As a concept, free agency is fun. Pluck a player from another team, plug him into a hole on your roster – boom – you’re better.
In reality, free agency is all too often fool’s gold.
Clearly, sitting out the upcoming period of roster building isn’t an option. Being smart about it is.
This isn’t a new concept I’m introducing, of course. It's mostly just a reminder about how the first wave of free agency should be approached with caution.
You don’t need to be an economics major to understand the NFL’s supply and demand chasm. The former is a limited pool of true difference makers; the latter is 32 teams. That naturally forces a mark-up that more often than not surpasses a team's evaluation. You don’t have to be a general manager to understand that’s not the best way to find value in a business that features a salary cap.
To see just how out of whack all of this can be, all we have to do is take a look at last spring’s signings. Via Spotrac and ordered by average yearly salary, these were the top-20 deals given to players who changed teams:
Average cost per player = $13 million.
Players who made last year’s Pro Bowl = 0.
The quarterbacks and wide receivers, especially, inflate things and are the cost of doing business. But that's bad business.
To be fair, there was a better hit rate in 2017’s top-20:
Calais Campbell helped turn around the Jaguars defense – for a year, at least. After a spotty start, Stephon Gilmore turned into a solid presence in the Patriots’ secondary. The Rams’ offensive line was steadied by Andrew Whitworth. Alshon Jeffery took a prove-it-deal and became a big part the Eagles’ Super Bowl run. Tennessee’s Logan Ryan and Baltimore’s Tony Jefferson were also productive buys.
Still, that’s six out of 20, or a 30 percent hit rate. So at best, it’s a crapshoot from year-to-year. It doesn’t help that don’t get to fully vet what you’re getting.
Most free agents are free for a reason. Making it more complicated is when players aren’t in your building, you can never get a full picture. You know a team is willing to let a guy go, but you know little about them health-wise and even less about their character. So if you’re going to commit big money, it's very much buyer beware.
We haven’t yet seen the Panthers go through a free agency under owner David Tepper, but we know his philosophy is to be “selectively aggressive.” What that looks like is something we’ll learn over the next few years. But right now, I wouldn’t expect him to charge his football folks to make big buys. Maybe there will be an unexpected opportunity if a player flies under the first-wave radar, but mostly, I’d assume the plan would be to fill holes with guys whose valuations fit their evaluations.
It's not sexy, but year after year the first wave continues to support the theory that free agency is best used as a supplement. The draft is where you need to land difference makers. When you’re in a league that gives each team a limited budget, you give yourself a better chance by shopping wholesale, not retail.