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How Effective Is Trying To Improve Through Free Agency In The NFL?

In the heat of NFL free agency, teams are trying very hard to improve, and some are spending a lot of money doing it. It seems like a good time to look at just how successful that idea has been in the past.

Jim McIsaac

Yesterday, I wrote my article looking back at the Dallas Cowboys' 2012 free agent signings. I am looking to find out if going heavily into the free agent market is more often a good or a poor decision for NFL teams. Admittedly, this is trying to find a positive side to Dallas having no money to sign a free agent, and actually having to come up with the cap space to sign their picks before the draft rolls around. The thought, which several have come up with, is that the Cowboys may have been forced into virtue by lack of opportunity, sort of like idea of sending your daughter to an all-girls school. Surrounded by a moat and patrolled by pit bulls with lasers mounted on their heads. If the girls are separated from the boys, their honor will be intact no matter what their intentions.

Having found a pretty decent argument for the pitfalls of trying to fix your team with free agents in the 2012 signings of the Cowboys, I wanted to expand on that. There has been a lot of money spent already, and there is some question about the quality of the acquisitions.

To properly address this, I needed some more information. I wanted to find some kind of research looking into the effectiveness of free agency. I decided to apply the most sophisticated and powerful search engine I could to see what I could come up with.

OCC, as expected, delivered quite promptly. One of the things he pointed me to was a powerpoint presentation looking at free agency in the NFL, as well as MLB and the NBA. This is apparently from a research paper presented by a Ben Singer at Brown University, titled "Show Me the Money: An Analysis of the Impact of Free Agency on NFL Player Performance". Although the slides give a condensed version of what he was looking at, there are some conclusions he drew that are pertinent.

He was actually looking for the effect the contract year has on players. He started with the idea that free agency is not as effective in the NFL as it is in the other two sports (consider the Miami Heat last year and the New York Yankees any time in the past few decades). Then, just to keep the numbers both manageable and to deal with players that had easily quantifiable performance measures, he only looked at quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. And he came to a conclusion that may surprise you: NFL players can't really do much to improve their numbers in a contract year, because individual performance means much less in the NFL than other sports. All NFL players, even the quarterback, are dependent on ten other players in a sport that is much more teamwork driven than basketball or baseball.

What he did find for three of the categories was pretty predictable: They all tend to have poorer performance after they went to a new team. The one exception was the quarterback, and the researcher believes this is because most free agent QBs have been benched by their previous team. They only play a partial season, are not signed by their old team, and put up better numbers starting with the new team largely because they play the whole schedule.

The most interesting conclusions he drew:

  • Below average players make up the majority of the free agent pool - they were not signed by their prior team for a reason, usually dissatisfaction over performance, or sometimes off field issues. The exception is teams that are letting them go for cost reasons alone (or, as someone else put it, "teams that are not trying to win").
  • No significant effect from playing in the "contract year" when adjusted for all factors.
  • All players get significantly worse with age. Quarterbacks do as well, but they have a different pattern to how age affects their performance. Unfortunately, the slides do not explain exactly what he means by this.

Those are arguments against free agency, from what I can see. You usually are getting older players. (Oddly, several Dallas acquisitions in 2012 actually made the team younger than the players they replaced, including Brandon Carr, Kyle Orton, Dan Connor, and, if you just count Kyle Kosier as the player replaced, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau.) And on average, you are getting subpar talent. Obviously, there are exceptions here, such as Wes Welker, Anquan Boldin and Greg Jennings, but most free agents are more like Kevin Ogletree. Looking at who Dallas has parted with so far, they are doing addition by subtraction, and on average that is what happens throughout the league.

Another look at the issue is an article from an economist named Jeff Dominitz, who in addition to having a PhD in economics, also served as the Director of Statistics for the Philadelphia Eagles. The article is undated, but appears to have been written sometime in 2011. I was rather surprised to see this, since the Eagles have in recent years been very active in the free agent market. Well, what was surprising was the title: NFL Free Agents: A Market for Lemons.

He lays out a simple principle:

Hundreds of free agents become available at the start of each new league year. Why do they hit the market rather than re-sign with their team? The answer is simple: the team was not willing to pay the price the player was demanding. In that case, why should some other team want to sign the player when they know less about that player's quality than does his old team? The answer to this question tells you when you should be interested in signing a free agent.

