Year after year, the decisions of the front offices of NFL teams are followed closely and magnified by fans and media alike. Will their team go on a spending spree, throwing dollars at every big name available, in an effort to make a big splash and pay their way into the playoffs?
Or, will they go the conservative route of finding players that fit their system, are relatively inexpensive, and provide help in the areas that are perceived as weaknesses?
While many feel the draft makes or breaks a team for years to come, the same can be said about free-agent acquisitions. By tying up money in a long-term deal on a player that was either generally overrated, or, in some cases, just a poor fit for a that particular team, a franchise can find themselves in trouble for the forseeable future.
One of the biggest and most common mistakes is when a particular franchise overpays for a player that simply cannot perform up to the expectations set forth by his contract. Instead of cutting their losses, teams become stubborn and wait for years to see if the player will live up to the investment made. By doing so, they waste seasons at a time and hinder the franchise from moving forward.
It is for this reason that grading each player on an individual basis with accuracy and intelligence is necessary in order to have a successful team.
Don’t sign the guy that was mediocre for the first four years of his contract, but suddenly doubled his numbers in his contract year. He’s most likely going to slump back into mediocrity after his big payday.
Look for players that have consistenly shown not only a high level of performance, but also the ever-important desire to win, as well as the ability to lead and be good teammates.
Since all free agents were not created equal, it’s best to break them into groups based on certain qualities:
This class consists of those who have established themselves as elite players in the league and have a proven track record to back it up. These players carry a hefty price tag and either live up to their expectations with the new team, or in some instances draw the ire of fans, who see them as overpaid and a drain on the salary cap. There are always several teams bidding for their services.
The second class consists of young players who are up-and-coming. They have shown signs of improvement each year in the league and should be ready to bust onto the scene as household names at any moment.
These players have proven to be team-oriented and willing to learn. In addition, they do what it takes to become effective players at their position, putting in the necessary thime and effort, something many draft picks fail to do.
One of the most important classes, and where some of the best bargains can be found, this class is composed of veterans who would be welcome additions to provide stability by filling a void on many teams. They can vary from special-teams players to second-string running backs and linebackers.
They provide consistent competition for starting roles, thus keeping the current starters sharp and focused. They bring experience, leadership, and the desire to win the right way.
Class Four is made up of the players who never met the lofty expectations that were set by the organizations who made them high draft picks. Yet, teams are not willing to give up on them just yet and hope that a change of scenery is all that will be needed to get that particular player back on track to stardom.
It’s not uncommon to see the price tags on some of these players inflated based on their names. However, bargain prices are also a very good possibility.
Finally, there is the class of washups and players with major issues (on or off the field). These players might have been stars at one point, but they have fallen out of the good graces of teams through their own actions.
They still have talent, but it comes down to whether their abilities are worth the headache. They are risky acquisitions for team chemistry purposes as well, but are relatively inexpensive.
Now that the parameters of good and bad free agents are defined, we can look forward at upcoming free agents in the 2008-'09 offseason.
Brandon Jacobs, Running back – New York Giants
Jacobs established himself as a bruising and powerful running back last season by averaging five yards per carry. Despite missing five games, Jacobs managed to exceed the 1,000-yard mark while scoring four touchdowns. He is a critical component of the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants’ offense in the rugged NFC East.
Through three games this season, Jacobs has continued to bring the physical style of running to the undefeated Giants’ offense, as he is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. He has also broken away for 20-yard gains three times this year after doing so only four times in all of 2007. At age 26, and with only 386 carries under his belt, many productive seasons lie ahead.
Correll Buckhalter, Running back – Philadelphia Eagles
Correll Buckhalter has provided the perfect compliment to the Eagles’ West Coast offense, which is based primarily on passing. His between-the-tackles style of running has been an effective change of pace to the more elusive, electrifying Brian Westbrook.
Buckhalter does have a history of injuries, but has been healthy for a few consecutive years now and has proven that he’s a solid option out of the backfield.
The recent injury of Westbrook has again given Buckhalter an opportunity to shine. In his last two games, he has averaged 4.3 and 4.1 yards per carry while amassing over 80 combined rushing and receiving yards in each contest. He has scored a touchdown both through the air and on the ground.
With Westbrook having a lingering ankle ailment, Buckhalter will continue to get opportunities to prove that he is a very capable back.
Roy Williams, Wide Receiver – Detroit Lions
Whether it is because of the constant turmoil and dysfunction at the head of the Detroit Lions organization, or the questionable attitude of Roy Williams himself, he has not been able to consistently produce as expected.
After having a breakout season in 2006, in which he caught 82 passes for 1,310 yards and seven touchdowns, Williams’ production has consistently been on the decline.
Williams has expressed his displeasure in playing for the winless Lions. He has only eight catches through three games, averaging less than 40 yards per outing. Though he could become a stud wideout for the right team, it is important for a franchise to assess whether he is capable of being a leader and consistent producer worthy of the big bucks that will likely be thrown his way.
Kyle Orton, Quarterback – Chicago Bears
Orton is an interesting player because he wasn’t drafted very high (fourth round), yet much was expected of him after he led the Bears as a rookie due to Rex Grossman’s injury. He has failed to show consistency in his first four years in the league, but he appears to be on the right track this season for the 2-2 Bears.
STOCK UP (barely)
Orton is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes and throwing for just under 200 yards per game. Okay, those aren’t the sexiest numbers in the world, but he is making sound decisions for the most part and showing that he is capable of keeping his team in the game.
