Joe Robbins, Evan Pinkus, Scott Boehm/AP
Joe Robbins, Evan Pinkus, Scott Boehm/AP

Buyer Beware

Fans love the flurry of free agency. Unfortunately, so do some teams. But if you think that shiny free agent signing is too good to be true, it probably is

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

Free agency is an exciting time, and that’s the problem. Amidst the excitement, fans and media overvalue unsigned players. Worse yet, so do coaches and general managers.

The NFL system is not set up for great players to hit free agency. The last thing a team wants is to invest draft picks, coaching hours, practice reps and game time in a player only to see him prosper elsewhere. A player the team thinks can truly prosper isn’t allowed to go elsewhere; he gets tagged or re-signed. With financial whizzes employed to help manage the salary cap, an NFL front office can almost always find a way to retain a vital player.

So, it reasons, a player who reaches free agency all but promises to have a flaw. For example, in 2009 Albert Haynesworth had all the big ones: work ethic issues, poor character, susceptibility to injury, limited position versatility and, most common of all, an inflated price tag. The fact that the Titans let their All-Pro hit free agency in his prime was a dead giveaway that his flaws were worse than outsiders could imagine. 

This isn’t to say that free agents are bad; it’s merely to say that free agents are complex and must be considered with caution. Football’s complexity and team-oriented nature leaves players at the mercy of factors beyond their control. The schemes and systems vary more from club to club, and one’s playing style must mesh with that of those around him. For stars, this isn’t a problem. But for flawed players, it can be.

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This can be a two-way street. A free agent’s style might prove to be a better fit on his new team than on his old team. The best example is probably Justin Smith, who was a mundane 4-3 defensive end in Cincinnati and became a perennial All-Pro after signing with San Francisco, where he transformed into a 3-4 two-gap end (a five-technique). But cases like this are rare, and the majority involve either middle-class free agents who blossom in a new role or environment (like Michael Bennett, who moved to a three-technique in Seattle last year) or upper-middle class free agents who thrive while playing on a one-year deal (like Aqib Talib or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie last year). Most of these guys have flaws, but unlike the exciting upper-class free agents, they’re not the type of significant financial risk that can really harm a franchise if things go bad.

The flaws can be difficult to spot, as things like character and injuries are hard to grasp by those who are not inside the building or around the player every day. But, as Washington overlooked with Haynesworth, there are indicators:

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    Durability Flag:Missed multiple games in multiple years due to injury.
  • Contract Year Flag:Underachieved until his contract year. Short-term memory often registers these guys as having potential but, more often, they have potential that’s destined to go unfulfilled
  • Character Flag: Has multiple off-field incidents or persistent rumors about character concerns. Something to consider: whenever you hear stories about the recent maturation of a guy who’s 26 or older, chances are he deserves a character flag. Adults aren’t supposed to be patted on the back for finally acting like adults. 
  • Role Flag:Performed a very specific role for his previous team, and especially if he did so with a lot of talent around him. In Haynesworth’s case, he was strictly a three-technique in a good one-gap Titans defense. He proved far less adept as a nose tackle in Washington’s 3-4. 
  • Inconsistency/In-Decline Flag: Haynesworth ran hot and cold over his first four years, but even guys who run hot and cold for just one or two years should be flagged. Reason being, that players’ previous team, having known what the player was supposed to do on each play, usually knows that the inconsistency was even worse than it appeared on film. Or, the team knows the inconsistency stemmed from the player being in decline, which they witnessed only occasionally on Sundays but regularly during the week. 
  • Overpriced Flag: A Ford Taurus might be a fine car, but not if it costs as much as a Cadillac. And paying Cadillac money for the Taurus doesn’t make the Taurus a Cadillac. The same principle applies to football players. By March, every NFL team has a decent idea of what the market will be like. The players that teams allow to hit free agency are the ones that the team senses will be overpriced. 

