Caveat emptor is Latin for "Let the buyer beware". In a nutshell it means that if you buy something and it turns out to not be what you thought it was or were hoping for you are S.O.L. The same rule applies when it comes to the NFL and free agency. Every year there are some big name free agents out on the market and every year there are a few teams willing to spend way too much to sign those players.
In 2011 everyone was raving about the Eagles and their supposed "Dream Team". Newly signed free agent Jason Babin even went so far as to compare the Eagles to the Miami Heat, but maybe that was because Vince Young held a special program on their local public access TV network announcing he was taking his talents to Philadelphia. He then got Cullen Jenkins and Ronnie Brown to stand on a stage while the West Philadelphia High School marching band played in the background as they announced they were going to win 6 Super Bowls.
Last year it was the Bills and Buccaneers who were making waves with all their free agent signings. While the Bucs did improve from a 4-12 team in 2011 to a 7-9 team last season, a lot of that improvement could have come because of their new coaching staff and Josh Freeman improving from a below average QB two seasons ago to a...kind of average QB this last season.
Meanwhile the Bills won just as many games in 2012 as they did in 2011, which was six, and their playoff drought is now at an NFL high 13 straight seasons. Yes, even the Browns have reached the playoffs more recently than the Bills. At least their fans can still rock Zubaz sweatpants to games without fear of being mocked. What would you be more embarrassed to wear, Zubaz sweatpants or a Steelers throwback jerseys? I don't know about you but I'm going to sport both at the same time and cause traffic accidents as I walk down the street.
Does this mean NFL teams should avoid the free agency market all together? The answer is obviously "no". Part of the 49ers recent success has been their ability to find quality free agents. The big difference is they're not breaking the bank in doing it. They signed players like Carlos Rodgers, Donte Whitner, and Randy Moss to modest short term contracts to augment a team that's been largely built through the draft. And when it doesn't work, as it didn't with Brandon Jacobs and Braylon Edwards, they can simply cut them without being burdened by a $100 million albatross around their neck.
Anyone who's ever invested money knows any deal that offers minimal risk but a potential high reward based on your initial investment is a great deal. Conversely, anything with a high risk and small return is a bad idea.
When you apply that to free agents you see players like Mario Williams as being high risk investments. If you sign a player to a $100 million contract and he plays at the high level you were hoping for, you're basically getting equal value for your money. But if he plays below expectations, sometimes dramatically as in the case of Albert Haynesworth, you're losing on your investment.
If you then apply that principle to rookies you have players who could possibly far outperform their contract and those teams are getting a much greater return on their investment. Before NaVorro Bowman signed his new contract he was earning only around 500K a year. Colin Kaepernick's rookie contract is a 4 year deal that will pay him just over $5 million.
By comparison Drew Brees signed a 5 year $100 million contract before the start of last season that paid him $40 million in just the first year. I'm not saying Brees isn't worth that kind of money and I'm sure Kaepernick will sign his own fat second contract at some point, but it goes to show what a bargain good draft picks are.
This is hardly new or revolutionary information. Some of the best and most consistent teams in the NFL are the ones that by and large avoid going after big names in the free agent market. The Patriots, for example, would like to re-sign Wes Welker but they're not going to overpay him which means there's a decent chance he could be playing somewhere else next season.
That may seem insane to some that they'd let one of the most prolific receivers in the game today leave, but if they overpay him they run the risk of turning into the 2011 Colts. They were a top heavy team with most of their cap room going to a few star players leaving very little money to fill out the rest of the roster. After Peyton Manning went down with a neck injury we saw just how many holes they had on the team.
A great QB can hide a lot of the team's flaws and it also shows that the QB position is probably the only position on the team where you have to pay up if you have one of the best. It's why you so rarely see top quarterbacks hit the open market and that's usually only when the QB is getting towards the end of his career and the team already has his backup in place.
Again, this is not a new concept and many teams have no problem letting a star player sign elsewhere if they find his demands to exorbitant. Yet there are still plenty of teams with deep pocket owners "cough" Daniel Snyder "cough" that will severely overpay on free agents and will compound the problem by trading away their draft picks to get what they think is the hot player now.
There's also the problem of trying to determine how much of a player's production is because of talent and how much is because of the situation they're playing in. There's a long list of players who put up big numbers on a good team, signed a fat contract with an inferior team, and then watched as their production tumbled. While there are others who are maybe just in the wrong situation but have talent, sign with a new team, and immediately show improvement.
So when they proclaim this year's free agency winners just keep in mind that it's a bit like being proclaimed the winner of an auction. You get the big prize everyone else was bidding on but if by winning you now don't have enough money to pay the mortgage, you didn't really win after all.