The Do's and Don'ts of the 2014 NFL Free-Agent Market
It's almost time for the NFL Scouting Combine, which is when many of the top prospects gather in Indianapolis to run drills while the league's decision-makers sit in the stands and commit tampering.
Oops. Did I say "commit tampering"? I meant, of course, they establish interest levels with the agents of players set to hit the open market on March 11.
There's no faster way to improve a team than to sign a premier free agent, and there's no surer way to blow up your salary cap for years than to make a critical mistake while signing a premier free agent.
Not to worry! Here at Bleacher Report, we've compiled the critical do's and don'ts of NFL free agency.
We've handily included recent examples of what do to and what not to do, along with instructions on how to apply those lessons to the current crop of free agents-to-be.
Don't Guarantee Lots of Money to Guys Who Are Clearly Past It
This should go without saying, but the biggest mistake any team can make in free agency is to give a big deal to an older player who's visibly declined.
Last season, the Houston Texans let productive, affordable safety Glover Quin leave in free agency and signed 34-year-old Ed Reed to a three-year, $14.9 million contract. Reed was coming off a 2012 season where he was graded 59th overall of 88 qualifying safeties by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), well below Quin.
Reed couldn't even hold on to his starting job and was released just seven games into that three-year deal.
Justin Tuck likely won't get cut in the fall by whomever signs him this spring, but giving the 30-year-old pass-rusher a three- or four-year deal with a lot of guaranteed money would be a mistake.
Tuck's 2013 stats look great, but he padded them with six sacks in two late-season games against an imploding Washington team. Not counting those two games, Tuck had no more than five sacks in any of the last three seasons.
Do Roll the Dice on a Proven Young Veteran on the Comeback Trail
One of the best risks an NFL team can take is on a younger veteran with a multiyear track record of playing at a high level, coming off a down season.
Former No. 1 overall draft pick Jake Long was named to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons. In the fifth, he had a mysteriously mediocre year; he was Pro Football Focus's 23rd-ranked left tackle with at least 12 starts.
Among the many eyebrow-raising texts sent between Long's former Miami Dolphins linemates Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin last year and recently leaked to The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre (NSFW Warning: Extremely explicit language and suggestive pictures), some addressed Long's departure.
Incognito said Long "needed a fresh start" and that general manager Jeff Ireland "didn't make (Long) feel welcome." The St. Louis Rams made him feel welcome, though, and regained his usual form. Pro Football Focus graded Long their seventh-best left tackle in 2013 and eighth-best tackle overall.
Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer had three very good seasons as a starter with the Dallas Cowboys. Then he had a monster 2012, racking up 11 sacks, 55 tackles and 40 assists. Spencer received his first Pro Bowl nod and looked ready to supplant DeMarcus Ware as the Cowboys' premier edge player.
Then the Cowboys switched to a 4-3, and Spencer didn't even get a chance to get used to his new position. Knee issues piled up into microfracture surgery, and he missed nearly all of 2013.
Spencer was hit with the franchise tag in each of the last two offseasons but is primed to hit the market. He could be an instant stud for a 3-4 team.
Don't Sign Second-, Third- and Fourth-Tier Free Agents in the Opening Days
Almost all of the huge free-agent deals are done in the first few days of free agency.
With the highest-demand players having established their market days before in the "legal tampering" period (or weeks before, during the NFL combine), as soon as the new league year starts, they simply ink their deals with the highest bidders.
Sometimes the players go for big money and are worth every penny. The Denver Broncos splashed a four-year, $23.5 million contract on guard Louis Vasquez in the early hours of 2013's free-agency period; Vasquez rewarded them with an incredible year, making the Associated Press' first-team All-Pro squad.
Sometimes the players go for big money and aren't worth it. The Miami Dolphins dropped $60 million over five years on receiver Mike Wallace, who delivered 73 catches for just 930 yards and five touchdowns in 2013.
