Every year in early March I try not to sound like a party pooper. I try to embrace all that is good and fun and exciting about NFL free agency ... and then I reflect on the past few years and end up thinking, once again, that chasing big-money free agents in football is like combing the beach with one of those long-reach metal detectors.
Football free agency is fool's gold. Teams know it. The general managers and owners, they've done the studies and crunched the numbers and they know the folly involved with chasing other team's players (and, in many cases, other team's problems). Yet they do it over and over again. They can't help themselves.
And I don't really blame them, I suppose, on a visceral level. In the haste to improve their lot, free agency appears the easiest avenue -- the players are established, they have a body of work, you don't have to part with any picks or any of your own assets and, in general, the mere stroking of a check tends to engender a renewed optimism within your fanbase and locker room. It's just so damn easy.
But far too often it's also so damn painful. Just give it a year or so and the results, or lack thereof, generally are irrefutable.
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I can't help thinking back to the biggest free-agent prizes in recent years -- let's focus on defense for now -- and all of the money wasted. The Redskins made Albert Haynesworth the highest-paid defender ever and by his second season in Washington were trying like hell to run him out of town. Nnamdi Asomugha was allegedly the best player available in free agency in 2011, and after two seasons the Eagles are preparing to eat $4 million just to get him out of their building. Last year Mario Williams sat in Buffalo, delaying his press conference, trying to be convinced that Buffalo is where he belonged -- and after being given $50 million guaranteed he went ahead and accepted that plight, and was a passenger for much of the year.
When will they learn?
Probably not this year.
Agents and execs are eager to see what impact the new rules, allowing for a negotiating window starting at midnight Friday night, will have on contract talks. Players cannot make visits during this period and there can be no direct communication between the player and officials from other teams, but agents can talk money and hammer out deals (though nothing can be finalized until the league year begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET).
Several sources involved in both sides of contract negotiations said that with the new rules in place, there was less actual discussion of contract terms during meetings between teams and agents at the combine, and the expectation is that this window will actually level the playing field some. Teams have held back on setting a market for the players, but that will certainly change once the clock strikes midnight, and there is every reason to believe that most of the biggest deals will effectively be agreed to by Saturday morning -- though there is nothing to prevent offers and counteroffers from flowing in right up until 4 p.m. Tuesday.
As we look at this 2013 class and when I mull the guys who are likely to get paid, I can't get beyond the risk involved. In the NFC East alone, consider the teams that have relied on free agency as a primary team-building tool -- Dan Snyder's spending sprees or the annual Jerry Jones purchases or the Eagles' "Dream Team" experiment two years ago (that ended up with Andy Reid and Joe Banner out of the organization after having spent a good part of their professional lives creating this era of success in Philadelphia).
A year ago Tampa Bay was probably the offseason champ, but what did the Buccaneers have to show for it? What great gains did they make? A year later they are poised to splurge again -- and I understand why. Yet even with the signing of Vincent Jackson for $11 million a year in my estimation being the single best free-agent move from last year, they were still a playoff afterthought come January.
The Saints and Bills were at the top of the NFL in terms of committed cash -- i.e., actual money spent on salary for 2012 -- and where exactly did that get them? So as I peruse the rosters and abundant cap space available to teams like Miami, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Tampa, I wonder what kind of bang for the buck will they reap, and how effective overpaying free agents will end up being.
A year ago Jared Gaither, Eric Winston and Levi Brown were looked at as the best available free-agent offensive tackles and all made good money, and all played on teams that ended up firing their coach without any of those players doing much at all. If anything, Seattle re-signing right tackle Breno Giacomini for two years (at a total of $6 million) was probably far and away the smartest move made at that position.
In terms of pass rushers, Williams was a bust. And the Bills also went hard after Mark Anderson, aging and beat up, and he could not get on the field. Did Kamerion Wimbley make a difference for a historically bad Titans team at $7 million a year? The Colts stepped up to keep Robert Mathis, but age caught up to him as well. Did run stuffer Jarret Johnson, as sterling as he was in Baltimore all those years, make a difference in San Diego? Think the Jags are regretting that $32 million deal for receiver Laurent Robinson? Did Brandon Carr, who certainly has a nice first season in Dallas, really make a difference at $10 million a year?
Go back to 2011, when all the buzz generated by the Eagles' spree turned out to be hollow and the Seahawks -- who have gotten almost everything right under sage GM John Schneider -- gave Sidney Rice $9 million a year (and he remains an injury concern). Ray Edwards had lots of warts and the Falcons took a chance and it failed (same with corner Dunta Robinson before that). The guys who got the biggest deals in 2011 -- Charles Johnson to stay with the Panthers, Asomugha, Santonio Holmes ($24 million guaranteed), DeAngelo Williams ($21 million guaranteed) -- mostly flopped. In hindsight, the Chargers retaining Eric Weddle to a record contract for a safety in a deal many bashed turned out to be one of the few big-money contracts from that year that wasn't a bust.
I'm sorry, but I see the same thing happening again this season.
I would wait for second-tier bargains rather than try to set the market, and the teams that do the best will be teams that end up retaining their own players -- who already know their coaches and players and fit their scheme -- at a reduced rate. Sometimes you need to dip your toes in the water to realize that the temperature isn't nearly as warm out there as it is where you already reside.
Whether it's Dannell Ellerbe staying in Baltimore or Fred Davis doing a one-year prove-it contract in Washington (remember Robert Griffin III never had him all of last season), Wes Welker returning to Tom Brady, William Moore staying in Atlanta, I have a hard time thinking that the guys swapping teams will end up having a bigger impact or more success elsewhere. Sometimes the fit is everything, and should Mike Wallace end up in, say, Miami at $12 million a year you can't convince me that by November he won't be pining for his days chasing rings with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh.
Receivers will get the big money, though, despite these signings rarely working, and look for Wallace and Greg Jennings to be on the move by Tuesday afternoon. Tackles Jake Long and Andre Smith both have given personnel men every reason to fret over their health, and, in the case of Smith, his attitude/motivation, but they too will get paid (I wouldn't pay Smith more than the just under $8 million a year the Giants gave Will Beatty, but maybe he gets the $9 million he's seeking). Pass rushing is always at a premium, and Detroit's Cliff Avril will have plenty of suitors and good money. Miami's Reggie Bush may be the best of a pedestrian group of running backs, and he will have a solid market.
Will any of the group of safeties looking for $6 million a year get it, outside of Dashon Goldson? I have my reservations, though plenty of teams are looking, and sounds like many are intrigued by thumper LaRon Landry, a former top-10 draft pick. Will guys at the end of their careers like Dwight Freeney and Ed Reed cash in? I suspect more restrained spending on them, but you never know once the offers start flying around.
So I guess what I am saying is, don't get too carried away with whatever your team does in the next week, unless it is related to procuring or extending its own talent. Because if the history of NFL free agency has taught us anything, it's that this move -- no matter what it is -- has a far greater likelihood of failing miserably than it does of dramatically swaying the 2013 outcome of a club's fortunes for the better.