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Winning NFL Free Agency is a Myth

As NFL free agency approaches, the talk over the next few weeks will be about the top free agents available, with every pundit weighing in as to perfect fits for free agent studs who can’t be passed up.  On March 7th when teams are allowed to negotiate with “certified agents” of players about to become free agents, the news cycle will be filled with deals in-the-works and other player-team marriages.  Finally, when March 9th rolls around and free agents are officially allowed to sign with teams, the result will be hot takes on free agency winners.  It’s predictable, it’s inevitable, but there is just one problem:

It’s wrong.  

Winning in free agency means losing on the football field.  But you won’t find such commentary from the media or the fans of the teams locking up the best available players.  However, the fact is, winning free agency and winning games are negatively correlated. The best teams in the NFL avoid free agency like the plague, utilizing it only when absolutely necessary.  The worst teams in the NFL try to get better overnight, and instead, further compound their deficiencies.  

The below analysis relates to free agency spending over the last 3 years.  Over those 3 years, only one of the 7 teams who spent the most in free agency has posted a winning record (Colts) while only one of the 7 teams who spent the least in free agency has posted a losing record (Texans).  Teams like the 2015 NFC Champion Panthers, or the 2013 and 2014 NFC Champion Seahawks, have voluntarily spent as little as possible in free agency.  Joining them were the Packers, Steelers and Bengals.  Meanwhile, losing teams like the Dolphins, Titans, Raiders, Jaguars, Jets and Bears have spent nearly as much as possible in free agency.

First, to make it simple, the following graphic illustrates free agency spending vs wins over the last 3 NFL seasons.  It’s clear that as free agency spending (the red line) decreased, winning (the green line) increased.  Teams like the Packers, Panthers, Steelers and Seahawks are bunched to the right of the graphic, having spent the least in free agency, but are teams with some of the best records.  On the left are teams like the Dolphins, Titans and Raiders, who have spent the most in the NFL in free agency, but whose records are among the worst teams in the NFL.  

A 19-29 (.400) record over 3 seasons is not good.  But 19 wins and $200M spent in free agency are interesting inflection points:

– Over half (7) of the 13 teams that spent at least $200M in free agency the last 3 years have won less than 19 games.  

– On the other hand, none of the 19 teams that spent below $200M won less than 19 games.

It’s not just historically bad, losing teams that get caught poorly managing their team and overspending in free agency.  Every year, a winning team from the prior season believes they are on the cusp of something special, and over spends with poor results:

– After winning 10 games in 2012, the Vikings spent over $100M in free agency in 2013, signing 5 players on day one including FB Jerome Felton, LB Erin Henderson, RT Phillip Loadholt, C Joe Berger and SS Jamarca Sanford.  They added QB Matt Cassel and WR Greg Jennings in short order, and proceeded to win only 5 games in 2013 and fired their head coach.

– After winning 11 games in 2013, the Saints spent over $95M in free agency in 2014, headlined by big deals in the secondary, including FS Jairus Byrd and FS Malcolm Jenkins, along with multi-year deals for CB Champ Bailey and RT Zach Strief.  The Saints won just 7 games each of the last two seasons.

– After winning 10 games in 2014, the Eagles spent over $122M in free agency last year, bringing in big name, big contract players from around the NFL including CB Byron Maxwell, RB DeMarco Murray, RB Ryan Mathews and FS Walter Thurmond.  As we know, the Eagles struggled tremendously, winning just 7 games last year.  Like the Vikings above, this catastrophe led to firing their head coach, and in 2016, the futures market predicts another losing season.

Many teams fall victim to the allure of the quick fix of free agency, or the prospect that they can add the missing piece that will take them from a 10 win team to the Super Bowl.  And with the increasing salary cap, perhaps more teams will join them in the future.  But it seems the best teams, even those off of subpar seasons, understand that relying too much on free agency is typically a losing formula.

To break it down further, I mapped out the teams as data points against free agency dollars and wins the last 3 years, and included the averages for free agency dollars (just under $200M) and wins (a 24-24 cumulative record).  Once again, the red trendline indicates the negative correlation between spending in free agency and winning games.

It’s interesting to note the 4 quadrants that exist based on the averages.  For example, quadrants 2 and 3 do not hold many teams.  This is because teams with above average spending do not typically have above average wins (winning records), as depicted by Q3 (quadrant 3) on the top right.  Similarly, teams with below average spending do not typically have losing records.  

Some of the most mismanaged, unintelligent teams reside in Q4, including the Titans, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders, Buccaneers, Redskins, Dolphins, Falcons, Jets and Bears.  These 10 teams have averaged records the last 3 years of 16-32, or a .333 record.  These 10 teams are in the top 13 for spending the most in free agency.  

Meanwhile, some of the best franchises in the NFL, with the best front offices, reside in Q1.  And for these teams, the record is a result of the way the franchise runs and the philosophy they employ from a team building perspective.  Chief among them include the Packers, Seahawks and Steelers.  Right at the border are the Patriots, and just on the other side are the Ravens who are trying to stick their beak across the line but fell one win too short.  Regardless, of the 12 teams inside this quadrant including the Lions and Saints, their average record the past 3 years is 30-18 (.625).  

For a handful of the best, which I’ll discuss in future articles as part of this NFL offseason series, they build themselves correctly, through the draft.  And when their best players make it to free agency, most of them are lost, with teams from Q4 eagerly snapping them up and overpaying them, while the teams from Q1 reload in the draft and push forward.

