Recent history of free agency shows it’s a cautionary tale

on Mar11
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Dak Prescott got his big contract worthy of a franchise quarterback, while big-play receivers Chris Godwin and Allen Robinson got slapped with franchise tags.

Before the new league year and annual spending spree started, many of the top players at the premium positions were once again kept off the open market.

It’s a predictable pattern in the NFL where the franchise tag, or even the threat of it, helps keep most of the best quarterbacks, pass catchers, pass rushers and tackles from ever hitting true free agency.


Teams shopping for help each March usually must settle for spending big money on second-tier players at premium spots or target lower-profile spots like the interior offensive line.

“You never want to go crazy in free agency,” Broncos first-year general manager George Paton said. “You don’t want to build your team in free agency. You want to fill selective needs going into the draft. That has been my philosophy. You don’t always want to be the first one out of the gate and throw all your money, but there is something you need, you’ll take a shot. I just think you have to be selective and you have to look at every situation. If you can fill a need and help your team, you’re going to go for it.”

Some needs are typically more available than others when it comes to free agency. NFL franchises have handed out 85 contracts the past three offseasons to free agents who switched teams, led by 14 interior offensive linemen.

Because there is only one franchise tag for the O-line, teams are more apt to let guards and centers hit the open market instead of paying them tackle prices.

In all, more than half (46 out of 85) of the big-money deals went to offensive linemen and front-seven defensive players. Seven tackles, seven interior defenders, nine edge rushers and nine linebackers also got the hefty contracts, with six of the edge rushers cashing in last offseason.

That class fell far short of delivering, with Robert Quinn, Dante Fowler, Mario Addison, Jordan Phillips, Shaq Lawson and Carl Nassib going from an average of 9.1 sacks the year before hitting the open market to just 3.1 last season in the first year of their new deals.

The results for receivers to change teams in free agency haven’t been much better. Only two of the 11 players who got contracts worth at least $25 million even posted a 1,000-yard season with their new team. Robinson did it the last two years of his three-year deal with Chicago and got the franchise tag this offseason. John Brown did it for Buffalo in 2019 — and he was released this week.

The few tight ends and running backs to get paid in free agency haven’t fared much better. Four of the five players were let go before the end of their deals. Only Austin Hooper remains after signing a $42 million, four-year deal in Cleveland last offseason.

Only six quarterbacks got at least $25 million to change teams, with the group including aging veterans Tom Brady and Philip Rivers last offseason; journeymen like Teddy Bridgewater, Nick Foles and Case Keenum; and one starter in his prime, Kirk Cousins, who joined Minnesota in 2018 after signing franchise tags his final two seasons in Washington.

Teams have handed out 17 big contracts in the secondary the past three offseasons, with only Tyrann Mathieu, Richard Sherman, James Bradberry and Byron Jones offering a strong return on investment.

Spending in free agency is a cautionary tale. Of the 25 players given contracts to change teams worth at least $25 million in the 2018 offseason, 12 were let go before the end of those megadeals they signed. Sammy Watkins and Richard Sherman headed to free agency after completing their three-year deals.

The 2019 class isn’t faring much better with nine of the 29 players given contracts of at least $25 million to change teams already being cut before beginning their third season of the deals.

No team fared worse in that free agency season than the Raiders, who paid nearly $80 million the past two years to tackle Trent Brown, defensive back Lamarcus Joyner and receiver Tyrell Williams — with little return on the investment.

Brown played less than half the time because of injuries and is set to be traded back to New England as part of an exchange of late-round 2022 draft picks, according to a person familiar with the deal speaking on condition of anonymity because the trade can’t be finalized until Wednesday.


Williams and Joyner have been cut. Williams played hurt in 2019 and missed all of 2020 with an injury, while Joyner underperformed after switching from free safety to slot cornerback when signing with the Raiders.

With the salary cap dropping this year by $16 million, and having missed on big-ticket signings recently, Raiders general manager Mike Mayock is preaching a more cautious approach.

“We’ve been active with players on Day 1 and Day 2 in the last couple years,” he said. “I think there is going to be a lot of depth in the free agency market this particular year. I think there are going to be more veterans out there on the market and I think it’s incumbent upon us to be patient. Would we take a shot at a high-level player or two? Sure, if we believed in the person and had the money available. But right now, I don’t even know how much money we will or won’t have available. That jigsaw puzzle is still taking place, but one way or another I think we’ll be active in free agency.”

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