The Many Perils of NFL Free Agency

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 6, 2013

At about this time every year, NFL fans and general managers start making grave statements about "building through the draft" and "targeting spending carefully" and "focusing on keeping our free agents."

But at the stroke of Free Agency O' Clock, a quarter-billion dollars rains down from the heavens and Pro Football Talk sets a new traffic record.

In today's NFL, identifying talent in the draft and grooming players to become impact starters is more critical than ever. It's just not possible to hit on enough players enough years in a row to fully stock a contending roster.

Everyone thought former Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian had done it when the perennial-contender Colts had drafted 15 of their 22 starters themselves. Then, Peyton Manning got hurt and the Colts went 2-14.

In 2010, Tampa Bay Online called Polian a "role model of roster rebuilding." In 2012, Polian and his son Chris were fired for "a decade of bad drafting." Funny how quickly that changed.

So sometimes, wandering out into the free-agent market to restock the roster is fruitful. There's a reason teams are scared of it, though; It's a minefield, filled with potential roster-killing mistakes. 


Making a Splash

The biggest mistake a team can make in free agency is "making a splash." When your floundering team drops nine figures on the flashiest free agent available, it doesn't usher in a new era or send a message to the other 31 teams in the league. 

"Making a splash," more often than not, means investing $100 million (or more) in a player whose lifelong career goal was drawing the biggest possible payday out of whichever schmuck team would foot the bill.

Albert Haynesworth, come on down:

Haynesworth was blessed with a once-in-a-generation combination of size, speed and athleticism. Standing 6'6" and weighing 320 pounds (at least initially), Haynesworth had the tools of a natural 3-technique pass-rusher. Think Warren Sapp, only bigger and meaner. 

Under the eye of then-Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher and then-Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Haynesworth slowly developed into a monster. At his peak, Hanesworth put together back-to-back first-team All-Pro seasons.

Then he hit the open market.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has rarely been able to keep his hands off huge names like Haynesworth. The bidding war was over just hours after it allegedly began, with Haynesworth signing a seven-year, $100 million contract front-loaded with big guarantees.

Essentially, Haynesworth took a nine-figure nap on the job. His time with the Redskins will always be remembered for poor play, lack of effort, multiple failed conditioning tests and, while refusing to play in a 3-4 alignment, saying the Redskins' investment didn't make him their "slave."


Buying a Wrench to Use as a Hammer

For years, Nnamdi Asomugha was the most feared cornerback in the NFL. Playing within the Oakland Raiders' press coverage scheme, he earned a reputation as an unbeatable man-to-man cover corner.

Often, Asomugha wouldn't even be tested, as opposing teams preferred taking their chances with the rest of the Raiders' defense. And thus, his legend grew.

When the Eagles signed Asomugha to a big-money deal in 2011, he joined a loaded secondary that included corners Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. As Geoff Mosher of Sporting News explained, the Eagles had all kinds of plans for Asomugha's talent:

Now that he’s playing alongside two other Pro Bowl corners – Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – Asomugha should see more passes come in his direction than he did in Oakland, when opposing QBs never looked his way. Asomugha has just three interceptions over the past four seasons and none last year, so he expects to produce more turnovers.

It’s also helping that Castillo has Asomugha moving around depending on the coverage – sometimes playing a slot cornerback role similar to Charles Woodson’s in Green Bay, sometimes patrolling center field like a safety. Castillo believes Asomugha has the skill set to cover across the middle along with the outside and blitz from the slot.

To recap: Then-Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo's plan was to make Asomugha to do a bunch of crazy stuff he had never done before. Needless to say, it didn't go well.

Then-head coach Andy Reid took the very uncharacteristic step of firing Castillo in the middle of the Nnamdi experiment's second season. Castillo's mishandling of his incredible secondary talent arguably cost him his job, and Reid's poor judgment in filling the defensive coordinator position arguably cost him his.


Overvaluing Past Production

When a player signs a big-money deal loaded with bonuses and other guaranteed cash, what is he being paid for?

The player would likely tell you it's all his years of hard work, days and weeks and months and years of a brutal physical grind, putting in extra time on top of that in the weight room and in the film room, watching his diet, watching his behavior, toeing the line, keeping his eyes on the prize and putting out miles of great tape.

