What to expect in free agency

Free Agency officially begins on March 10 this year. It is impossible to predict what will happen once the gates open but looking at last year will at least provide some hints as to what is likely to occur. Free agents can be placed in two groups. The first is the largest and consists of restricted and unrestricted free agents whose contracts have expired. The second group is players who have been released or otherwise terminated with their prior team having no claim on them. This second group is not part of the “official” free agent process so the March 10 date does not apply. This article does not differentiate between the two groups except where noted. What can we learn from the 2014 free agent process and the following 2014 season?   FREE AGENTS ARE OF MODEST IMPORANTANCE IN BUILDING A TEAM The combination of both the free agent groups and the handful of trades that take place accounted for about 135,000 plays from scrimmage, or 18% of all 2014 scrimmage plays. (Rookie undrafted free agent signings are not included in this category, but are in the rookie numbers presented below.) Here is how the 2014 free agent signings fit into the big picture, with the players column representing the number of players who played at least one play from scrimmage in 2014. As always, though, numbers do not tell the whole story. The Broncos added three quality defensive starters through free agency. The Patriots solidified their defensive backfield by adding Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Patrick Chung. The Seahawks, on the other hand, only added Kevin Williams to its defensive line. Williams was significant even though he who played only about half the defensive snaps. More about the Seahawks later.   THERE WILL BE PLENTY OF EARLY SIGNINGS A lot of early signings can be anticipated when the free agency period does begin. In 2014 more than half the players either signed with a new team or resigned with their old team within three weeks. Over one-third of the 139 players who changed teams in the first three weeks did so in the FIRST TWO DAYS of free agency. Also, there is a tendency to focus on the high salary contracts with long duration but those are really not the majority. The 139 early signings can be broken down by contract length as follows:   RELATIVELY FEW FREE AGENTS PROVIDE MOST OF THE IMPACT Focusing on veteran players that changed teams and saw the field, there were a total of 401 players signed in free agency or acquired in trades that participated in at least one play from scrimmage in 2014. The 111 players who participated in 500 or more scrimmage plays accounted for over 65% of all scrimmage plays by free agents. The 98 players who participated in between 200 and 499 scrimmage plays accounted for an additional 24-25% of the scrimmage plays. This means that slightly more than half the 401 players participated in about 90% of the scrimmage plays. This is summarized below: THERE ARE MANY MORE ONE-YEAR CONTRACTS THAN ANY OTHER CONTRACT LENGTH The above player groupings can be broken down by contract length. This table shows that 2014 free agents who signed one-year contracts are most prevalent.   SOME PLAYING POSITIONS SEEM TO BE MORE HIGHLY VALUE IN FREE AGENCY Are there differences by playing position? Sure there are. The differences are shown in the following table. Two things jumped out at me. First, is the small number of running backs that are involved in scrimmage plays with a new team. Second, offensive linemen, wide receivers, defensive linemen and defensive backs represented over 80% of the total plays from scrimmage from 2014 free agents.   SIGNING FREE AGENTS IS NOT A PANCEA: LOSING FREE AGENTS IS NOT A TRAGEDY It is difficult to draw any conclusions by team because the situation often changes from one year to the next. Some teams do have a definite strategy regarding retention versus chasing free agents (as discussed in an earlier article), but most use free agency to plug holes. The next two tables show the teams with the fewest and then the most scrimmage plays from 2014 free agents. The final table summarizes scrimmage plays from (1) 2014 free agents signed, (2) 2014 free agents lost and (3) the net difference for each NFL team. Better teams tend to lose players simply because they have better players or because of a change in the environment (new coach, dissatisfaction with team management, etc.). The Seahawks are impressive because they lost a number of players who moved on to become starters for others, signed very few free agents and still remained successful. Six Seahawks (Brandon Browner, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Breno Giacomini, Clinton McDonald and Golden Tate) were lost in free agency and went to start for other teams. Plus, Percy Harvin was traded in mid-season and TE Zach Miller and DT Brandon Mebane were lost to injury. Kudos to the Seahawks front office as they managed the loss of these players with virtually no free agent signings and moved on to the Super Bowl. The Tampa Bay Bucs are at the other end of the spectrum. The Bucs had both the highest number of 2014 scrimmage plays signed and lost. Their off-season activities looked promising as only Darrelle Revis shaped up as a significant loss and Alterraun Verner was signed in free agency to mitigate that loss. The Bucs added Anthony Collins, Evan-Dietrich Smith and Logan Mankins (through trade) to their offensive line while cutting ties with Jeremy Zuttah (trade), Ted Larsen and Donald Penn. Josh McCown was brought into play quarterback after a good 2013 season for the Bears but was just cut by the Bucs after a disappointing season. They also added Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald to bolster their defensive line. The new offensive linemen did not live up to expectations and Michael Johnson bordered on being terrible. The net result was that the Bucs suffered a significant net downgrade through free agency. Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics

Upcoming Games