Looking at the 50 most expensive forays by NFL teams into free agency the last 3 years, only 2 of the 50 moved teams from losing records to winning records for the next two seasons, and only 1 of the 50 saw a win increase to double digits in each of the next two seasons.  So while occasionally over spending in free agency can work, it’s far more likely to fail miserably.  Keep this article and study in mind when you see the inevitable discussion and click-baiting the next few weeks listing the teams who “won” free agency and are “offseason champions”, and realize that most often, such a distinction will bode negatively for those teams, this fall and beyond.

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Detailed below are #1 teams in free agency spending in each of the last 3 seasons, along with any positive benefits gained from such aggressive behavior.  The year 2015 also includes teams #2 and #3 on the list:

2013 Miami Dolphins

Remember the Miami Dolphins 2013 class?  They were called winners by some, hauling in WR Mike Wallace, LB Dannell Ellerbe and LB Philip Wheeler all on the first day of free agency.  But in typical free agency fashion, despite each of those 3 big splash players signing 5 year deals, none lasted longer than 2 years in Miami.  Wallace went to the Vikings, Ellerbe went to the Saints and Wheeler to the 49ers then Falcons.  The Dolphins went 8-8 each of the two seasons with all 3 players (2013 and 2014).  They went 6-10 last year, an even worse record than they had in 2012 (7-9), the season before spending a NFL-high $160M in free agency in 2013.

2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Two years ago, the Buccaneers brought in Lovie Smith and decided to spend on his behalf in free agency.  They topped $150M, the most of any team in 2014, and were lauded as free agency “winners” by many.  Adding DE Michael Johnson and CD Alterraun Verner were two big names, but a big splash at QB was made in Josh McCown.  However, after only 1 year of a 5 year deal for Johnson, he was released and played for the Bengals in 2015, while the Bucs owed $7M in guarantees.  Similarly, McCown played 2015 for the Browns after the Bucs released him following his one and only season in Tampa Bay.  And Verner, who signed a 4 year deal, started in only 6 games in 2015, despite playing in all 16.  Not to be outdone by his signing mates, LT Anthony Collins signed to a 4 year, $30M deal with Tampa Bay, but he was benched that very season, and prior to 2015 (after unsuccessfully trying to trade him) Collins was cut.  The Bucs won 2 games in 2014 and 6 games last year, and current futures market indications project the Bucs to win less than 7 games and finish in last place in the NFC South.

2015 NY Jets

To spin the Jets positively, one could argue they were the lone success story from a results perspective on this list, finishing 10-6 last year.  But despite the staggering $182M spent in free agency (most of any team during this 3 year study) the Jets were almost a .500 team last year.  They were 5-5 thru 10 games, and won two of their last 6 games in overtime to finish 10-6 (instead of 8-8 had they lost both coin flip games).  The bottom line for the franchise, the Jets missed the playoffs for the 5th straight season.  Their big first day free agency adds of CBs Darrelle Revis and Buster Skrine headlined their aggressive offseason plan.  Over the next few days they gave multi-year deals to G James Carpenter, CB Antonio Cromartie and SS Marcus Gilchrist.  As with all teams from this 2015 season, it’s impossible to know what will happen in a couple more seasons to this free agent haul and whether it will actually result in a playoff berth in 2016 or 2017.  Current futures projections give the Jets an 8-8 record in 2016.

2015 Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars spent almost $177M in free agency, the 2nd most of any team in this three year study, and were given two thumbs up from the majority of the media as a “free agency winner”.  Much like the Jets, an odd dynamic exists with teams dubbed as “winners”:  those who spend the most end up with the most headline players, and they naturally become “winners” in free agency.  Unlike the Jets, the Jaguars piled up the money in just a few, massive contracts.  The following players signed 4 or 5 year deals worth between $20M and $46M each in the first couple of days of free agency:  RT Jermy Parnell, TE Julius Thomas, DE Jared Odrick, CB Davon House and LB Dan Skuta.  Then they added multi-year deals with FS Sergio Brown and WR Bryan Walters, and this team was crowned.  But like most “free agency winners”, the results were not there in year 1.  The Jaguars won only 5 games, with 4 of those 5 wins coming by 6 or fewer points.  An increase to 6 wins is projected for the Jaguars in 2016, but even a 1 win improvement may not substantiate their 2015 spending spree.

2015 Miami Dolphins

Rounding out the top 3 spenders from 2015’s free agency is a familiar team: the Dolphins.  Just two years removed from spending $160M to no avail, their $155M expenditure was almost at their 2013 level, and resulted in a 6-win mark that was as few wins as they have had in the 8 years since their 1-15 mark in 2007.  Some media outlets went as far as suggesting the Dolphins were the “NFL’s offseason champions“.  The Dolphins made their biggest splash by signing DT Ndamukong Suh to a 6 year $114M deal.  Suh’s biggest splash may have come the last game of the season with a low hit on Tom Brady, because a 6 sack season was not what the Dolphins paid for.  In addition to Suh, the Dolphins added shorter deals with TE Jordan Cameron, FS Louis Delmas and QB Matt Moore.  They added other pieces like WR Kenny Stills via a trade, but the “offseason champions” started the season 1-3, fired HC Joe Philbin, and ended the season 1-3, with a 4-4 stretch in between.  Will year 2 be any kinder?  The current futures market are far from bullish on the 2016 Dolphins, projecting them with only 7 wins and a last place finish in the AFC East.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is an author, radio show host, lawyer, TV analyst, and the founder and lead writer of Outkick (formerly known as Outkick the Coverage).
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