Having one of these flaws does not mean a player won’t succeed. In fact, the majority of NFL players have one. But for the players allowed to hit free agency, the flaws are generally worse than people realize. Teams that spend big at the start of free agency often fail to recognize this. Some recent examples:

  • The Dolphins with Mike Wallace. Wallace is a classic Role Flag. He had a specific job in Pittsburgh as a deep threat. He also served as one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite improvisational targets when things broke down. That made him dangerous and prolific, but not a true No. 1 receiver. The Steelers knew he couldn’t run a full route tree. The Dolphins found that out shortly after signing him, and especially later in the year when opposing defenses focused their coverage primarily on Brian Hartline or Charles Clay. Now the Dolphins have a de facto No. 2 weapon who makes more guaranteed money ($30M) than every wide receiver except for Calvin Johnson ($48M).
  • The Browns with Paul Kruger. Kruger carried the Contract Year Flag. The outside linebacker admittedly was immature early in his career with the Ravens and never played up to his ability until his 2012 contract year. Last season in Cleveland, a newly rich Kruger was adequate in all phases, but dominant in none. If Barkevious Mingo develops and Jabaal Sheard remains a beast, Kruger this year could be the third best outside linebacker on the Browns and the third highest-paid outside linebacker in the league ($20M guaranteed).

Free agents can be flawed and still succeed as long as their new team fully understands their flaws. Perhaps the best recent example is the Bears with Jermon Bushrod. The Saints allowed the left tackle to hit the market because his limited lower-body strength made him a very average pass blocker. The Bears, having suffered through below average pass blockers for years, signed Bushrod for $11.7 million guaranteed— just enough to merit a small Overpriced Flag. But at least the Bears knew exactly how to get their money’s worth. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer had worked with Bushrod for four years as the Saints offensive line coach. Kromer and Marc Trestman constructed an aggressive pass-blocking scheme that has the tackles attack pass rushers near the line of scrimmage rather than taking the traditional approach of reacting to them off a drop-step deep in the backfield. Bushrod, who can’t anchor but has quick feet, was a perfect fit for this. And his first year in Chicago was his best as a pro.

Fascinatingly, this year’s crop of unrestricted players has a chance to ameliorate the perils of free agency. Let’s look at them, grouped by flags:

  • Overpriced Flag: There are several very solid veterans at the top of the class with no major flaws. This includes defensive end Michael Bennett, free safety Jairus Byrd, offensive tackles Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe and Jared Veldheer and strong safeties T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner. The only flag with these guys is that they could be overpriced. But this year, with the salary cap ballooning to a record $133 million and scheduled to jump again in 2015 and 2016, teams have more room for error.
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    Role Flag: The ballooning cap is particularly a blessing to the Role Flag guys. Eric Decker is one. He’s unequivocally a No. 2 receiver who put up big numbers by playing in a Peyton Manning-led offense. If he were anything but “just a guy,” the Broncos would retain him. After all, they have almost $20 million in cap space and, with Manning nearing his end, their window is now. Other Role Flag guys include Decker’s former teammate Knowshon Moreno and Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate.
  • Inconsistency/Decline Flag: There’s wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (whose contract value is one of the most difficult to project in recent NFL history), offensive tackles Rodger Saffold and Michael Oher, tight end Brandon Pettigrew and nose tackle B.J. Raji. In Decline Flags, you have defensive ends Jared Allen and Justin Tuck, plus running back Maurice Jones-Drew.
  • Durability Flag: This group—led by tight end Jermichael Finley, linebacker Jon Beason, quarterback Michael Vick, Hakeem Nicks (again), safety Louis Delmas, and cornerbacks Walter Thurmond and Vontae Davis—is one of the most challenging to figure. We still hear stories about the 2006 Dolphins passing on Drew Brees and his damaged shoulder in order to sign what turned out to be a permanently damaged Daunte Culpepper (knee).
  • Character Flag: This group includes corners Vontae Davis and Aqib Talib, former Vikings defensive ends Everson Griffen and Jared Allen (regarded as a locker room lawyer, which isn’t great for a team wanting to bring him in as a veteran leader), running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Brandon Spikes and quarterback Josh Freeman.
  • Contract Year Flag: In a lot of respects, these players are the most challenging of them all as they generally are the most tempting. This year’s crop: cornerback Alterraun Verner, outside linebacker Jason Worilds (who has been slapped with Pittsburgh’s transition tag), defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (whose breakout came at age 32 but also on the heels of a switch from 3-4 defensive end to 4-3 defensive tackle, both of which suggest he might not actually deserve a flag) and cornerbacks Rodgers-Cromartie and Talib (who both signed one-year deals last season in order to prove their mettle).

