Some teams really don’t get how free agency works. In theory, free agency can be an invaluable opportunity to improve your roster with a careful selection of the right players at the right price in March.
Unfortunately, it can also be the perfect way to cripple your franchise by throwing wasted money at players that will never justify the contract.
Teams always like to try and build through the draft (with a couple of notable exceptions), but the real differentiator in the NFL is how badly teams can manage to screw up in free agency.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts from this first week of the madness.
1) The Redskins are taking baby steps.
I can’t say I’m wild on most of the moves that Washington has made, and as you would expect, they have overspent with reckless abandon, but I can at least see what they’re trying to do this season. This time the Redskins at least seem to have some kind of game plan, rather than just a shopping list for Daniel Snyder’s real-life game of fantasy football. That is progress.
They’ve made a point to target younger players that they think can help them going forward. Having just orchestrated a blockbuster trade to snag Robert Griffin III in the draft, they’re going to try and surround him with young talent and build a team that can compete long-term. That’s an attitude to admire; the only problem is the players they’re actually targeting. Pierre Garcon has talent, but he’s never really looked like a player that’s waiting to break out in the right opportunity, and that is an awful lot of money to commit to him. On the other side of the ball, Brandon Meriweather has always been more underachiever than production, and I can’t really see that move working out either.
The important thing though is not that they’re overspending for questionable talent, it’s the fact that for the first time in a while they’re working from a coherent, and frankly, sensible plan of attack. That bodes well long-term for Redskins fans.
2) A.J. Smith and Norv Turner really are quite competent.
It seems an almost annual witch-hunt to rid the Chargers of Smith and Turner, and while both guys are flawed, they really are both extremely competent at what they do. Smith can be an amazingly stubborn force that occasionally comes back around to bite the Chargers, and Norv has his issues on game day, but the pair combines to maintain the Chargers roster at an extremely high level of talent and their performance year on year pretty good.
This season they went into free agency prepared to lose Vincent Jackson, arguably their biggest weapon over the past few seasons, but they also recognized that the biggest problem facing them was the O-line, not Jackson’s potential loss. Last season the injury to Marcus McNeil was a disaster for Philip Rivers and the Chargers, but the serendipitous signing of Jared Gaither revived the season. The Chargers locked Gaither down to a long-term deal and secured center Nick Hardwick as well, ensuring that Rivers can at least relax a little in the pocket, rather than mentally counting the seconds to the impending blind side shot coming at him when he drops back to pass.
Adding Robert Meachem at a reasonable price to add to their receiving corps was another fine move and Atari Bigby is a guy who can give them some stable play next to Eric Weddle in the secondary. He essentially replaces Bob Sanders, who was brought in last offseason but rather predictably shattered into small pieces a short while into the season. Bigby doesn’t have the talent of Sanders, but he should prove far less brittle.
3) The schematic balance in the NFL continues to shift.
One of the dynamics that is always interesting to watch in free agency is where teams assign their money–a reflection of what positions they deem to be the most valuable.
This offseason cornerbacks are raking in big money, but the shift in value seems to have come at the cost of linebackers, who are once again experiencing a slow market. Last offseason several high profile and talented players saw a complete lack of interest and ended up signing on for cheap, short contracts in the hope that they could try again down the road. At the time some of this was put down to the chaotic and truncated nature of post-lockout free agency, but now it looks more like the league has begun to value smaller defensive backs who can play the pass over linebackers, many of whom are now rendered two-down players by the ever expanding passing game. Nickel corners and two-down linebackers will play a similar number of snaps in today’s NFL, but teams seem to believe they can plug the gap left by a two-down linebacker easier than they can that of a defensive back.
The knock-on effect seems to have hit the entire linebacker market though, with teams waiting for somebody to make the first move to set the market for even accomplished three-down linebackers. The NFL has shifted towards smaller, faster players that can play the pass, and right now everybody is waiting for somebody to reset the market on linebackers.
4) Some teams evidently don’t watch tape
The Vikings signed John Carlson to a healthy contract worth around $5m a season. It’s a five-year contract that can be dumped after two seasons, but regardless, the only way you could decide that is good value is if the last bit of John Carlson tape you watched featured a golden dome and Touchdown Jesus. Carlson has been a poor blocker for as long as he has been a pro, and even when he was racking up catches it was through sheer weight of targets more than impressive play. He has at best been an above average receiver, and only then for a short period of time. This is a move that seems speculative at best, blindfolded dart-throwing at worst.
Minnesota wasn’t the only team making personnel moves by using the force, the Arizona Cardinals re-signed Levi Brown, and added RG Adam Snyder for five years apiece. Levi Brown has been a consistent disaster for as long as he was in Arizona (bar the final seven games of his season in 2011 where he presumably figured a glimpse of legitimate play would be enough to earn him another payday–correctly as it turns out). Snyder has been a poor linemen in multiple positions for the 49ers, and given he came from the same division, you’d think the Cardinals really should have known better. Even a cursory examination of some game tape would tell you that you would struggle to form a poorer right side of an offensive line, but the Cardinals appear to have done it anyway.
Given the millions of dollars at stake teams should be doing better than that.
5) Quarterback Dominos
The NFL is starved for quality quarterback play. The quarterback was already the hardest position in sports to play, and its importance is only increasing. Eli Manning amongst others has proven that there are few issues in a team that great quarterback play cannot overcome. That’s why a full dozen teams reportedly enquired about Peyton Manning after he was released by the Colts.
The Manning sweepstakes is now only down to a couple, but the market for Matt Flynn, another potential answer to a team’s QB issues, is being hampered by the shadow of the Kevin Kolb deal last season. Flynn has shown huge ability in flashes, and teams have thrown big money at those players before, but his current options seem reluctant to pay him for performance that they can’t guarantee he’ll hit. The Cardinals sunk a lot of money into Kevin Kolb on similar potential, and after a stinking first season in the desert, they just had to bite the bullet and pay him another $7m bonus because they have no viable alternative. Nobody wants to repeat that same mistake with Matt Flynn, while the evidence of what it means if you guess wrongly staring them so plainly in the face.