How to Win NFL Free Agency

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2013

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is one of the few who understands how to utilize free agency correctly.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is one of the few who understands how to utilize free agency correctly.Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

NFL free agency is a funny thing because "winning" it is in the eye of the beholder; the true winners are determined years down the line after the dust has settled. 

For some NFL teams, free agency is difficult to figure out. For the rare few, the NFL free-agency period is a simple process to navigate that allows the team to stay in contention for years upon years without fail. 

As history has shown (can you say Washington?), the biggest spenders most often never actually "win" anything when push comes to shove—the team may "win" the offseason, but on the field the massive investments simply don't pan out as the franchise had envisioned. 

So how does a team win free agency? There are a few critical elements some teams seem to understand that allow them to win each offseason, while the majority of the league is left scratching its collective head. 

Let's provide a template for those confused franchises detailing how your favorite team can win NFL free agency. 

Be a Good Judge of Character 

It sounds like such a simple rule, but yet, it's where most teams fail right off the bat when deciding who to throw money at in free agency.

The free agent has it all—he lights it up every time he touches the field, puts up incredible statistics and says all the right things when confronted by the media. 

So where do teams go wrong in this regard? 

Let's look at a recent example. Way back in 2009, the Washington Redskins signed tackle Albert Haynesworth to a seven-year, $100 million deal (per ESPN) after he was one of the most dominant forces in football for his first few seasons. 

Washington failed to ignore Haynesworth's character, such as an incident in 2006 when Haynesworth stomped a helmet-less player who was laying defenseless on the ground. As a result, Haynesworth was suspended five games per (ESPN). 

Now, this act didn't necessarily forecast that Haynesworth would turn into a sloth in human form on the field after getting paid, but it could have been easy to guess. Regardless, Washington threw $100 million at Haynesworth in what turned out to be the dumbest move in free-agency history. 

So, first teams need to actually have a solid radar when it comes to character. It's ignorant and costly to just gloss over concerns for potential rewards on the field. 

Avoid the Best Player Available in Most Cases

This won't be a popular rule, but history says otherwise. The best free agents available in a given class are usually there for a reason. They lit it up on the field over the years and earned the right to seek out a major deal with a new (or old) team. 

Last year's biggest name on the market? Defensive end Mario Williams, who was locked in the city of Buffalo by the Bills until he agreed to sign a six year, $100 million deal with the team to become the league's highest-paid defender (per CBS). 

Williams stumbled out of the gates early, but he ended the season with 10.5 sacks, which tallied in as his third-highest total. Not a horrendous signing, but one worth $100 million? Hardly. 

Two offseasons ago, the biggest name available was corner Nnamdi Asomugha, who signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Eagles (per PFT). He proceeded to be a major flop and has already been released (per NYDN). 

The point is, there is too much risk and not enough reward with the biggest names available. Teams bet years of financial instability on the hopes a great player will fit well with a new team, perform at the same level as before, not get injured and simply not give in once shown the money. 

Obviously, there will be rare instances where it makes sense to throw the farm at the best player available. You know, if Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady ever hit the market. But that's why the franchise tags exist.

Don't Enter Bidding Wars or Overpay

One of the worst things a team can do in free agency is enter bidding wars for the services of a single player. NFL players and their representatives are smart—they will go out of their way to visit other teams in order to increase the amount of money they will receive from their desired destination. 

Let's look at Mario Williams' contract again. Six years, $100 million for a single defensive end. Had he left Buffalo and visited other teams, the Bills may have increased the offer financially. 

Look at this offseason—highly productive defensive ends have found homes for cheap. Michael Bennett, who notched nine sacks a year ago and ranked as ProFootballFocus' (subscription required) No. 7 overall 4-3 defensive end (10 spots higher than Mario), signed a one-year, $5 million deal with Seattle (per PFT). 

The Seahawks then also grabbed Cliff Avril, who notched 9.5 sacks of his own last season, for just $15 million over two years (per Albert Breer). 

There's no reason to enter bidding wars or pay the ridiculous costs of the highest free agents, and the smartest teams know that. There are plenty of quality players to be found over the course of free agency that can make up almost the same production, which will in turn allow the front office to upgrade other areas of the team as well. 

Analyze a Player's Fit Properly 

Another thing teams that struggle to find success in free agency don't understand is that not every free agent is going to come in and be successful in the system it runs. 

Heck, some free agents are a product of a previous system and will struggle to replicate past success, especially if asked to do something different. 

Asomugha was once one of the most feared defenders in the NFL as a member of the Oakland Raiders, which used him strictly in man-to-man coverage, which is where he excelled. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, the team thought he would simply have the same success playing mostly zone coverage. 

Wrong. The plan backfired, and the rest is history. 

Teams shopping on the free-agent market have to also take into account the team where said free agent found his success. A player who excelled on a team with many quality pieces may be unable to do so on a new team where he is the focal point of the unit. 

It sounds simple, but this simple belief that a free agent can do something new or succeed in a different environment sinks many teams each offseason.

Complement Your Team, Don't Build It

The last guideline happens to be the most critical, and it's what separates the best franchises from the rest. 

It's impossible to build a team through free agency. 

As Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey pointed out, before free agency was even created in 1947, the only way to build a team was through the draft. That remains the case, although the way some team spend each year might lead you to think otherwise. 

The best franchises spend average money on the market to complement smart draft choices. Smart free-agency choices can't survive without smart draft selections, but it set the team in the right direction. 

A mid-tier cornerback there for depth. A solid linebacker here who can step up if the starter is injured, but also happens to be a stellar special teams player. A middle-of-the-road receiver there with a high ceiling who can step up when called upon. 

The list goes on, but finding complements to build around star players is how NFL teams are built, and is the purpose of free agency. The NFL teams that employ this strategy happen to be the franchises that regularly make the postseason, but are generally labeled "losers" in the offseason for not making any big-name signings. 

If it takes "losing" in the offseason to win in the regular season and beyond, then teams that follow this strategy are actually winning NFL free agency. 

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