These are mostly stellar players who simply come with some risk. But while this year’s free agent crop might be on the safer side historically, smart teams will not underestimate the risk involved with anyone.

GALLERY: The Worst Free-Agent Signings in NFL history

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44 comments
Buck2185
Buck2185

Hi, Peter King here. Anyone want to talk about the N word or gay rights in the NFL?

Whatever
Whatever

The problem with many free agency signings is that most teams really overlook the system a guy came from and the supporting players he had around him. One very smart thing Andy Reid did when going to KC was to look at his defensive personnel, and even though he prefers a 4-3 defense, recognize that he had great personnel for a 3-4 defense and kept the 3-4. Also look at Revis being put in a mostly zone defense, and how much better he is at man coverage (granted, some of that had to do with his injury recovery).

It's amazing that so many supposedly smart personnel guys and coaches try to force square players into round holes. If the player doesn't fit your system, he's not going to perform well for you. He simply won't have the tools needed to play in the system at the high level you're expecting from him.

Whatever
Whatever

You should have put Brandon Albert in the Durability Flag category also. He hasn't played much in the past two years. 

raider0072
raider0072

How many suicides in the Bay area when the Raiders sign Markie Sanchez????  I have a feeling their won't be enough Oakland cops to investigate them all.

Mark20
Mark20

As a Pats fan, I remember Adalius Thomas very well. Turns out he looked good playing with Ray Lewis and that was that. He was a total bust in NE.

drudown
drudown

I would just hasten to add that the most disconcerting development (i.e., pushing pro sports towards systemic dysfunction) is the guaranteed contract model for Superstar athletes. Tell me, can anyone point to a single overwhelming success story in the NBA or NFL? Chris Johnson? No. Sam Bradford? No. Greg Oden? No. Look at Kobe Bryant's usurious salary. Look at Drew Brees' salary. How can anyone credibly contend that it doesn't materially hinder ANY team's ability to field the best team?

And with a 'bust'...the fiscal waste that these guaranteed contracts bestow to teams is ultimately 'passed onto the consumer' and this is what is killing the NBA. I mean, at least the NFL teams can 'cut their losses' (i.e., outside of the aforementioned ambit of guaranteed contracts) and- believe me, it not only creates a better product (i.e., NFL product via 'increased exertion and will to achieve' vs. lazy NBA 'they can't really fire me' players)... and teams aren't saddled with long term contracts (see, e.g., big rookie Portland/Greg Oden or big Orlando/Grant Hill) where the player doesn't even play! Or marginally contributes.

Until the compensation structure changes...the NBA is going to be somewhat of a joke in terms of hustle. Funnier stil, perhaps, is reading the typical message boards where sock puppet posters from PR firms, sports agents, players or hanger-ons (what else) try to condition the public that 'it isn't about the money....riiiight."


/s/ Kobe, Los Angeles


ThePDFGhost
ThePDFGhost

I don't think it would be too far off base to question Michael Vick's character as well.

Kritikos
Kritikos

Most of the time it's [free agency] a real crap shoot anyway...

Robert86
Robert86

I'd be interested to read an article about  GMs that seem particularly adept at identifying good talent (65th percentile+) early and locking in longer term deals that give their team more cap flexibility.

DenisOBrien
DenisOBrien

While Talib has some character questions isn't the larger issue his durability? The guy has skill but is hurt all the time, sometimes it's bad luck (Welker hit) but he has a lot of pulled/strained muscles that keep him out for games at a time. Don't see how any team can pay him big $$$ and expect 16 games + playoffs.

RonEdde2
RonEdde2

The teams DO live up to their contracts. Those documents have clearly-worded language that allow them to cut players early. If players don't like that, they don't have to sign the contracts or play in the league.

