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History shows free agency to be more of a crapshoot than a cure-all

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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Albert Haynesworth has become the ultimate free-agent cautionary tale. (US Presswire)  
Albert Haynesworth has become the ultimate free-agent cautionary tale. (US Presswire)  

Three years ago the Washington Redskins signed free-agent Albert Haynesworth to a whopping $100-million contract, including $41 million guaranteed. Haynesworth was the hottest ticket on the market, and the Redskins wanted him badly. So they paid for him.

Badly.

Today, Haynesworth not only is no longer with Washington; he's no longer with anybody, and there's a lesson there -- namely, beware of investing too heavily in free agents. They are not a panacea for ailing football teams.

You build clubs through the draft; you supplement them through free agency ... and that's not me talking; it's Bill Walsh, former Hall of Fame head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He believed pro football teams are made through the draft, and he proved it with a 1986 roll call that was one of the best ever.

Then he remade the 49ers 14 years later with a 2000 draft that yielded starters galore and turned San Francisco into a division champion again.

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At the annual NFL scouting combine last month, Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff called free agency "an aspect of team building that most of us as coaches, general managers and team builders would believe is very beneficial," and I'd say "beneficial" is just about right.

Anything more is not, and I offer Washington as a case study. The Redskins spent hundreds of millions of dollars the past decade on assorted free agents, and look where it got them: They have two winning seasons and one playoff victory in the past 12 years.

Haynesworth, of course, is the poster boy for good money gone bad. While he gave the Redskins one so-so season, he was gone after two years, with Washington sending him to New England for a low-round draft choice. The Patriots cut him in midseason, so he went to Tampa Bay -- and the Bucs never won a game with him.

Now he's a man without a team.

The prevailing feeling is that Haynesworth produced for big money, and when he the big money was there the interest was not. But he's not alone in that department, and with the increase in this year's free-agent pool, as well as the money available to throw at players, I suggest 32 clubs keep that in mind.

"We had an idea what we were getting in Albert," said Vinny Cerrato, the team's former GM and now a mid-day host on Baltimore's 105.7 The Fan. "I just remember Jim Zorn, who was the coach at the time, saying, 'I'll coach him,' and Sherman Smith -- who was our offensive coordinator -- was on the staff at Tennessee. So we knew what we were getting."

Unfortunately, what they were getting is not what they thought they were getting.

Haynesworth was a load the previous two seasons at Tennessee and was one of the top defensive players in the business. He was named to the league's All-Pro team in 2007 and 2008, and in an October, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated he was voted as the top defensive player in the NFL.

But he never was that player for Washington, and pardon me if this sounds all too familiar. The Redskins signed defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield to a six-year, $36-million deal in 1998, one year after he was the league's Defensive Player of the Year and had a career-best 15 sacks.

Like Haynesworth, Stubblefield was supposed to be a difference maker, but, like Haynesworth, he never delivered.

Haynesworth and Stubblefield are cautionary tales, and they serve to remind buyers to beware what you wish for. More times than not, big-ticket free agents don't deliver, with second-tier players more valuable. Maybe that's why New England historically avoids big payouts to free agents. The Patriots deviated from that plan in 2007, paying top dollar for linebacker Adalius Thomas, and Thomas flopped.

Don't say you weren't warned.

"Yeah?" said one coach who asked not to be identified. "How about Drew Brees? It's not always a sure thing. There has to be the right chemistry. You find the core of your team through the draft, but you can always help with the right free agents."

Chicago proved that in 2010 with defensive end Julius Peppers. He commanded a lot of money on the free-agent market, and he didn't disappoint the Bears. In fact, I can't imagine them making the 2010 NFC Championship Game without Peppers. He has been everything the Bears envisioned, but that's rare in high-priced free agents.

More often budget busters don't pan out, and let me introduce you to Sean Gilbert ... and Chester McGlockton ... and Jevon Kearse ... and Bryce Paup ... and Larry Brown ... and Alvin Harper ... and LeCharles Bentley ... and Javon Walker ... and Adam Archuleta ... and Scott Mitchell ... and Deion Sanders (Washington).

I think you get the idea.

A year ago there was a bidding war for then-Minnesota wide receiver Sidney Rice, and one GM warned his team not to get involved -- saying he thought Rice was an injury waiting to happen. He was right. So his club stayed out of the bidding and let Rice go to Seattle where he played nine games and caught 32 passes before sitting down for the season with a concussion.

Then there's Nnamdi Asomugha, the biggest catch in free agency last summer who decided on Philadelphia when the Eagles stepped forward with a five-year, $60-million deal. He was supposed to be one of the top two cornerbacks in the game, but he didn't play like it in Philadelphia's defense. Granted, the Eagles sometimes had him out of position, but too often he looked lost.

So did the Eagles. They finished 8-8. The year before, they were 10-6 and division champions.

"The lesson?" said Cerrato. "You have to know who the free agent is as a person. You have to know how serious he is; how hard he'll work; who he is off the field; everything about him. Basically, you have to know what you're buying. You look to build the core of your team through the draft, and you try to get what you need through free agency."

Good advice. But be careful, and remember what your parents told you: Money doesn't always buy happiness.

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