Free Agency: Risk or Reward?
The most productive part of the year in which player movement is at its highest is over. A fevered trading season, quickly followed by a draft, which if anything threw us some surprises and bolstered the rosters of all 32 teams. Rebuilding is critical in the NFL, and as the gap between teams in terms of quality grows smaller. The pressure to have a roster that contains strength across the field consistently and effectively is more intense. The chess match of the pre-season is as intricate as the plays on the field and must be navigated shrewdly, and with purpose.
So, some context for this piece, I grew and live in a place where a different type of football reigns supreme (England) and at one point, free agency was something unheard of until in 1995, a player whose impact on the game will be felt forever, though for nothing he did on the pitch (field for any readers from the US). Jean-Marc Bosman, a Belgian footballer whose case was heard at the European Court of Justice, which simply meant that players could move teams when their contracts expired without a transfer fee. Find out more here. Put simply, it changed the game. Players gained some power and could dictate more in their careers, especially one important element: Money.
In March 2019, the Oakland Raiders secured the services of one of the most talented wide receivers probably in the history of the NFL, Antonio Brown in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, around the same time and not as widely reported, the Raiders signed former Offensive Tackle for San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots, Trent Brown, on $66 million over four years. $36.25 million of that guaranteed. This makes Brown the best paid OL in NFL history. Were the Raiders acting on a knee-jerk reaction? Seeing as their first-round pick in 2018, Kolton Miller OT who allowed three sacks in two games against the LA Chargers and Indianapolis Colts is hardly encouraging any confidence. Whether Brown is a success, only time will tell, however we have to be aware of the realities of football. Gruden’s rebuilding is gaining some talent, however, Brown came from the New England Patriots, a team that tends to flatter Offensive Linemen. Tom Brady is generally pretty quick in releasing the ball, Derek Carr isn’t Brady, Brown might be exposed much like another former Patriot, Nate Solder. Solder left New England in 2016 and is currently the second highest paid OT behind Brown when he signed for the New York Giants. Solder is and was never an elite tackle, he was competent and that’s what the Giants required. New York Quarterback Eli Manning was sacked 47 times in 2018, so Solder is viewed as a bust. An expensive one at that. For more about their current woes, check out our article on the New York Giants.
What Gruden is hoping for is something in the line of Reggie White. Legendary Defensive End most notably with the Green Bay Packers. White, before he joined the Packers, had an exemplary career with the Philadelphia Eagles (1985-1993), holding an assortment of record sacks over different lengths of time. The most impressive in my mind was that he had more sacks than the actual number of games he played at that franchise. In 1993 White became a free agent and signed for the Packers for four years for around $17 million. He would cement himself as the ‘Minister of Defence’ opposite the flair and cannon-like arm of star quarterback, Brett Favre. Winning Superbowl XXXI in 1996, with White scoring the game-ending sack to win the game. White would stay at the Packers for six seasons picking up 68.5 sacks in that time. Money well spent I would say and widely viewed as one of the greatest free agent signings in NFL history. A player who does what he is signed for, but enhancing what was already in place.
On the flip side, the tale that is spoken in hushed tones to General Managers across the league as a warning in how a seemingly solid and effective player comes into free agency and tanks in a big way. The name that echoes the halls of every franchise is Albert Haynesworth. Haynesworth was a free agent in the 2009 season, he put down some good, not great numbers with the Tennessee Titans, a Pro Bowl for 2007 and 2008 to boot. He signed a seven-year deal for the Washington Redskins worth around $100 million. The writing was already on the wall, a couple of violent incidents at Tennessee prompting disciplinary action against teammates and opponents. These included hefty fines and suspensions. However he was a player of seemingly great potential, so the Redskins opted to sign him. From day one he was an issue for a variety of reasons. Poor health, poor discipline and clashing with all and sundry associated the franchise and not co-operating with the coaches and a series of no shows. He was suspended and followed up in the following year with career-low statistics. Washington pulled the plug on their faith in Haynesworth, and he moved on to the Patriots and then after that the Buccaneers in 2011 and suffered a similar fate and was let go by both teams, with his conduct and poor performance respectively.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Trent Brown may turn out as a ladder rung onto future dominance of the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders, and be as highly praised as Reggie White’s stint in Green Bay and collect rings, records and Pro Bowl invites along the way. Either way, it has cost them a lot cap space success or not. Some teams in recent years have used the free agency market to plug up holes in the roster that a draft isn’t equipped to do, where experience is preferable, but for usually short term as well. In the 2018 season, Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams were one of the dominant forces in the NFL, finishing up with a 13-3 record in the regular season and clinching the NFC championship. Only falling short at the feet of the ever-present New England Patriots at Superbowl LIII. Alongside maturing quarterback Jared Goff, Defensive Tackle Star Aaron Donald and the rushing talents of Todd Gurley were a bunch of free agent signings that helped bolster the talented, if largely green roster. CJ Anderson whose career up to that point was decent, but largely unspectacular save a Pro Bowl appearance in 2014 with the Broncos. Anderson left the Broncos in 2017, and spent time at three teams in 2018 with no serious takers and was eventually dropped by the Carolina Panthers during the season after 11 games. The Rams picked up CJ as a back up for Gurley, whose knee became an issue, and played a starring role in the NFC Championship game against a game New Orleans Saints team, with 16 carries for 44 yards and caught a five-yard short pass to the eventual 26-23 victory in overtime. Playing only two games, Anderson showed what he could do, helped his employers to reach the Superbowl and raised his stock to start 2019 in Detroit with the Lions. Both parties benefited. Another mercenary-like signing for the Rams that season was Ndamukong Suh. A player while somewhat effective as a Defensive Tackle is notable for his aggressive style of play, and has mounted a series of personal fines that are within reach of well over $200k for violations. Again like CJ Anderson, a player who is certainly a good football player, with his back against the wall of sorts with something to prove. Suh paired alongside the reliable and effective Donald could; and did a decent job for the Rams whilst raising his profile for the one year he signed on for. Suh at the time of writing is still a free agent for the 2019 season, but will no doubt find a team who will take a chance on him, albeit for a potential short stay. As well as hopefully staying from a similar fate to that of Haynesworth.
What I am trying to say, is there are mutual benefits for free agency. In the case of the Rams, a new coach who needed some steel in his roster and the players themselves, needing a team and more importantly had something to prove knowing they were on a short contract, putting them in the shop window for something more long term and fruitful. Where the future in NFL free agency is anyone’s guess, the teams like to exercise as much control as they can, so the freedom of movement that resembles the system in ‘soccer’ is far away, but the one interesting note is that player power is increasing. Sure there is a risk, but with the Rams getting to the Superbowl, the rewards are clear. It is interesting if signing free agents supersedes the draft in acquiring personnel in the future, the reward of seasoned veterans over pure potential albeit risking capital and the plain fact that it doesn’t work out. It is unlikely, but it is certainly an interesting thought.