2014 NFL free agency: Will big spenders be rewarded?

Kevin C. Cox

Bad teams spend a lot of money in free agency and oftentimes those players perform well, but that doesn't always translate to wins. We take a look at the big spenders over the last couple of years and how that relates to this season.

We're well into the NFL free agency period, and while there's plenty left to go down, many of the big-name players have already agreed to big-name deals and we already have some teams spending a whole lot of money.

With an ever-increasing salary cap, we're seeing bigger and bigger contracts, and teams racing to slide just under the maximum salary. This year, the cap is set at $133 million, and we've already seen some pretty significant deals. Of course, most of those won't come front-loaded, but with this increase in cap, teams figure it will continue to go up, especially when the new television contracts hit next season.

That said, we aren't seeing anything totally out of the norm this offseason. Looking back at the past two years, there's always at least two or three teams that really go out of their way to break the bank. Some of the biggest contracts we've seen in recent seasons have gone to guys like Mike Wallace ($60 million), Vincent Jackson ($55.5 million), Mario Williams ($96 million) and Peyton Manning ($96 million).

Obviously, of those players, one has significantly out-performed the others: Manning. Other than him, they've been a little disappointing as a whole. Wallace is probably the most disappointing on that list, as he has not been able to get much of anything done in Miami.

This year, we do have some rather sizable contracts worth talking about. Aqib Talib is getting $57 million, Michael Johnson will earn $43.75 million and Jairus Byrd is making $56 million. Those are all huge numbers, but the best way to really lay this out and compare is to go through the biggest spenders in free agency in recent years.

Now, there are a couple things worth noting. First, these aren't all total dollar amounts spent. This year, there's obviously more spending to do, and for both 2012 and 2013 we've tried to make it more about the bigger contracts and not just the total money spent. That means that we haven't added up every $5 million deal or veteran's minimum contract. Most of these numbers factor in $10 million and up.

2012

Team Amount Biggest Contract
Tampa Bay Buccaneers $143 million WR Vincent Jackson $55.5 million
Buffalo Bills $125.5 million DL Mario Williams $96 million
Denver Broncos $124.5 million QB Peyton Manning $96 million
New Orleans Saints $107.5 million OL Ben Grubbs $35 million
St. Louis Rams $96 million CB Cortland Finnegan $50 million
Dallas Cowboys $78.5 million CB Brandon Carr $50 million
Baltimore Ravens $77.52 million CB Lardarius Webb $52 million
Washington Redskins $70.75 million WR Pierre Garcon $42.5 million
Chicago Bears $50.4 million RB Matt Forte $30.4 million
Indianapolis Colts $44.5 million WR Reggie Wayne $17.5 million

Spoilers: the Buccaneers show up on the top 10 spenders list for 2012, 2013 and this year. They like to spend an awful lot of money, and usually on more than one big-name player. After signing Jackson, he played well, putting up 1,384 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2012, but Tampa Bay still only ended up winning seven games that season.

Williams managed to put up 10.5 sacks in 2012, which was productive, but the Bills still have nothing to show for it. He's got a lot left in him though, as does Jackson, so who knows what will happen? We know what's going on with Manning -- he's been fantastic and led the Broncos to a Super Bowl appearance this past season.

But what of big contract busts? Well, the Buccaneers were hurt by Eric Wright, who was given a $37.5 million contract in 2012 and went on to do virtually nothing. The Bills gave Mark Anderson $27.5 million and he didn't pan out. The Broncos invested over $16 million into Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme, both of whom have not been good at all.

The biggest bust on the list is probably Cortland Finnegan, who received a $50 million deal from the St. Louis Rams. Finnegan has since been released after just two seasons with the Rams, and he did little to help them.

The conclusion for 2012 is that, generally speaking, the highest-paid players landing those big contracts did perform up to expectations. Jackson, Williams, Manning and plenty of others have all been putting up great numbers, but in only one of those cases (Denver), those numbers are translating to wins.

