March 12 is the next critical date in the NFL offseason. By that date all teams must be in compliance with the salary cap and the free agency period officially begins. Before the real action starts, DRAFTMETRICS set out to provide some perspective by reviewing data regarding 2012 free agency.
The term “veteran free agents” , as it is used in this article, includes (1) players whose contract have expired and who are free to sign with any team, (2) players who have become free agents by having their contracts terminated for salary cap or other reasons and (3) players who are no longer affiliated with an NFL team.
The signing of veteran free agentsis an important part of building and maintaining an NFL roster. Players acquired as veteran free agents accounted for almost 27% of all games started in the 2012 NFL season (versus 59% for a team’s own draft choices). The 2992 games started by veteran free agents marks the second consecutive year of increased startsfollowing a steady decline in the preceding years.
The 2992 games started by veteran free agents in 2012 included starts by players acquired as early as 2002 (Charlie Batch of the Steelers). Following is a breakdown showing the number of 2012 starts made by players acquired in free agency in each year.
The remainder of this articlewill focus on the 2012 veteran free agent class. DRAFTMETRICS first compared the initial impact of the 2012 veteran free agent class to the 2012 draft class as show below.
This shows that veteran free agents do, understandably, have a larger initial impact than draftees. A significant number of veteran free agents are on one-year contracts, though, so that advantage shrinks rather rapidly. The number of 2012 games started by the 2011 veteran free agent class, for example, is 771 compared to 1108 for the 2011 draft class.
DRAFTMETRICS then took a closerlook at the players whose contracts expired andmoved on to become free agents. As per an August 29, 2012 press release from the NFL, there were 143 such players (referred to as Unrestricted Free Agents, or UFAs)in 2012. Following is a comparison of this group of 143 players with other veteran free agents.
From this data one can see that the group of 143 UFAs accounted for both most of the games started and players who started at least eight games. The players making up the 143 UFAs fall into one of several categories:
• Players who started eight or more games: 50 players
• Players who started at least one game but less than 8 games: 39
• Players who didn’t start but were back-ups: 18
• Players who cut in the preseason: 25
• Players who were placed on injured reserve: 7
• Players who retired: 4
The sum of the number of players who started (50 + 39, or 89) does not equalthe number of players who started at least one game in the table above, as logic would suggest, because two players were cut by their original team ultimately started a game for their new team.
The above indicates that the UFAs tended to more successful than other veteran free agents. This also shows up in the contracts they signed, as the UFAs tended to be better players and get longer contracts.
DRAFTMETRICS reviewed contract information for the 72 players who started at least eight games in 2012. The most significant deals signed by “other veteran free agents” were by Peyton Manning, Kamerion Wimbley, Eric Winston and Steve Hutchinson. Multi-year, big money deals were far more numerous among the UFAs, led by the contracts of Mario Williams, Brandon Carr, Vincent Jackson and Pierre Garcon. More than half the contracts signed by UFAs were for three years or more. A summary of the deals by contract length is presented in the following table.
Finally, DRAFTMETRICS reviewed the number of games started by NFL teams to see which teams were the primary “players” in the veteran free agent market. This is large driven, of course, by a team’s salary cap situation.Number of starts by draftees is also included in the following table. “New Guy Starts” are starts by players in their first year with the team.
DRAFTMETRICS acknowledges that the “new guy starts” numbers do not include players acquired through trades or rookie free agents. That information is not currently available but will be developed at a later date.
The “New Guy Analysis” shows thatthe Rams, Colts and Broncos had the most new faces among veteran free agents and the 49ers, Steelers and Falcons had the least. It is interesting to note that both the top three and the bottom three contained two playoffs teams.