Evaluating the first week of free agency, Part 1

(Ed. note: Ditka in a Box will be picking up some of my posts going forward; this is the first one that will be cross-posted there. You can view it on their site here.)

Even though every NFL fan wants to talk about and evaluate free agent signings, and wants opinions on how well their team handled the process, it can be unproductive to call teams “winners” and “losers” at this point in the offseason. (Remember two years ago, when we all thought Philadelphia were huge winners for the “Dream Team” signings? Now everyone involved is out of a job.) That said, I’m going to try anyway.

The only real thing I think we can accurately identify is how much players were paid relative to their talent. We still don’t know how they will fit into their new team’s scheme, or if their production will fall off as they get older. All we can really do is evaluate how good we think they are and if they’re being paid accordingly.

With that in mind, I have three basic classifications for veteran free agents:

  • Stars
  • Above-average players
  • Replaceable players

The biggest mistake teams make in free agency is paying players like they belong to the group above them; i.e. giving above-average players star contracts, or replaceable players decent contracts.

Now, the Winner’s Curse phenomenon suggests that, almost by definition, any free agent is going to be overpaid, as his “true value” is likely to be closer to the average of the offers received, yet he will almost always take the highest one. I’m not going to nitpick contracts like that. For example, let’s take Greg Jennings’ deal to Minnesota, which pays him $47.5 million over five years. Is Jennings worth $9.5 million a year? Probably not. But he could reasonably be worth $7-8 million, as he’s still a very good receiver when healthy. (It is possible that his age and injury concerns mean he won’t live up to that, but bear with me.) When I talk about poor spending, I’m not talking about contracts that pay slightly more than a player is worth. I’m talking about giving a $5 million player $12 million, a player worth $2-3 million a year getting $7-8 million, or a replacement-level player getting a multi-year $3-4 million/year contract.

It’s pretty widely accepted by now that you can’t simply build a team through free agency. (Free agents are expensive and often have already seen their best years.) All you can really do is plug one or two leaks or weak spots in your team– but the foundation of that team needs to be homegrown. Free agency is best used either by contending teams to patch holes, or by bad teams to import a star or two to build around.

With that in mind, I’ll be evaluating teams based on those two things:

  1. Did they spend appropriately?
  2. Did they find specific weaknesses to fix, or did they just throw money around?

I’ll take a look at some teams’ approach this first week, and outline what I like and don’t like. Today, we’ll start with two teams whose moves have my approval, as they each used free agency to address a couple of their weakest areas:

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have easily had my favorite offseason of any team in the league. They finished last season 11-5 and were playing like a title contender except for two glaring holes: wide receiver and pass rusher. Sidney Rice hasn’t lived up to the promise suggested by his huge 2009 in Minnesota, and when Chris Clemons went down in the playoffs with a torn ACL, nobody else could pick up the slack. (Bruce Irvin showed flashes of greatness as a pass rusher his rookie year, but they were only flashes; he is still very raw.)

Give Seattle credit for immediately targeting and addressing these weaknesses. The team traded several draft picks, including this year’s first-rounder, for Percy Harvin, a legitimate star receiver who then received a star contract from the Seahawks. Harvin immediately becomes the best wide receiver on the team, a multi-dimensional threat who can be used creatively in conjunction with Russell Wilson’s rushing ability. Harvin often took snaps out of the backfield in Minnesota; he may not have to do that here, but his speed and versatility mean he can be used in a wide variety of ways. For a team that needed help in the passing game, and could only benefit even more in the rushing game by having another player for the defense to worry about, Harvin is an ideal fit. (And while I am loath to trade first-round picks, Seattle’s was #25 in a fairly weak draft; they were not going to find a player better than Harvin with it.)

Similarly, the signings of Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett fill the need for a pass rush in a big way. Bennett in particular is underrated; he was very effective at generating pressure beyond simple sack totals, and he’s a sound run stopper as well. Adding these guys to the front four will allow the team to trot out a serious rush on passing downs; even if Clemons never regains his form and is cut, Avril, Bennett, and Irvin can team up to attack the quarterback.