Taurus97
Taurus97

 A Ford Taurus might be a fine car, but not if it costs as much as a Cadillac. And paying Cadillac money for the Taurus doesn’t make the Taurus a Cadillac I've owned two Tauruses and will take them over a Caddy any day.

Matthew W
Matthew W

I heard Gronk is available for a 1st round pick......

JonathanMPerez
JonathanMPerez

What does the author mean when he calls Jared Allen a locker room lawyer?

Sportsfan18
Sportsfan18

In the NFL, teams are not really punished too much if they overpay for a player.  Yes, they are some.


A team may simply cut a player if they are not playing up to expectations.  Now if they had to pay the entire contracts to these guys like they do in MLB and the NBA, it would change.


Fat Albert, while getting a lot of money from the Redskins did not come close to receiving all $100 whatever million his contract was for.


If the Redskins knew that they had to pay him his entire amount guaranteed, they NEVER would have offered him his $100 million dollar contract.


I'm not saying all that was said in the article isn't correct, just that there are mitigating factors for the teams.


The Cowboys right now are forcing Ware to take a lower salary or they'll cut him.  The Cowboys aren't and never were locked into paying him all the contract said they would have to pay him.


Many players, in their first few yrs in the league (on 4 or 5 yr deals) are underpaid.  Not all players out perform their deals I know and many who don't are cut or forced to take lower salaries.


So, some of these young players hold out and the fans write in and say you have a contract, honor it etc...


Then, they keep playing well and are able to sign a big dollar deal.  They are a bit older then and sometimes their skills begin to deteriorate or they get injured and then they are cut or made to take a lower salary.


If fans tell the players to honor their contracts when they try to hold out then why don't they tell the teams to honor their contracts too?


The teams get their cake and get to eat it too.


So many people make money off of the NFL, all the front office people, the owners, TV executives, agents and many more people...  They ALL make it off the product ON the field and those guys get beat up (yes, they know they will) and these teams just chew them up.

shp2101
shp2101

Wallace was also an overpriced tag.  Also without a QB who can improvise like Big Ben, his value goes down even more


MichaelFatalo
MichaelFatalo

Wouldn't Talib be considered a Durability Flag as well? He was injured both years for the Pats missing time and getting injured in both AFC Championship games.

Buck2185
Buck2185

Ask Denver about free agency - How many millions on Manning - how many rings???

westcoastbias
westcoastbias

Great insight and lots of new information.  Put this guy on the masthead!

Buck2185
Buck2185

@Mark20 He was a total bust in NE because he played for Belichick and he told Bill he refused to cheat

newshamg
newshamg

@drudown  You are not using the word usurious in the correct manner. May I suggest a copy of the OED.

drudown
drudown

Thus, it is equally inapt to assert that players such as the Titans' Chris Johnson "outperformed his contract" prior to him, well, "underperforming" the new one, i.e., thereby "warranting" or "requiring" his (ahem) now infamous 2011 "extension". 

Uh, excuse me? Ah, I think Lord Edward Coke just rolled over in his grave. 

Contracts distribute risk WHEN executed between the parties. It is asinine to even intimate there is some "we'll see, I mean, as we go- and if I play better than you pay me, yo- I will hold out for more dough" Revis-think.  Tell me, "why" are the NFL contracts "different" without some express language so stipulating? By analogy, how absurd is the notion that a homeowner (e.g., that sold his/her house for, say, $1mm) could knock on the door of the new owner two years later and say "gee, the home I sold you is worth $2.5mm- I mean, only two years later...so...the asset outperformed our contract."


That is how unfounded this unfounded Contracts position is. Both sides AGREED on performances at the time agreement was consummated, i.e., at the time the risks were distributed to both the player [e.g., could earn more elsewhere if FA or if drafted higher] and the owner [e.g., player might get injured, underperform on the field, slack off or be a media distraction, et al.], respectively. 

Can a team try to "lock up" a player to a long term deal mid-stream? Sure. But "holding out" for more money because the parties misperceived the risks (or value) turns precedent on its head. Er, kind of like that Green Bay/Seattle call.

