For many NFL teams, free agency can be the perfect time to add a missing piece or two to an already strong roster. In fact, many of the most recent Super Bowl champions rode the performances of free agent acquisitions on the way to their respective victories.
The 2016 Patriots saw LeGarrette Blount — signed to a one-year, $1 million contract — break records in the team’s championship run last season. In 2015, the Broncos — a team composed of several marquee free agent additions including Peyton Manning, Emmanuel Sanders, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward — proved that spending in free agency can actually work out in a major way.
It’s not breaking news that teams need to spend at least some money in free agency to assemble a championship-caliber roster. But there isn’t an exact formula, either. On the other hand, screwing up free agency is actually pretty easy.
Here’s how some teams have already done it this year.
1. Overspent on big names
This one’s too obvious. Shelling out huge money for a player who put together a career season in his contract year hardly ever works out. Even in the rare exception where a big-money free agent turns out to be Ndamukong Suh and not the next Albert Haynesworth, it probably isn’t going to do enough to warrant that pay. Overspending can also prevent a losing team from making the free agency signings necessary to propel it in the right direction.
This year, the Los Angeles Rams were one example. Franchising cornerback Trumaine Johnson for the second straight year was one of the more questionable moves of the offseason. The 27-year-old cornerback is a good player, but he had a down year and isn’t worth the $30 million-plus he’ll have made from 2016-17 — especially when the Rams need to do more to help Jared Goff on offense.
One surprising trend in free agency this offseason has been overpaying mediocre offensive tackles. The Carolina Panthers, for example, gave Matt Kalil a five year, $55 million deal after the Minnesota Vikings gladly watched him walk in free agency.
Finally, the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, who made safety Eric Berry and guard Kevin Zeitler the highest-paid players in the league at their respective positions, could come to regret those decisions should either player not live up to what will now be massive expectations.
2. Managed the roster like it’s a Madden franchise
Trying to build the next superteam hasn’t ever seemed to work for any NFL franchise —remember the 2011 Eagles? Free agency’s biggest spenders almost always seem to be the teams that are perennial losers.
One Madden-like move teams often make is taking a chance on that injury-prone player who would be awesome if he could just stay healthy. This year, guys like Danny Woodhead (Ravens), Menelik Watson (Broncos) and JC Tretter (Browns) look like early candidates to become last year’s Matt Forte and Ladarius Green. While all three can play, their age and past durability issues should immediately raise red flags.
Another page from the same playbook is inking a seasoned veteran who “just needs a change of scenery.” Domata Peko’s two-year, $7.5 million deal with the Denver Broncos is a perfect example of this. The Ravens signing of Brandon Carr on what will likely be a two-year, $12 million deal also seems a bit rich.
Along these same lines, the antiquated thinking that signing a veteran, run-thumping middle linebacker will be an impact move is a mistake teams still make. Lawrence Timmons is a good player, but is he worth the $12 million the Miami Dolphins will be paying him over the next two years? And the 49ers signing of former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith to a five year, $26.5 million contract was one of the biggest head-scratchers by any team in free agency. Speaking of...
3. Signed a fullback to a $21 million contract
Former Raven Kyle Juszczyk is a good football player, but who gives $21 million to a fullback? Not great, Niners.
4. Free agent haul was just players other teams don’t want to bring back
The Chicago Bears signed quarterback Mike Glennon to a low-risk, high-reward deal, yet it has strangely received the most criticism of any move in what has been a bad offseason in the Windy City. The team’s signings of Dion Sims, Marcus Cooper, Quintin Demps, Markus Wheaton, and Kendall Wright were all bigger flubs than landing a quarterback to one of the cheapest contracts for a would-be NFL starter.
5. Pinched pennies
There’s value to being reserved in free agency. However, there’s a fine line between being strategically conservative and frugal to a fault.
Take a look at the Cincinnati Bengals. Over the past two years, Cincinnati has lost two quality wide receivers, an elite left tackle, a quality offensive guard, and several more impact players on both sides of the ball. All the Bengals have to show for those losses are Brandon LaFell, Kevin Minter, and a few compensatory picks in the next couple of drafts.
6. Being the Saints
New Orleans was once among the NFL’s best at finding free agents. Drew Brees and Scott Fujita and were major contributors toward the team’s 2010 Super Bowl run. Since then, however, things have gone south — really south.
Over the past three years, New Orleans has been the NFL’s worst team when it comes to managing the salary cap and operating in free agency. Notable signings from 2014-16 include Jairus Byrd (three interceptions over the past three years while being paid as one of the NFL’s best safeties), C.J. Spiller (paid $9 million for 13 games) and Brandon Browner (paid over $7 million for one season, and he was one of the worst corners in the NFL during that span).
Over a quarter of the Saints 2016 cap spending was dead money, meaning they were essentially paying players to not play for them.
This year, New Orleans gave defensive tackle Nick Fairley, coming off a career year, a four-year, $28 million contract. It’s Fairley’s first multiyear deal since being picked by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 2011 draft. The Saints also went out and signed two linebackers: A.J. Klein, who was mostly a backup with the Panthers, got what amounts to a three-year, $15 million deal. Manti Te’o, whose career has been slowed by injuries, received a two-year, $5 million contract.
For three straight years, the Saints have had one of the worst defenses in the NFL. They need all the help they can get, but their recent track record for who they add in free agency is inferior at best.