What’s most astounding about the two defensive signings is how cheaply they came. Avril, who turns 27 next month and is coming off 29 sacks in three years, was expected to get a deal close to the 5-year, $40.5 million contract Paul Kruger signed with the Browns. Instead, Avril agreed to a deal with Seattle for two years and $15 million. The shorter deal is probably more commensurate with his true ability, but still, it’s hard to believe no one wanted to pay him more than that.

What’s even more shocking is that Bennett, Tampa Bay’s only consistent pass rusher last season, signed a 1-year, $5 million contract. Bennett is a better all-around player than Avril; it’s mind-boggling that no one wanted to offer him more. I wouldn’t have thought twice if a team handed him a 4-year, $32 million deal. In both these cases, Seattle has acquired a solidly above-average player for above-average money, without a lengthy star deal that could tie up cap room for years down the road.

And, more to the point, Seattle’s major moves this offseason have addressed their major leaks. As a playoff team in possible contention for a Super Bowl title, fixing those leaks could mean the difference between hoisting the Lombardi Trophy or going home in January.

Now they don’t have to reach for a rookie in the draft to fill a position right away; they don’t have to pass on a talented player to take a “need” player (which is almost always a mistake in the draft, unless that “need” is “franchise QB”). Even though the results remain to be seen, this is, in theory, about as perfect a use of free agency as you’ll find in the league: Two major holes filled with players who are getting reasonable money for their production.

Denver Broncos

While the Broncos’ holes weren’t as immediate or obvious (an easy thing to cover when you go 13-3), they were certainly there. The team hasn’t replaced John Fox with someone who’s not afraid to win games at the last minute, but has made several upgrades at positions that were weak or wanting last season.

The team opened free agency by signing guard Louis Vasquez away from the Chargers. Vasquez, who was probably around the 10-12 range in the guard rankings (and is more valuable as an asset, considering his age), was San Diego’s only competent o-lineman last year, and the team got him at a relative steal– four years, $23.5 million; not cheap, but less than half of what the Titans gave Andy Levitre. Vasquez turns 26 next month and will upgrade the weakest spot on the Broncos’ line. Chris Kuper was serviceable when healthy, but he wasn’t any more than serviceable, and he wasn’t healthy all that often: he missed nine games last year, and he’s now on the wrong side of thirty.

I also liked the team picking up Dominique Rogers-Cromartie on a one-year deal. The DRC has a mixed reputation; some people think of him as an electrifying athlete capable of making big plays in pass coverage, while others consider him an inconsistent cover man and shoddy tackler who gives up on plays. He’s great here because the risk is minimal and he won’t need to be a star: even if Champ Bailey falls off (and he was looking his age in the playoff game against Baltimore), Chris Harris, Jr. has developed into a fine starter, and Tony Carter is a very solid player at nickel back. Even if Champ has to move to safety and the Tracy Porter signing continues to be a bust (he simply can’t stay healthy), DRC-Harris-Carter is a fine cornerback trio.

Of course, when it comes to the Broncos’ week, the move most people are talking about is the signing of Wes Welker away from the Patriots. On the surface, it doesn’t seem necessary, as Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were both soundly productive, but Welker fills such a unique role that I think it’s a great deal. For a two-year, $12 million contract, the team lands a reliable slot receiver who can move the chains in short yardage and alleviate the team’s need to rely on mediocre tight ends (Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreesen were both backups for their previous teams) or Peyton Manning’s personal slot caddy, 66-year-old Brandon Stokley. The passing game was, of course, the centerpiece of the offense last year, but this was its one weak spot, and unless Welker suddenly drops off a cliff, that spot has been filled. Even though he is soon to be 32, Welker does not figure to drop off soon, as his game is predicated on precise route-running and steady hands, not athleticism or straight-line speed.

Next Time: New regimes go hog wild and let their spending get a little out of hand.

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