NFL Free Agency: Fools Gold?

March 20 2012; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen (left) and quarterback Peyton Manning (center) and executive vice president for football operations John Elway pose for a photo during a press conference at Broncos headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

If a team wants to get better there's really only three ways to do it. They can improve through the draft, trade for a player, or sign a free agent. I suppose there's also a fourth way which involves firing your head coach who found his offensive coordinator by scouring retirement homes and required every offensive play to be so simple it could be drawn in the dirt with your finger, and replacing him with someone who can actually coach, but will just stick with the first three.

Since the free agency period and draft are so vitally important to a team's continued success, a lot of time is spent analyzing those moves by the fans and media. The fans spend countless hours debating and discussing with others in sports bars and message boards everywhere their thoughts on the various moves, while the media ultimately lets us know which teams improved the most by creating lots of winners and losers stories. It's actually a requirement in every sports writer's contract that they need to write a certain number of winners/losers stories every year, as well as punny headlines, and top 10 lists.

With the free agency period now several weeks old and the draft still several weeks away, winners/losers lists are starting to pop up all over sports sights everywhere. They're like a wack-a-mole game. You just finish reading one and another one pops up.

But does landing the big name free agent really mean your team is better? The Broncos "won" the Peyton Manning sweepstakes but what if he's not able to fully come back from his neck surgery? What if he's only a shell of his former self? Not only will the Broncos have wasted more money than the entire annual gross domestic product of a small country, I'm looking at you Tuvalu as long as you haven't sunk into the ocean yet, but they'll be back at square one with no future QB of any kind.

Just look at what happened to the Eagles last season. They brought in Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Vince Young, and Ronnie Brown, as well as resigning Michael Vick to a fat new contract. Everyone agreed they were the clear winners last year and all it amounted to was an 8-8 season.

Meanwhile the 49ers splashiest free agent acquisition last year was Braylon Edwards. Besides him most of the players they signed didn't generate a ton of excitement. Just look at the names of some of those players: Carlos Rodgers, Donte Whitner, Larry Grant, Blake Costanzo, and David Akers. Yet in hindsight I think most would agree the 49ers improved more with their free agent signings than the Eagles did.

So I thought I'd go back and look at some of the previous winners of free agency starting in 2007. Why 2007? I don't know, why not?

More after the jump...

2007

Ok, I lied. There actually was a reason I wanted to start in 2007 and it's because 2006 was a boom year for teams signing free agents. Steve Hutchinson signed with the Vikings, Charles Woodson went to the Packers, and Drew Brees joined the Saints. I can't remember any other year where 3 big name players changed teams and continued to play at such an extremely high level. Of course that was also the year Adam Archuleta signed with the Redskins before he flamed out and had success on American Idol (it's the same guy right?) and the Cowboys brought in Mike Vanderjagt to fix their kicking situation, but you can't expect every signing with every team to work out.

So in 2007 the consensus winner of free agency was...drum roll please...the 49ers. Just check out some of the names in the bumper crop of free agents the 49ers had in 2007:

Nate Clements CB

Michael Lewis S

Tully Banta-Cain OLB

Ashley Lelie WR

Darrell Jackson WR (acquired via trade with 4th round pick)

Yes, the 49ers were a team on the move. Alex Smith had made huge strides in 2006 and now the 49ers were ready to take over the division. Too bad none of these players ever really panned out, Smith's development stalled when Norv Turner signed with the Chargers, and the 49ers continued to muddle along for several more years.

The other big winner that year was the Patriots who signed the biggest name on the market, LB Adalius Thomas. The experts seemed to think the Patriots off season would have been even better if they hadn't overpaid by sending a 2nd and 7th round pick to the Dolphins for some undersized WR named Wes Welker.

Thomas lasted only 3 years in New England before being cut and has been out of football ever since.

Other key signings

DE Jared Allen to the Vikings (stud)

OG Alan Faneca to the Jets (bust)

TE Alge Crumpler to the Titans (mild bust)

RB Ahman Green to the Texans (bust)

2008

The winners of free agency in 2008 were clearly the Browns. One writer at SI said of their off season moves:

The Browns were a 10-win team in 2007, just like AFC North champion Pittsburgh. With the Steelers making no real noise thus far, it seems to me the Browns have closed the gap on Pittsburgh and then some. That makes Cleveland the team to beat in its division.