A team would likely tell you that cash is an advance for all the work that player is about to do.

The reality, as always, is somewhere in the middle. When a player outperforms his rookie deal, the team may have to compensate for the years of cheap production he received by paying big money to keep him off the open market.

When a stalwart veteran hits the market looking for his third or fourth contract, teams must balance steady past performance with future potential.

A great example of this is Ahman Green. In his prime he was a do-it-all, every-down back with breakaway speed and surprising inside running ability. When the Packers let him walk after the 2006 season, Green had 1,871 carries worth of tread worn off his tires, 8,491 yards on his odometer and a birth date that put him on the wrong side of 30.

When a team lets a player who's been that good for that long walk, that player should be evaluated carefully. 

The Houston Texans didn't, though, instead signing Green to a four-year, $23 million deal. He only lasted two seasons in Houston, seeing action in 14 out of those 32 games and mustering only 554 rushing yards.

This is a perfect example of why smart teams don't give multi-year, multimillion-dollar deals with guaranteed money to players over 30.


Chasing the Greener Grass

When a team needs to upgrade at a position, sometimes it feels like "anybody would be better." Oftentimes, though, teams are just trading one flawed player for another.

The Chicago Bears have needed an upgrade at left tackle for several seasons running, and according to the Chicago Tribune, they're targeting New Orleans Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Bushrod, though, has been wildly inconsistent over the past few seasons.

In 2012, Bushrod's plus-1.5 overall Pro Football Focus grade ranked him 44th among all tackles. Incumbent Bears left tackle J'Marcus Webb's minus-0.4 grade ranked him 47th. In pass protection, the Bears' biggest worry, Webb (plus-1.5) significantly outperformed Bushrod (minus-3.5).

If the Bears spend every last penny to bring in Bushrod, they might be unpleasantly surprised to find his play isn't any better than Webb's.


Listening to the Fans

Bill Polian has often said that if an NFL executive listens to the fans, he will soon end up sitting with the fans. It's no coincidence that the most popularly demanded contract offers in recent memory haven't panned out.

Cleveland Browns returner Josh Cribbs signed on as an undrafted free agent in 2005. He immediately made an impact on kick returns, racking up over 1,000 yards and a touchdown in each of his first two seasons. He was rewarded with the kind of job security most young returners never get: a six-year contract worth $6.8 million.

In 2007, Cribbs began returning punts, too, and had his best year returning kicks ever. Not only did Cribbs make the Pro Bowl as a returner in 2007, he led the NFL in kickoff return yards (1,809), yards per return (30.7), all-purpose yards (2,312) and even got 12 offensive touches.  

That trend continued in 2008 and exploded in 2009. Playing as a do-everything offensive spark plug, Cribbs carried the ball 55 times for 381 yards and a touchdown, as well as 20 catches for 135 yards. He still dominated in the return game, earning another Pro Bowl nod and first-team All-Pro honors.

At this point, Cribbs was far and away the Browns' most exciting player, but discombobulation in the Cleveland front office kept the team from rewarding Cribbs with a richer deal. Throughout the 2009 season, Cribbs, teammates, TV analysts and fans all screamed, "PAY THE MAN," even going so far as to pay for billboards and print up T-shirts.

Finally, the Browns relented, signing Cribbs to a three-year, $20 million deal.

Much like other return specialists who have been shoehorned into platoon play, Cribbs didn't find a consistently effective role, and his offensive workload dropped sharply in each of the post-contract seasons. In 2012, he had only 13 offensive touches.

In return for nearly seven million dollars a year, all the Browns got in return was a very good kick returner and the end of a PR nightmare. There's a reason fans are fans and not GMs.


"Building" through Free Agency

Smart spending in free agency is a crucial part of roster building.

Many of the most important positions on the field require two or three seasons for a youngster to make an impact. Trying to fill short-term needs in the draft will doom a team in the short term and the long term. Free agency can also help teams with new head coaches or coordinators get the personnel to run their new systems.

There are a lot of pitfalls, landmines and perils in NFL free agency. A wise front office will be able to balance age, experience, physical tools and contract demands to put players in a position to help right away.


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