On March 10, approximately one billion dollars will be handed out in contracts.
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A lot of it is fluff, destined never to materialize as the unguaranteed back portion of contracts. However, an equally outsized portion of it is guaranteed money, paid before the player ever produces for his new team.
Much like Dr. Evil, the NFL's most desirable Unrestricted Free Agents hold the league's most desperate teams hostage, shopping their services to the highest bidder, only to invariably fail to live up to their end of the bargain.
Scheme, fit, culture all go by the wayside. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports said it best:
All this pre-FA talk about players and their preferred schemes goes out the window once the preferred $$$$ are put in front of them.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) March 6, 2015
Reggie White vs. Andre Rison
That's not to say big ticket Free Agency can't work. Reggie White was the first notable free agent in NFL history, signing with the Packers in 1994 for $17 million over 4 years (or, what Julian Edelman got from New England last year). Of course, Reggie White is also in the top three defenders of all time, so he's not exactly the rule, nay, rather he is the exception.
For every Reggie White though, there are 20 Andre Risons. Bill Belichick and Ozzie Newsome both learned a valuable lesson on the pitfalls of free agency in 1995 just one year after White's signing. After Ron Wolf and Co. paid White on the level of the game's elite quarterbacks, Andre Rison was handed $17 million over 5 years by Cleveland, nearly putting him in the same class.
It didn't work. Rison flamed out after one year in Cleveland, and did not make the move to Baltimore. Neither Belichick nor Newsome would make a mistake of that magnitude again. Perhaps it is no surprise that they have both acquired arguably the two biggest difference makers in the past two years in Darrelle Revis and Elvis Dumervil, both of whom were paid below market price as released players (where they didn't even harm the comp pick equation).
The Andre Rison model plays out a dozen times or more each year. It's almost sad how incapable teams are of learning from the past. Desperation drives even the teams who should know better to ruin.
No Value Proposition on Day 1 or 2 of Free Agency
It is an annual rite of passage in the offseason: grading winners and losers in Free Agency. It is also a dumb exercise. Great for page views, and aggravating the over-sensitive fans, but pointless. I can tell you right now who the winners and losers will be this year in Free Agency and every year hereafter:
Losers: Any team that spends big money on another team's UFAs
Winners: Any team who does not.
I'm oversimplifying but the maxim is validated every year.
Why is this guy available?
This is a question teams should ask themselves. If he was a true difference maker, his team would keep him point blank. He's on the market because there is a disagreement on his value. The Ravens almost never let their true difference makers get to market. They sometimes let important players (Eugene Monroe, for instance) go to market to resolve a value disagreement (which saved the Ravens millions of dollars) but they aren't letting anyone go to market that they are not ultimately comfortable seeing walk.
Put bluntly, they are not going to be held hostage to a player they value at a lower number unless the player is just so rare and vital.
Think about how Seattle's Russell Wilson plays for almost nothing. The excess value that Seattle receives on Wilson is staggering (and ditto for the Colts with Andrew Luck). That value can then be infused into key pieces like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas — players they know are great and worthy of retention.
In Free Agency, when a team signs away a player for big day one cash, they create the inverse of that value proposition: there is no opportunity to get excess value than what they paid for. In short, they can only hope to break even. The player has to perform at a star level otherwise the team has lost value on the deal. Worse still, they actually have no idea if he will on his new team.
If that sounds like a pointless academic exercise in economics, it is not. The NFL is an economic market and the teams who successfully work it to their advantage are always in contention.
A player like Ndamakong Suh works very well in the Detroit system. They have built their defense around his presence. If the Lions could afford it, retaining him makes sense as he is proven to be a key part of what they do.
Will he work in another team's system? Teams will fantasize about what he'll bring but they don't know ultimately. They can only guess. Whether its hubris or desperation, another team will offer more and hope for the best. Meanwhile, they've taken all of the risk with almost none of the upside.
Their best case scenario is that he provides star production, a la Reggie White with Green Bay. Good luck with that.
Players have a share of the blame in this, too
To be fair, some players really are good and do deserve to be paid. I don't think anyone begrudges a player's desire to maximize their earnings in a league that can see a career end on a single fluky kickoff return. It's a fleeting thing, an athlete's career is.
There might be something to be said though for recognizing when you're in a good situation as a player. This is especially true for receivers but can still apply to any position.
Randall Cobb for instance signed a 4 year/$40 million deal to remain in Green Bay. Could he have gotten more on the market? Maybe, though it is interesting he didn't sign with the Packers until the "tampering" window. He probably found out that no one loved him enough to make leaving Green Bay worthwhile. But it's fair to say that he probably could have gotten a bit more from a team like Oakland. He left the door open for himself though by taking a 4 year deal that places him in a good spot for a 3rd contract while keeping his value insanely high with Aaron Rodgers.
Torrey Smith has an interesting opportunity before him. He will not command that much from Baltimore but it is conceivable that he will from someone else. There is a risk though that a lot of Torrey's value is tied to his deep threat ability and a quarterback who can capitalize. Does he have the same value, say, on the Kansas City Chiefs with Alex Smith?
I would say... probably not. The risk players like T. Smith take is that by foregoing a good situation for less (again, an understandable decision) for an unknown situation for more money, they risk washing out of that new team when the fit doesn't work and find themselves jettisoned back into the Free Agency abyss.
In their lust to chase the highest offer, they sacrifice their long term career as they, and the NFL teams, find out that perhaps they are a replaceable player after all. Team sport of 53 players and all that.
Simple regression to the mean is also in play. Some players "magically" turn it on in a contract year, reap the reward, only for their teams to find out they are paying for the massive outlier, not the norm. Just ask the teams that have overpaid Josh McCown recently based on five games in 2013 that in no way resemble the previous 10 years of his career.
Free Agency is littered with the stalled-out careers of players who found out the hard way that they weren't quite as good as their agents and friends led them to believe when they were pressed to take the money and run.
Then again, these are athletes not hedge fund managers so they can be forgiven for viewing things through the prism of short term reward.
The teams are the real culprit for the overpaid messes that happen in Free Agency.
Retain your own difference makers, shop for value elsewhere
Spending significant money to retain your own players is often a far better strategy. You know exactly what you have in that player and how he fits into your particular system. If you need outside parts, there are bargains to be had by those who know where to look. Instead name brand recognition usually wins. Thus do the same teams pick in the top 10 seemingly every year while the same 10 teams are in playoff contention each year.
As Free Agency dawns, the league's paupers shall be crowned princes. Unfortunately, the new teams who coronate them often come to regret it.