2013

Team Amount Biggest Contract
Miami Dolphins $146.1 million WR Mike Wallace $60 million
Indianapolis Colts $132 million OL Gosder Cherilus $35 million
Tennessee Titans $97.2 million OL Andy Levitre $46.8 million
Philadelphia Eagles $95.6 million DL Connor Barwin $36 million
Cleveland Browns $87.1 million LB Paul Kruger $40.5 million
St. Louis Rams $69.1 million TE Jared Cook $35.1 million
Kansas City Chiefs $62.4 million CB Sean Smith $18 million
Chicago Bears $60 million OL Jermon Bushrod $36 million
Tampa Bay Buccaneers $50.4 million S Dashon Goldson $41.25 million
Detroit Lions $49 million CB Chris Houston $25 million

This year is a bit different when it comes to the money. John Clayton of ESPN listed the raw numbers for the top spenders in free agency last year, so these include everybody signed to that point, and not just the biggest. The numbers are mostly consistent: the biggest signings are accounted for in the highest spenders.

That's true for every team but the Kansas City Chiefs. They spread the money around really well, adding key players -- eight in total -- and look where they ended up. Smith ended up being a big part of their push that took them into the playoffs and gave them one of the best records in the NFL.

But as for the teams that spent the most, you have the Miami Dolphins, who made a huge splash ... going nowhere. Wallace was a huge whiff. He had an abysmal 2013 campaign, though he obviously can make a comeback at any time. The Colts are a good team, but some players weren't exactly contributors, such as Ricky Jean-Francois and his surprising $22 million contract.

In fact, almost all of those top spenders in 2013 were bad teams trying to improve, and it's hard to measure the improvement. There weren't huge busts outside of Wallace, though guys like Goldson (Buccaneers) and Delanie Walker (Titans) disappointed at their contract numbers.

2014

Team Amount Biggest Contract
Tampa Bay Buccaneers $121.5 million DL Michael Johnson $43.75 million
Denver Broncos $110 million CB Aqib Talib $57 million
Atlanta Falcons $79.5 million DL Paul Soliai $32 million
Miami Dolphins $73 million OL Branden Albert $47 million
Indianapolis Colts $72 million CB Vontae Davis $39 million
New Orleans Saints $56 million S Jairus Byrd $56 million
Oakland Raiders $53 million OT Austin Howard, $30 million
Baltimore Ravens $49.5 million OT Eugene Monroe $37.5 million
Chicago Bears $47 million DL Lamarr Houston $35 million
Minnesota Vikings $42.5 million DL Linval Joseph $31.25 million

In 2012 and 2013, the list of teams spending the most money was dominated by teams that weren't doing so hot. We see the Buccaneers, Rams and Dolphins multiple times. But this year there seems to be more good teams getting in on things. The Broncos, Falcons, Saints and Colts all showed up before, true, but it's worth noting that these are successful teams who are coming back multiple times.

So are these teams successful because of the moves they've made? Well, the Falcons obviously wouldn't be where they are without Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White, but none of those guys were big free agency pickups. We can say that the Falcons' success primarily came from the draft, but they've been adding some solid contributors over the years until they hit a wall the past two seasons.

Could spending big on guys like Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson ($25 million) and Jon Asamoah ($22.5 million) push Atlanta over the hump? Possibly -- spending big certainly helped the Broncos. In their case, it was spending big on Manning. He got a huge contract, and he orchestrated the most productive offense in the NFL this past season. But Denver has gone right back to the well this offseason, with huge deals in the secondary and on the defensive side of the ball in general.

The biggest issue the Broncos had last season was its secondary, and it's clear their strategy was to go out and spend big rather than invest in the draft. The reason for that is simple: Manning is getting older. The Broncos might just be in a unique position with their approach to free agency.

New Orleans, Indianapolis and Baltimore all spent big money, but they all seem like level-headed deals. New Orleans' decision to get Byrd, the top safety on the market, was a bit surprising, but it still makes a lot of sense when it comes to shoring up a big hole in a defense built to win now. The Saints might be putting themselves in a risky situation with the cap later on, but Drew Brees is not getting any younger.

The basic trends throughout these seasons are easy to see: bad teams spend a lot of money, those players tend to perform well, but those teams are still fundamentally flawed. Most of those teams have quarterback issues, which you generally are not going to solve in free agency. Some things have to be figured out in the NFL Draft and that's not likely to ever change. Good teams sometimes spend a lot of money, though that has only been seriously franchise-altering in the case of Manning to this point. Like all years, it's another wait-and-see approach with this one.

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