Are free agents worth the money?

One of the most interesting parts of the NFL offseason is free agency. Players sign massive new deals, franchises rebuild or reload and fans get excited about their team’s new acquisitions. Is free agency really all it’s cracked up to be, though? For every Reggie White or Troy Vincent who makes an immediate and lasting impact with their new team, there’s a Larry Brown or a Scott Mitchell who fails miserably and walks off with a bag of cash, leaving a stream of broken dreams and expectations in their wake.

The Washington Redskins perhaps epitomize a team that tries to build its roster through free agency, at least in recent years under owner Daniel Snyder and general manager Vinny Cerrato. Earlier this offseason, they signed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to a massive seven-year contract that could be worth as much as $115 million (depending on performance bonuses).

In recent years, they’ve signed players like Deion Sanders and Adam Archuleta to substantial deals in free agency and then been severely underwhelmed by their performances. The Redskins made Archuleta the highest-paid safety in the game in 2005 with a seven-year, $35 million deal, but turned him into a special-teams only player partway through his first season and then traded him to the Chicago Bears for a sixth-round pick at the end of the campaign. They also signed famed cornerback Sanders to a seven-year, $56 million contract in 2000, but he retired after one disappointing season before later making an impressive comeback with the Baltimore Ravens in 2004.

Kevin Ewoldt, a writer at the Redskins’ blog Hogs Haven, said the chief problem with the Redskins’ free-agency moves is how they see free agency as a quick way to buy success rather than a way to add individual parts to a strong team.

“Free agents should compliment the roster and the core group of players on the squad should push them,” he said. “It is backwards in Washington. The free agents receive their fat checks and simply just play.”

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He said another issue is the frequent coaching turnover, which prevents coaches from putting their own stamp on the franchise’s personnel decisions. Since Snyder took over in 1997, the team has had five different coaches in Norv Turner, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs and Jim Zorn. Schottenheimer and Spurrier each only lasted one year.

“The Redskins are very impatient with coaches, so the new incoming coach has to inherit the current roster and they basically have one to two years for success,” said Ewoldt. “That is a recipe for failure in my eyes. You need continuity.”

There have been some free agent signings that worked for the Redskins, though, notably linebacker London Fletcher, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract in 2007.

“London is the anchor of the Skins defence and is the hands-down vocal leader of the locker room,” said Ewoldt. “He plays with heart and is a true leader.”

Ewoldt figures Haynesworth has a chance to be successful as a Redskin if he remains healthy, but he said the Redskins are likely to continue spending big in free-agency for the foreseeable future regardless of Haynesworth’s impact.

Free agents are sometimes viewed as a way to instil a quick turnaround. If there’s any franchise that could use a turnaround at the moment, it would be the Detroit Lions, who finished last season with the NFL’s first 0-16 record.

Sean Yuille, who manages the Lions’ blog Pride of Detroit, said acquiring free agents to fill positional holes should be a focus for the Lions this offseason.

“I think free agents should play a big role,” he said. “I think once a foundation is established the focus can shift more towards the draft. That way you don’t have to worry about signing so many new players, and if there is a big fish out there that is the missing piece of the puzzle, you can spend the money to sign him.”

Yuille reasons that the Lions’ struggles in recent years may have stemmed from the opposite of the Redskins’ approach.

“Generally, the Lions haven’t broken the bank for somebody,” he said. “That never has been their style. Instead, especially once the Millen era began, the Lions focused on signing guys that wanted to come to Detroit for a reasonable price. That is part of the reason why the Lions have been so bad over the years.”

Yuille doesn’t want Detroit to become the new Washington, though. He advocates a best-of-both-worlds approach instead.

“I would prefer the Lions not go out and spend money like the Redskins do, for example,” he said. “At the same time, it is not smart to sit back and sign only players that are willing to come in for a cheap price. I think the Lions need to find a healthy medium where they can make a big splash every once in a while and also maintain a comfortable salary cap.”

Another franchise that’s run into problems with free agents over the years is the Arizona Cardinals. In 2003, they signed legendary running back Emmitt Smith to a two-year, $7 million contract after he was cut by the Dallas Cowboys. Smith put up 17,162 yards over 13 seasons with the Cowboys and was one of their biggest stars, but he was 34 by the time he came to the desert and only recorded 1,193 yards over the next two seasons with the Cardinals.

Duane Starks was an underwhelming cornerback with the Baltimore Ravens, but stepped it up during their Super Bowl run in 2000-2001 and was promptly rewarded by the Cardinals with a $23 million deal that included a $5 million signing bonus. He spent three injury-riddled years with the team, recording five interceptions and one touchdown.

Dexter Jackson came from a similar mode; he wasn’t especially notable as a safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers until he recorded two interceptions in Super Bowl XXXVII and was named the game MVP, but he parlayed that into a five-year, $14 million dollar deal with the Cardinals in the 2003 off-season. He turned in a decent performance for the Cardinals that year, recording six interceptions, but was soon hit by injuries and was released the next year.