The Bears are coming off of a 24-20 win over the Eagles and that momentum could carry them into having a decent year. If they do, look for teams to be interested in bringing him in to compete for the starting job.
TJ Houshmandzadeh, Wide Receiver – Cincinnati Bengals
Houshmanzadeh has shown that he is a Pro Bowl caliber receiver. On a team with the flamboyant and boisterous Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh has established himself as a No. 1 wide-receiving option. He has improved each season, including a career high 112 catches and 12 touchdowns last year.
Teams already know what Houshmanzadeh is capable of doing, so his statistics should not hurt him in any way this season, given the lack of offense in Cincinnati. With Carson Palmer injured, Houshmanzadeh is without a strong quarterback and, consequently, won’t see the same looks as he did before.
However, teams know what they’re going to get from Houshmanzadeh, and he will be the most coveted wide receiver on the market.
Kurt Warner (Class III), Quarterback – Arizona Cardinals: Since taking over the job from Matt Leinart, Warner has shown that he can still successfully lead a team, despite his age. If the Cardinals end up with a winning record, look for him to be back in Arizona.
Ricky Williams (Class V), Running back – Miami Dolphins: Williams has shown maturity over the last year-and-a-half by keeping a low profile and doing whatever the Dolphins have asked of him. Though his best days are behind him, he is still a more than capable back who can help any number of teams in the league.
Maurice Morris (Class III), Running back – Seattle Seahawks: Morris was originally named the starter in Seattle, but due to injury lost his job to Julius Jones. Morris will likely split carries the rest of the season but will draw attention in the offseason for teams looking to bring in competition for the starting position or to solidify their backup spots.
Plus: Lee Evans, Amani Toomer, Darren Sproles, Jeff Garcia, Marc Columbo, Mark Tauscher, Tra Thomas.
Julius Peppers, Defensive End – Carolina Panthers
Class I and Class IV
Why two classifications? While Peppers had excellent seasons from 2004-2006, he has recently had problems with consistency. Last year, he only had 2.5 sacks and failed to step up as a leader. Peppers has a ton of talent and had double-digits in sacks four out of his first five seasons. Teams will be looking to add his services this offseason.
Through four games, Peppers has almost matched his sack total from last year. His play has been more aggressive and has helped lead the Panthers to a 3-1 record. If Peppers gets anywhere near his output from 2004-2006, he will bring in a huge contract from somewhere, and it might not be Carolina.
Albert Haynseworth, Defensive Tackle – Tennessee
In his seventh season in the league, all with the Titans, Haynseworth has established himself as a stud defensive tackle. He has been Mr. Consistency throughout his career and regularly requires double teams. He has been a critical component in the suffocating Titans defense, as they have improved to a 4-0 record.
With the Titans drawing more and more national attention—most notably the defense—with every win, Haynesworth's stock will continue to rise. He has already amassed five sacks through four games, along with 11 solo tackles (15 total). Translation: Haynseworth is going to be worth a lot of money.
Nnamdi Asomugha, Cornerback – Oakland Raiders
Asomugha is one of the lesser-known stars in this league. He has been a shutdown corner for the past couple of seasons with the Raiders, yet more casual fans would name DeAngelo Hall as Oakland's best corner.
After having eight interceptions in 2006, he only had one in 2007. However, that should be credited to the fact that teams simply avoided throwing in his direction at all possible costs.
Asomugha will have to draw attention this season by getting the stat that everyone looks at: Interceptions. Through four games, he has zero, but to his credit, he has defensed three passes. However, for his stock to rise on the national stage, he will need to bolster his numbers a bit.
Karlos Dansby, Linebacker – Arizona Cardinals
Another young, blooming defensive star in the league, Dansby had nearly 100 tackles in only 14 games last season, along with 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. At age 26, the sky is the limit for the outside linebacker.
The more success Arizona sees, the more it will magnify the value of Dansby. He has accumulated 29 tackles through four games for the 2-2 Cardinals. As long as his numbers stay on par, or improve, from last season, he will be in for a hefty payday.
Brian Dawkins, Safety – Philadelphia Eagles
Dawkins has long been the face of the aggressive, blitz-happy defense of Jim Johnson and the Philadelphia Eagles. He has been a fan favorite and a nightmare for opposing teams.
He is one of the rare players whose effectiveness does not always show up on the stat sheet. His leadership and ability to provide a consistent and intelligent safety to the defense has been invaluable to the Eagles.
The Eagles will have a decision to make in the offseason. In the past, they have parted ways with veterans—similar to the style of the New England Patriots. However, Dawkins' presence in the city will have to be considered.
Should the two decide to part ways, there will be no shortage of teams lining up to sign on for his services. There are only a handful of safeties in the league who are head and shoulders above Dawkins, even at age 34.
Ray Lewis (Class III), Linebacker – Baltimore Ravens: The heart and soul of the Ravens defense will be a free agent at the end of the season. It's hard to see him parting ways with the Ravens, especially considering their surprising 2-1 record through three games. However, the Ravens will have tough decisions to make with Dawan Landry, Bart Scott, and Terrell Suggs all becoming free agents.
Plus: Tank Johnson, Mike Peterson, Bart Scott, Chris Gamble, Dawan Landry, Terrell Suggs, Jonathan Vilma, and Eric Barton.