Really, I'm not making that up. So who did they sign? Well they resigned QB Derek Anderson for three more years, traded for defensive lineman Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers, and threw a gigantic pile of money at WR Donte Stallworth. Stallworth finished his time in Cleveland with a grand total of 17 catches for 170 yards, Anderson reverted to his previous mediocre self, Williams was solid but was gone after only 2 seasons, and Rogers had one great year, one OK year, and one horrible year before being cut.

Other key signings

S Asante Samual to the Eagles (solid but now being shopped for trade)

WR Bernard Berrian to the Vikings (bust)

RB Michael Turner to the Falcons (well worth the money)

DT Justin Smith to the 49ers (a total and complete beast)

2009

In 2009 the big winners seemed to be the Redskins. Everyone recognized the Redskins had made a bad habit of overpaying for players in the past but that didn't seem to be the case this time when they signed Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million contract. One article said of the deal and of the Redskins overspending in the past:

The most recent example came last weekend when the Redskins signed Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million contract, except unlike most of his free-agent predecessors Haynesworth is in the prime of his career and arguably the best defensive tackle in football. Of course, the skins also gave DeAngelo Hall $54 million, which seems like a lot given that he's been nothing more than average during his five-year career.

That shows perfectly just how little we all really know. Haynesworth was an enormous failure in Washington while Hall has actually proven himself to be worth the money they gave him.

The other big winner that year was the Chiefs for getting a deal done with the Patriots for QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel. Vrabel played two years with the Chiefs before retiring and was decent, but I think they wanted him more for his leadership. As for Cassel, well I guess that's what happens when you take a QB surrounded by tons of talent and put him on a team with, let's say, not so much talent. See Kevin Kolb and possibly Matt Flynn.

Other key signings

WR T.J. Houshmanzadeh to the Seahawks (bust)

OLB Bart Scott to the Jets (decent signing but trending down)

S Brian Dawkins to the Broncos (well worth the money)

OT Marvel Smith to the 49ers (who?)

2010

The two teams that got the most praise in 2010 were the Bears and the Lions. The Bears caught the biggest fish when they signed DE Julius Peppers while the Lions were praised for their signings of DT Kyle Vanden Bosch and WR Nate Burleson. However, as with other teams things haven't turned out...wait, you mean things have actually worked out for both these teams? Well I guess it was bound to happen eventually. Peppers is a monster, Vanden Bosch has been a great part of that strong Lions defensive line, and Burleson has provided a solid second target for Matthew Stafford.

Other key signings

LB Karlos Dansby to the Dolphins (living up to expectations)

CB Daunte Dunta Robinson to the Falcons (solid but might be a little overpaid)

So what does all this tell us? I guess first and foremost, that like the draft you really can't know for sure how things are going to work out until several years later. Secondly, more times than not the really big name signings don't work out. They usually either perform below expectations or they end up being a complete bust. Only occasionally do they perform at a level equal to their pay. But there's probably a reason for that.

Most teams are very reluctant to let a franchise player leave and can usually lock them down long term before they ever become free agents. And when they can't they simply slap the franchise tag on them. So when a big name free agent finally does hit the open market, you can't help but wonder if there's something his old team knows about him and it's why he's now a free agent. Time and time again we see teams who "win" when they sign a star player only to find out later they really lost.

There's something else we can take from this as well. While really high priced free agents usually don't live up to expectations, the more moderately priced ones often times do. That's probably because of the salary cap. Teams won't let their star players go but they regularly have to let others go for salary cap reasons. That's probably where the best deals are to be had in the free agent market and why the top teams build through the draft and supplement with modest free agent acquisitions and trades while avoid breaking the bank on the top free agent prizes. It's probably also why those teams are usually the ones winning on Sunday as well.

Now remind me again who got the biggest free agent prize after Manning? That's right, it was the Bills who landed Mario Williams. Sorry Bills fans, but at least you have good wings.

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