Will Leitch, founder and editor emeritus of the famed sports blog Deadspin, is a writer for New York Magazine and one of the most prominent Cardinals fans out there. Leitch said the moves to acquire Smith, Starks and Jackson were inherently flawed.

“I think those moves were doomed from the start, frankly,” he said. “They were trying to patch huge holes with old, mouldy band-aids. They were reactionary, responding to circumstances rather than being proactive. And they were just lazy.”

The Cardinals’ fortunes have changed in recent years, though. Once the league’s designated punchline, they advanced to Super Bowl XLIII last season and lost by less than a touchdown against the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ve gone from ill-advised free agent signings to patching necessary holes, and have had much more success as a result. Leitch ascribes the change in fortunes to the team’s new management, headed by head coach Ken Wisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves.

“The new regime isn’t lazy,” Leitch said. “They might make mistakes, but they’re good faith, educated mistakes. That makes a big difference.”

Coincidentally, the aforementioned Steelers take a very atypical approach to free agency. The team rarely makes a big splash in the free agent market, and often even elects to let their own talented players walk in free agency rather than overpaying. A key example is guard Alan Faneca, a regular All-Pro selection who was an essential part of the Steelers’ victory in Super Bowl XL.

Faneca had been a Steeler for his entire career and was regarded as one of the league’s top linemen, but the Steelers allowed him to leave for the New York Jets in free agency after the 2007 season, where he became the league’s highest-paid lineman. The team replaced him with inexperienced guard Chris Kemoeatu and went on to win the Super Bowl again. They made a similar move with outside linebacker Joey Porter, a frequent Pro Bowler who left to sign a five-year, $32-million deal with the Miami Dolphins in 2007. Both players have had successful seasons since their departure, but the team has excelled without them.

Michael Bean, site founder and editor of the popular Steelers’ blog Behind the Steel Curtain, perhaps better known as his alias Blitzburgh, said the team’s front office has demonstrated time and time again that it can put a successful team on the field without blowing big dollars in free agency or retaining players. He said the key is to locate which players offer the most value for money.

“The Steelers’ front office has a nearly impeccable track record of deciding when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em,” he said. “In the case of Alan Faneca, there’s just no way to match an offer that made him the highest paid guard in the league. Doesn’t make sense any way you carve it up. Same with a guy like Joey Porter, who certainly has proven he has a thing or two left in the tank. But there were James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley ready to step in his place, and at a very, very small fraction of the cost.”

Bean said the team is still active in the free-agent market, but their front office focuses on cheap, under-utilized players who can fill a need for the Steelers.

“The Steelers’ philosophy with regards to signing other teams’ free agents is one of caution and prudence,” he said. “You’ll rarely see the Steelers compete in high-priced bidding wars for high-profile free agents like Albert Haynesworth, particularly if the FAs are over 30 years of age or past their peak window physically. What you will see the Steelers do is go after undervalued guys coming off their first contract: guys like Mewelde Moore, Keyaron Fox, et cetera. In many instances, the Steelers’ scouting department simply sees something in other guys that other teams do not, and in others (instances), there’s simply situations with other teams’ rosters that account for why they’re available in the first place.”

Recently, though, the Steelers did make a big play to resign defensive player of the year James Harrison to a six-year, $51.75 million contract extension. Harrison was an undrafted free agent out of college who became a special-teams threat for the Steelers before stepping into a starting role after Porter’s departure. He went on to set a team record with 16 sacks this season while still playing on special teams and recorded a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, the longest play in Super Bowl history. There assuredly would have been plenty of suitors for Harrison, who was entering the final year of his contract, but the Steelers elected to make him the second-highest paid player in franchise history (behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger). To some, this might seem like a change in organizational philosophy given Harrison’s age of 30, but Bean doesn’t see it that way.

“In Harrison’s case, he’s just been the best value in the league the past two years… period,” he said. “And I think that part of this contract represents some ‘re-payment’ of sorts for being so amazing at such a small cost. And I think that his unparalleled work ethic makes him a safer bet to stay healthy and productive in the coming years than most guys his age. (He) was apparently back in the weight room two days after the Super Bowl and was ticked off that none of his teammates were joining him there. Translation? This guy eats, drinks and sleeps football – and from what has been relayed on to me from sources closer to the team than me – that’s the number-one thing the front office looks for in their determination of who to draft and invest in long term.”

Bean thinks the team will continue their low-key philosophy in the free-agent market in the coming years, and he’s fine with that.

“I’d sum up the team’s overall approach to free agents in one sentence – if you feel you have the best scouting department in the National Football League and are capable of finding talent year in and year out with more consistency than the rest of the league – why dabble too aggressively in a system that’s designed for the players’ financial benefit rather than trusting in one’s ability to fill personnel needs with younger, cheaper guys whenever possible?”

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