is blurring the lines between on the field need, management policy and coaching style in an fast paced auction to get the best player at the best deal at the best time.