Will NFL's Moneyball Trades Have Bigger Impact Than Big Free-Agent Signings?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 13, 2018

Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor (5) rushes past Miami Dolphins' Stephone Anthony (44) and Reshad Jones (20) for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 17, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

The legal tampering period is underway! It's the tantalizing consensual foreplay prior to free agency that is usually more thrilling than the actual contract consummation which follows it. Over the next few days, fans around the NFL can look forward to big names joining new teams, like... 

Whoops. Looks like we missed the fireworks. Monday's tampering news was mostly tamped down until ESPN.com's Adam Schefter reported Case Keenum would sign with the Broncos in the wee hours. There are some fireworks to come, but it appears that most of the sexy stuff happened late last week or over the weekend.

By Sunday, we had already witnessed a Tyrod Taylor trade, a Jarvis Landry trade, an Aqib Talib trade, a Michael Bennett trade and a Richard Sherman release-and-signing. There were also trades for second-tier starters like Torrey Smith, Alec Ogletree and Damarious Randall. And those moves came on the heels of a bunch of significant trades during the NFL Scouting Combine, featuring players like Marcus Peters and Robert Quinn.

Free agency, which officially starts Wednesday, is more of a dessert than a main course this year since the NFL gorged itself on trades, which used to be mere appetizers. As soon as Kirk Cousins signs, we might as well finish our coffee and head home until the draft, because most of the veteran transactions that will shape the 2018 season already happened before the legal canoodling period.

So, what turned the annual free-agent frenzy into a surprise swap meet? When in doubt, blame (or give credit to) Moneyball.

Now, Moneyball and its nerdy wingman analytics have become blanket explanations, justifications and/or condemnations for just about every decision made by the NFL these days. So before we dig any deeper, let's get an important disclaimer out of the way.

Moneyball is about finding and exploiting market inefficiencies. It isn't about following a set of commandments laid down in a movie based on a book about a baseball team from 20 years ago.

There's guy-on-the-message-board analytics"We should just trade everyone and suck for five years, and then become awesome"and there's actual analytics (using a diverse set of statistical and economics-based tools to make data-driven decisions). The Browns have been doing a little of both for the last three offseasons.

But the Browns' Look at us, we're doing Moneyball! way of doing Moneyball is not the only way, or even the best way, to do Moneyball.

The reigning Super Bowl champions are better role models for the proper use of analytics. The Eagles broke many of the "rules" of Moneyball—they even *gasp* traded draft picks to select Carson Wentz—but they built a championship team by:

  • Aggressively identifying and pursuing undervalued veterans through trades and discount-rack free agency.
  • Using cap space to extend core in-house free agents.
  • Doing it all during in a relatively short window.

Teams are looking to find the right veterans at the right prices to rebuild quickly. Think a two-year turnaround instead of a grandiose five-year plan.

This year, few "right" veterans were available on the free-agent market at the start of last week. The trade market, on the other hand, was flooded with a surplus of still-useful veterans who were expendable because of hefty contracts; personality/culture clashes with the locker room, coaches, front office and/or fanbase; or both.

Richard Sherman is now a 49er.
Richard Sherman is now a 49er.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Thus, teams willing to absorb a cap hit or a (perceived) headache could trade a few middle-round draft picks and obtain a starting quarterback, a 100-catch receiver or a shutdown cornerback. And teams looking to rebuild or shed salary found trade partners willing to give up draft picks to avoid a bidding war with some competitor with $80-plus million burning a hole in its pocket.

Let's look at how these new rules of engagement impacted the swap meet that threatens to upstage free agency:

The Rams are the most obvious Eagles emulators. They already have a rising star quarterback, innovative coaching and a playoff-caliber nucleus. Traditionally, a young 11-win team would go about its business in the draft and wait to improve organically. Instead, the Rams radically changed the personality of their defense, adding Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters at cornerback from two teams willing to trade marquee talent for cap space and a little peace and quiet.

The Rams also moved a pair of good-but-expensive defensive veterans (Robert Quinn to the Dolphins,  Ogletree to the Giants) and will lose top defensive back Lamarcus Joyner to what promises to be a budget-busting bidding war.

Overall, the Rams got more talented and edgier at cornerback while clearing budget space for their top-priority in-house talent (starting with Aaron Donald). It was a risky series of moves, but analytics are all about calculated risks.

The Seahawks will be a kinder, gentler team after purging their cap ledger and locker room of Sherman,  Bennett and Jeremy Lane last week, with other veterans expected to follow. While there is some generic rebuilding at work here, the Seahawks are clearly aiming for a culture change. Teams who welcome outspoken veterans (the Eagles) or whose locker rooms could use an alpha dog rescued from a fading contender (the 49ers) snatched up some bargains from the Seahawks.

Talented-but-troublesome players like Aqib Talib were available for a song on the trade market last week.
Talented-but-troublesome players like Aqib Talib were available for a song on the trade market last week.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The Packers traded Randall, who is like a diet-soda version of Peters or Talib (about 75 percent of both the production and the conflicts), to the Browns, quietly resetting their backup quarterback situation by adding DeShone Kizer in the deal. The Packers, like the Seahawks, hope for a quick reboot while their quarterback is still at the top of his game.

The Eagles aren't just polishing the Lombardi Trophy and waiting for cap problems to erode the team. The Bennett acquisition upgrades a position of strength, while the Torrey Smith-for-Daryl Worley trade provides cheap secondary depth in exchange for a leadership guy in a locker room full of leaders.

The Bills have been making talent-for-culture trades since head coach Sean McDermott arrived in January 2017, exchanging Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, Marcell Dareus and now Taylor and Glenn for future considerations.

A playoff team last year, the Bills now look like a less extreme version of the Browns, with no quarterback but lots of extra draft picks. They've either outsmarted the rest of the NFL or are reading the current marketplace backward.

The Dolphins can always be counted on to simultaneously run at full speed in multiple directions. They added payroll with the Quinn trade, cut some with the Landry trade and are expected to swallow a salary-cap horse pill by releasing Ndamukong Suh, per ESPN's Jeff Darlington. With no coherent strategy of their own, the Dolphins are like a lendlease agency for both rebuilding teams and contenders with an actual plan. 

The 49ers now lead the NFL in contracts that look extravagant and risky at first but turn out to be team-friendly on closer examination. The Jimmy Garoppolo contract, while hefty, boils down to a huge wad of upfront cash the team had in its pocket anyway. The 49ers then pounced on Sherman with a $39 million package that sounds too pricey for an injured veteran. But the Sherman deal is chock full of incentives and escape hatches. Like the Rams and Eagles, the 49ers are in get-a-quarterback-and-go-go-go mode.

And then there are the Browns, who used their Old Moneyball resources to make New Moneyball acquisitions. Taylor and Landry make the Browns better, but they aren't analytics darlings. According to the Tantric strictures the last administration placed on them, "bridge" quarterbacks and expensive safety-valve receivers were needless luxuries. And the team appears poised to draft running back Saquon Barkley first overall now that Taylor is on board, which is a direct violation of Moneyball extremism.

But the market has changed, making young veteran talent more affordable for teams willing to invest in it.

And reading the market is the whole point of doing that analytics stuff in the first place.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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