Reminder: Free agency's biggest deals disappoint more often than not

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:

Table inside Article
Player Position Team APY
Kirk Cousins QB MIN $28,000,000
Sam Bradford QB ARI $20,000,000
Case Keenum QB DEN $18,000,000
Sammy Watkins WR KC $16,000,000
Nate Solder OT NYG $15,500,000
Trumaine Johnson CB NYJ $14,500,000
Allen Robinson WR CHI $14,000,000
Ndamukong Suh DT LA $14,000,000
Andrew Norwell G JAX $13,300,000
Malcolm Butler CB TEN $12,250,000
Ryan Jensen C TB $10,500,000
Jimmy Graham TE GB $10,000,000
Star Lotulelei DT BUF $10,000,000
Donte Moncreif WR JAX $9,600,000
Weston Richburg C SF $9,500,000
Dontari Poe DT CAR $9,333,333
Richard Sherman CB SF $9,050,000
Anthony Hitchens LB KC $9,000,000
Justin Pugh G ARI $8,955,000
Aaron Colvin CB HST $8,500,000

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:

Table inside Article
Player Position Team APY
Calais Campbell DE JAX $15,000,000
Mike Glennon QB CHI $15,000,000
A.J. Bouye CB JAX $13,500,000
Russell Okung OT LAC $13,250,000
Stephon Gilmore CB NE $13,000,000
Kevin Zeitler G CLE $12,000,000
Riley Reiff OT MIN $11,750,000
Andrew Whitworth OT LAR $11,250,000
DeSean Jackson WR TB $11,116,667
Matt Kalil OT CAR $11,100,000
Logan Ryan CB TEN $10,000,000
Alshon Jeffery WR PHI $9,500,000
Pierre Garcon WR SF $9,500,000
T.J. Lang G DET $9,500,000
Rick Wagner OT DET $9,500,000
Johnathan Hankins DT IND $9,000,000
Ronald Leary G DEN $9,000,000
Larry Warford G NO $8,500,000
Tony Jefferson S BLT $8,500,000
Jabaal Sheard LB IND $8,500,000

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.

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