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Getting some free agency perspective: 2013 review

Looking back for a preview of what's to come. Tony Villiotti

Print This March 05, 2014, 11:30 AM EST

Another important phase of the NFL offseason will begin on March 11 as free agency gets underway. To help set the stage, this article will take a look back at 2013 free agency and its “big picture” outcomes. This will provide some indication of what can be expected this year and provides at least a modicum of perspective.

The following table shows teams ranked in order of starts by players signed through free agency (with number of plays from scrimmage as a tiebreaker). The table also shows each team’s 2013 record and the number of signings by contract length. Average contract length is included in the table, although I’m not sure if that metric provides any meaningful insights into a team’s free agent strategy.

Free agent signings, for the purpose of this article, include signings both before and during the 2013 season. Players acquired via waivers and players that re-signed with their 2012 team are excluded. A handful of players are included twice. This situation arises if a player joins two different teams as a free agent (signed and subsequently cut by one team, then signed by a second team).

This table shows that teams can be successful with or without a significant number of free agent signings. Having said that, though, it is interesting to note that of the bottom six teams (in number of free agent starts), four made the playoffs versus only one team in the top six. If the teams are split into two 16-team halves, however, the difference disappears. Both the top 16 teams and bottom 16 teams include six playoff teams.

Free agent signings were also reviewed for differences by playing position. The table below summarizes the information for each playing position. There is little difference by position in the length of contracts.

There are, though, pretty major differences in the number of starts per signee. Positions can be grouped into four categories based on similar characteristics. Quarterbacks and fullbacks, while included in the table, are omitted from any discussion due to the small number of data points.

Following is a brief description and commentary on each of the four categories:

• Offensive Linemen
   -Most likely to start with an average of about seven starts per free agent signed
   -Interestingly, there were only half as many offensive line signings as defensive line signings

• Defensive Players
   -Average between 4.5 and 5.5 starts per free agent signed
   -D-backs are at upper end of scale, linebackers at lowest

• Receivers, including both TEs and WRs
   -Average about 3.5 starts per free agent signed
• Running Backs
   -As risky in free agency as in the draft, averaging only about 2.5 starts per free agent signed

Here is the table that contains the information upon which the above is based.

Finally, 2013 free agency was studied by contract length to see whether performance conformed to expectations. While there are certainly exceptions, a general expectation is that a longer contract term will be required to sign a better player. Free agents signed to longer contracts do indeed appear to start more games than players signed to shorter contracts. The following table illustrates this point:
 

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