The immediate signings always go for big money, though, which is why it was puzzling when the Indianapolis Colts spent their huge cap surplus quickly by locking up a bevy of midmarket players like linebacker Erik Walden, safety LaRon Landry and right tackle Gosder Cherilus.
These players weren't highly sought-after and could have been available more cheaply after the initial gold rush passed. Most importantly, they were replaceable by other players on the market. Making other teams' backup targets their primary targets meant Indianapolis didn't miss out, but missing out wouldn't have made much difference.
The Colts got the guys they wanted to fill out their squad, but for the price they paid, they could have signed a real difference-maker (or two, or three).
Do Sign Older or Injured Vets to "Prove-It" Contracts
The Dolphins recently parted ways with general manager Jeff Ireland for a host of reasons, but there's one move nobody could fault him for: the savvy pickup of cornerback Brent Grimes.
Grimes was a late bloomer, seeing only part-time duty with the Atlanta Falcons until he became a full-time starter in his fourth season. He made the most of his chance, snagging five interceptions and making the Pro Bowl.
After an Achilles injury truncated his 2012 season, the Dolphins signed the then-29-year-old Grimes to a one-year "prove it" deal worth $5.5 million. If he panned out, the Dolphins would get a Pro Bowl cornerback at well below market value. If he didn't, he wouldn't be "dead money" on future salary caps.
Not only did Grimes pan out, he had a career year. Grimes was Pro Football Focus' second-highest-graded corner, behind only Darrelle Revis.
Now that Grimes has "proved it," Miami will have to pay him what he's worth or let him move on.
Maybe the Dolphins should try to repeat the feat by signing Charles Tillman, a first-team All-Pro in 2012 whose 2013 was cut short due to several injuries. Tillman will be 33 when he hits the market, but he was playing cornerback as well as anyone in the NFL before the injuries.
Don't Expect an Aging System Player to Put Your Team on His Back
During his time in Green Bay, wide receiver Greg Jennings was very productive. With smooth cuts, sharply run routes and sticky hands, he developed a rapport with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and broke off a three-year streak of 1,100-plus yards.
His production took a dip in 2011, though, and injury shortened his 2012 campaign. Fresh off trading explosive receiver/returner Percy Harvin, the Minnesota Vikings lavished a five-year, $47.5 million contract on Jennings, with $17.5 million fully guaranteed.
It was hard to see how a player who made his impact by mastering the finer points of intermediate and deep routes—and catching perfectly thrown balls from Aaron Rodgers—was going to single-handedly elevate the passing game of a team featuring Christian Ponder at quarterback.
Jennings caught a typical 68 passes, but for just 804 yards and four touchdowns—both career lows for seasons where he started at least 13 games. Unless the Vikings acquire an Aaron Rodgers-level quarterback (or a true No. 1 receiver who'll draw coverage away from Jennings), it's hard to see the 30-year-old earning the remaining four years of that contract.
Fellow Viking Jared Allen used to be the most dominant two-way defensive end in the game, and he still has utility as a situational pass-rusher. If he leaves Minnesota, the 31-year-old should be used only as a situational 4-3 rush end—and not paid like a 27-year-old every-down All-Pro.
Do Target Players Who Fit Your Scheme
Reggie Bush will never be the Hall of Fame tailback people envisioned when they saw him juke, cut and explode his way to a Heisman Trophy at the University of Southern California. He'll never live up to the "next Marshall Faulk" hype generated when he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2006.
Bush has never been a complete, dominant every-down back, but the Detroit Lions rolled out a limo for him in the early days of the 2013 free-agency period. Why? They knew he was exactly what their offense needed: a big-play threat out of the backfield.
Bush had his struggles in 2013, including a nasty fumbling habit. But he also racked up 1,006 yards rushing at 4.5 per carry and 54 receptions for 506 yards receiving. Bush, in combination with hometown product Joique Bell, completed one of the best one-two running back combos in the NFL.