He compared the entire process to buying a used car, and gave three possible reasons you would want to sign a free agent:

  • The players themselves want to go somewhere else, ala the Wes Welker situation, where he reportedly got a matching offer from the Patriots to stay, but did not want to stay because he already knew the team was bringing in Danny Amendola. I did get a chuckle from the illustration Dominitz gave of how players wanted to come to Philadelphia for the opportunity to play with Michael Vick.
  • The free agent may fit your system better than he did his old team's. This may be the case for Marcus Spears, who might fit in better with the Ravens now that Dallas has gone to the 4-3.
  • The old team is only parting with them for cost reasons (the "not trying to win" argument I mentioned above).

He then covers the highest paid free agents from 2008 through 2011.

  • Asante Samuel, signed by the 2008 Eagles. Turned in some very good years after leaving a Patriots team that is still having issues in the secondary.
  • Albert Haynesworth, 2009 Washington Redskins. He termed this "historically bad", which I can see.
  • Julius Peppers, 2010 Chicago Bears. This is the example of a player not re-signed by a team that was "not trying to win", and the 2010 Carolina Panthers certainly seemed to fit that description.
  • Nnamdi Asomugha, 2011 Eagles. This is the clue that the article was written in 2011, because he speculates that Scrabble would prove to be an effective signing for Philly. We all know now how that really turned out.

So out of the four top free agents, in terms of dollars, that were examined, two were clear winners, and two were big time losers. (And overall this is not a proud reflection on the NFC East). Those are not really good odds when you are putting those kinds of dollars on the table.

I did look at one article OCC recommended that considered a couple of contracts from 2012 and that has some relationship to the points made above about free agency. Written just over a year ago, Bill Barnwell's All Dollars and No Sense in the NFL in makes the argument that the Houston Texans made a mistake in paying big bucks to lock up Arian Foster, as did the Seattle Seahawks in paying Marshawn Lynch. Now, he argues that those deals were way too big under the salary cap (Foster was guaranteed $21 million and Lynch $17 million), and that may still be accurate. But for the short term, both the deals paid off. Foster ran for 1,424 yards, his second highest total and up exactly 200 yards from 2011, while Lynch had his best year ever with 1,590 yards. This pretty much contradicts Barnwell's conclusion and expectation that the players would not be as valuable in 2012. However, both these were extensions, and in a sense, bears one of the other conclusions: Here, two players, one which was picked up previously as a free agent, were locked up by their teams and kept off the free agent market. In both cases, the deals paid off, at least in the short term, because the team that knew them the best was willing to pay them.

All in all, the articles offer some cautions about free agency. It should only be used in specific instances, and big deals are fairly high risk. So the Cowboys may be benefiting, however unintentionally, from not being able to spend freely this year. It is cold comfort to those of us who wonder just how long they can continue to restructure contracts to manged the cap, but for this year, at least, the team may come out better than if it had more money to throw around.

Now, you may well want to write this off as just the Kool Aid guzzling, grasping at straws view of a Cowboys fan trying to find something good in a bad situation. But this is an idea that is starting to take hold in some odd places. Dan Graziano, writer of the NFC East blog at ESPN, usually is pretty good in his take on things, and he asks the question How desperate are the Cowboys, really? He looks at what the team has, and decides that this is not such a horrible situation for the team after all.

On offense, the Cowboys have excellent players at quarterback, tight end and both starting wide receiver spots. They have a very good running back and left tackle. Can you find fault with any or all of these players? Sure. But on balance, I just gave you 14 starting positions at which the Cowboys are at least above average, and in several cases much better.

The point? Well, as Cowboys fans bemoan the lack of cap space and resultant lack of activity in this first week of free agency, it might be worth remembering that there are some really good players on this team, and that it might not be the kind of team that needed to have a big first week of free agency.

The team does need to do a couple of things in his view, namely draft well and sign some bargain free agents - which is what the team is hopefully poised to do.

At least one other writer also sees this as a situation where the Cowboys may benefit from what they are forced into doing. And nobody accuses Calvin Watkins of being a Dallas homer. He points out that the UFAs Dallas is not re-signing generally are that addition by subtraction thing, and that this restricts the GM in a good way.

This might be a good thing because it allows Jerry Jones not to worry about making a splash in free agency and instead focus on building the team through the draft. There is a positive in all of this: The Cowboys can finally start making moves, not in free agency, but the draft.

When the really hopeful writers like me, an objective observer like Graziano, and a committed pessimist like Watkins all start to come to the same conclusion, well, I really don't know if that is encouraging or a sign of the coming apocalypse. But right now, I will act like it is good news.