J Diddy
J Diddy

@ThePDFGhost  What are you talking about? Mike's a changed man. He loves babies, warm hugs, and puppies now. Especially puppies. ;)

el80ne
el80ne

@Robert86 You mean in the draft? Identifying veterans already playing for you that are playing well and would be wise to lock up long term to secure a better deal I'd imagine to be pretty easy because you already have all the data on the kid because he's in your organization and already playing for you. The best deals come from correctly identifying them in the draft and getting them on rookie four year deals on the rookie wage scale.

JPM
JPM

@Taurus97  

Did you pay Cadillac-level prices for those two Tauruses?   No, you didn't.  If they'd cost as much as a Caddy, you wouldn't have bought them.  They'd be overpriced.  That's King's point.

Scramble
Scramble

@Matthew W And Hernandez might be on work release, but he could only play for the Broncos wearing that orange jumpsuit.

Keats1821
Keats1821

A locker room lawyer is someone who tends to cause trouble, often telling other players how things should be, what they should be standing up for and what they don't have to be doing. A lot of times it's aimed at coaching, ownership or the league, but it can also be aimed at other players.

el80ne
el80ne

@Sportsfan18 Bogus. No one pays attention to the total price of the contract. It's all about the guaranteed money. That's the amount the team is on the hook for and counts against them on the salary cap in one balloon payment due immediately should a team cut bait with a player prior to the completion of that contract instead of being prorated over the life of the contract. You don't think the Skins were punished for the Haynesworth contract? You're living in lala land. He had 41 million of his contract guaranteed and they're still paying for it for the hit they took after  the NFL rules committee caught them trying to skirt the cap by frontloading the contract in uncapped year of 2009 which went strictly against guidelines set by the NFL. The redskins remain in salary cap purgatory with no light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe that's a result of the owner thinking like you do that there's no punishment for overpaying for a player. To the a rest of the league him and spendthrift Jerry Jones are laughingstocks and exhibit 1a and 1b of overpaying players and incurring huge dead money contracts.

Joebuckster
Joebuckster

@Buck2185  Stupid comment. Manning has already produced a Super Bowl berth in Year 2 of a possible 5. Without an elite QB your chances of even getting to the big game are close to zero. Manning is worth every penny. Unless you're happy with your favorite team be simply 'competitive'.

mgranadosv
mgranadosv

@Buck2185 so better not spend and be the worst team in your division? Great thinking, you should be a GM

DanaBunner
DanaBunner

@Buck2185 I would gladly pay a player $19M who would get me into a Super Bowl.  A team makes a ton of money getting there.  You don't have to win a ring to be worth the money.

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

@westcoastbias :  Agreed.  The only thing I don't necessarily agree with is the idea that only flawed guys get through to FA.  Plenty of great players make it to FA and want to test the waters and get a big contract.  There's a huge difference between loving a guy's performance under his rookie contract (or a more standard contract) vs. having to pay him "market value" once he matures or becomes a hot commodity.  We see this from time to time with Super Bowl MVPs.  Average guys have a great game, then sign a ridiculous contract.  Remember Larry Brown?


My point is that above average players, barring major injuries, will at some point be in line to get paid.  Generally these guys get one shot at a big contract in their careers.  If a team simply can't invest that much money in one position, they let them go elsewhere.  It doesn't have to be because the home team feels they're flawed.

el80ne
el80ne

@Keats1821 Interesting. So what exactly distinguishes the locker room lawyer from a veteran providing proper guidance and leadership?

AF Whigs
AF Whigs

@DanaBunner:  Right.  Even just getting deep into the playoffs can be worth it.  But I don't think Denver has any regrets about Manning.  Even if they don't get back to the SB in the remainder of his career (as we all know, very hard to do and unlikely that either team will repeat return next year) he'll keep them in the playoffs.

Joebuckster
Joebuckster

@AF Whigs @westcoastbias  Hey - this just in... Almost EVERY player in the league has at LEAST one flaw. The teams that draft better are the ones that can let a great player go without losing competitiveness and stay in good cap health. That's the game now. It's all about good choices and cap flexibility.

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