Free Agency: Buyer Beware
Readers of my columns may have a sense by now that I am not an advocate of prolific spending on free agents as a method to improve a team. It is a purported quick fix to a problem that, in more cases than not, becomes more of a problem than the problem it was designed to fix. Spending good money on a free agent usually means that another method of improving the team at a certain position -- usually the draft -- has failed, leaving a hole to fill that becomes an expensive problem. Free agency thus often becomes a price that teams pay for not drafting well. It may well compound the problem. When a team signs a free agent, there is instant gratification. The media trumpets the move, the public and fans think the team is doing what it needs to get better, the incoming player and agent are all smiles with their new team and financial windfall, and the moment is all good. At some point in the future, reality sets in that the team is sitting with a big contract that it cannot rid itself of for a few years. The hope is obviously that the player becomes what everyone wants and expects him to be. The reality is that it doesn't happen nearly as much as teams believe it will. Football is different than baseball, where free agency is more seamless. Baseball players hit, field and pitch and can take those skills into different teams, albeit with some strategy differences. Basketball is a team game, but a game involving five players that play offense and defense. Football is schematic, with dramatically different schemes and coverages from team to team. A free agent may have had great success in one scheme only to find limited to no value in another. Thus, free agency can be a dangerous game for easy transfer of ability from one team to another. In the NBA, there were 10 players who signed contracts in the offseason valued at more than 55M. Three are not playing due to injury, and five of the six others are averaging less than 16 points per game (only the Warriors Andris Bierdins is averaging more). So far that money does not seem to be well spent. In the NFL, there are probably at least three teams re-thinking their 2008 strategy in free agency. The Raiders just released one of their marquee signings, DeAngelo Hall, after sinking 8M of a potential 70M into him. Javon Walker is now lost for the season with15 catches in nine games for his 12M in guarantees; Tommy Kelly has four sacks to go with his 15M in guarantees. The Jaguars paid top-of-the-market price for Jerry Porter, a former Raider, and Drayton Florence, a former Charger. Porter has seven catches, and Florence has been underwhelming, especially in light of his 36M contract with 13M in guarantees, with no interceptions. And the Miami Dolphins can be none too pleased with their high-priced acquisitions. They were able to salvage a 7th round pick from the Panthers for Josh McCown and the 2.5M they gave him in February. Ernest Wilford – and his 6M bonus – is playing behind Greg Camarillo -- who just go his own new contract, as the Dolphins learn from experience that rewarding their own may be more productive than rewarding those from other teams. Wilford has produced the following for the Dolphins after ten games: one catch, 15 yards. Recent years' spending has proven to have similar underwhelming results. The 49ers just placed their marquee signing of 2005, Jonas Jennings, on injured reserve after less than two games played this season, marking the third time he has had surgery on his shoulder. His 36M contract with the team will likely be terminated prior to next season. And what do you think the Cardinals think now of the 30.5M contract they gave to Edgerrin James in 2006? (probably about the way the Seahawks feel about the 62M contract they gave to Shaun Alexander that same year). The likelihood of James receiving next year's salary of 5M is about the same as you or I receiving that salary from the Cardinals. To be fair, there are large free agent signings that work. Charles Woodson has been a wonderful addition for the Packers. Kawika Mitchell was a productive free agent for both the Giants and the Bills. Micheal Turner is certainly helping the Falcons this year; Bernard Berrian has provided a deep threat for the Vikings. Much more often than not, however, free agents provide little bang for the buck. In working for a team, we were shown statistics every year by the NFL Management Council reminding us of the meager production from unrestricted free agents, a subtle message from the NFL that money does not buy winning teams. These cautions would fall on deaf ears to the teams that were always in the free agent game and probably not needed for the teams that already were practicing that avoidance, but the message was clear and given out every year: the free agent route is a minefield that has potentially dire financial consequences. Like this year and every year since the start of Free Agency in 1993, however, teams will line up to throw “stupid money” at the prime free agents in the first week of March. A few will be stars, some will be middling, and many will be no better than what the team already had at that position, just more expensive. There is often a reason players are free agents and not previously re-signed by their teams. The phrase "buyer beware" resonates with this form of improving one's team.