He wouldn't have been a fit for every team, but Bush was perfect in Detroit.
Knowshon Moreno is coming off a career year as top dog of the Denver Broncos' running back cerberus. He wouldn't be successful as a 25-carry-a-game guy either, but a team willing to use him in a zone-heavy running scheme and in its passing attack could get more than its money's worth.
Don't Sign a Player to Play a Different Role
One of the biggest free-agency mistakes in recent memory was the Philadelphia Eagles' signing of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
It wasn't a mistake to sign him; Asomugha was the NFL's premier press-man cover corner at the time. The mistake was signing him and making him do practically everything except the one thing he was really good at.
The Eagles' then-defensive coordinator Juan Castillo had the bright idea of moving Asomugha around, according to the Sporting News' Geoff Mosher:
Castillo has Asomugha moving around depending on the coverage – sometimes playing a slot cornerback role similar to Charles Woodson’s in Green Bay, sometimes patrolling center field like a safety. Castillo believes Asomugha has the skill set to cover across the middle along with the outside and blitz from the slot.
What happened next was a predictable disaster: Asomugha wasn't effective in the slot, in zone coverage or as a safety.
You wouldn't sign tight end/receiver hybrid Jimmy Graham and ask him to spend most of his time run-blocking, would you?
Do Invest in a Quality Backup Quarterback
It's a quarterback's league, which means most teams are obsessed with finding a franchise signal-caller. For those that have one, though—or at least a decent one—a quality backup is worth the extra cap space.
Often, NFL fans hate to see their team make a significant investment in a player who, if all goes well, won't see the field. Yet, when modern teams are built around their quarterback, they're always one hit away from completely falling apart.
The Green Bay Packers learned this when starter Aaron Rodgers was lost for eight weeks, and they'd been playing musical chairs with street free agents in the No. 2 and No. 3 roles all offseason long.
The Packers ended up having to re-sign former backup Matt Flynn to stop the bleeding, and he led them to two wins and a tie in five games. If they'd made a strong move to back Rodgers up earlier in the season, perhaps they wouldn't have dropped the three games they lost after Rodgers went down.
Don't Pay an Old Running Back
It doesn't matter how good they've been.
It doesn't matter how talented they are.
It doesn't matter how strong they looked last season.
Do. Not. Pay. Old. Running backs.
Once a back hits (or approaches, depending on his workload) 30 years old, his legs will fade—maybe not right away, but when they go they'll go all at once.
During the 2013 free-agency cycle, Steven Jackson was a few months from his 30th birthday; I thought he was going to be the exception to the rule. Pounding out 1,045 yards at 4.1 yards per carry on a Rams team almost totally lacking a passing game in 2012 seemed to ensure he'd be ready to go anywhere and excel in 2013.
Despite a perfect match with the Atlanta Falcons' power-run game, Jackson was a flop. He managed to start just 12 games and averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry en route to a career-low 543 yards.
This season's Steven Jackson is Maurice Jones-Drew, who'll turn 29 not quite two weeks after free agency begins. After an injury-shortened 2012, Jones-Drew mustered just 3.4 yards per carry behind a miserable Jacksonville Jaguars offense—the first time he's ever averaged fewer than 4.2 yards per carry in a season.
Do Build Through the Draft
Championships aren't won in March; they're won in May.
Free agency is a useful tool, but keep in mind that if the players were worth what they were asking for, they probably wouldn't have hit the open market.
Every team has holes, and sometimes the proverbial "one last piece" really can put a team over the top. But if your team is anything but a legitimate contender, it's very unlikely that free agency can patch enough holes to make it one without massive cap damage.
Ultimately, the best way to improve a team will always be to draft wisely. The Seattle Seahawks just won a championship by drafting the best cornerback in the game in the fifth round and one of the best young quarterbacks around in the third round.
Teams should sign players that can help them, but it's not possible to "fill all the holes" in free agency—and it's not wise to try.
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