In free agency, teams must find gambles they're willing to make
As this year's NFL free agency period opens, teams will be wrestling with age-old issues: risk vs. reward, talent vs. trouble, injury history, how a player fits in the team's current locker room and whether that player is worth potentially overpaying if his price rises in the open market. It's all part of the game of March.
NFL GMs -- and I speak from experience -- always enter free agency with the watchwords "proceed with caution" on their brains. Build through the draft with younger, cheaper players who you can groom, then augment the roster with reasonably priced free agents and via the waiver wire; for the vast majority of teams, that's the preferred path of constructing an NFL roster. The thought of investing heavily in the free agent market starts stomachs churning in front offices this time of year.
But alas, free agency is a necessary evil of the business for club execs, so teams are poised with their hit lists and ready to light up the phone lines. They've quietly pitched deals under the table to potential free agents for the past month (the recently completed combine is the epicenter for free agent tampering), but beginning Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET they'll be able to officially submit offers.
This free agency period promises to get off to a star-studded start, as two marquee players (and former top overall picks in the draft) grab the most attention -- Peyton Manning and Mario Williams, both seeking to return from major injuries.
The free agent quest for Manning, the four-time NFL MVP, began last week after his release from the Colts. He's been called the most high-profile free agent ever, and he's looking for a team with a good supporting cast that will pay him the $18 million per year that he was scheduled to receive under his Colts contract (although some of that money may have to come through performance incentives). Williams, with 53 career sacks at Houston, hits the market seeking a record contract for a defensive player (looking to top Julius Peppers' $15.25 million per year free agent deal signed with the Bears in 2010).
Teams must weigh their enormous price tags with the injury risk involved and the potential for a return to their peak form. Team doctors will be examining and scrutinizing, speaking with their doctors and sending them to specialists.
As with Manning and Williams, many of this year's top free agents come with questions and concerns. Matt Flynn has a great pedigree, but only two career starts, no matter how spectacular both were. He appears set to make this year's biggest salary leap -- from his $600,000 Packers contract last year to an anticipated $10 million per year deal. Mario Manningham had a phenomenal catch that helped win the Super Bowl, but he was still the Giants' third-best receiver. Vincent Jackson, the top receiver available, was suspended for three games in 2010 after his second drunk driving conviction. Yet you can guarantee that all three players will find work -- and lucrative contracts -- soon after free agency opens.
Already, a couple of top players bound for free agency with behavioral questions in their past -- Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch and Bills receiver Stevie Johnson -- were offered new contracts to re-sign, taking them off the market despite their troubles. DeSean Jackson, a headache for the Eagles over the last couple of seasons, was franchised by the team while the two sides talk about a long-term deal.
As with players coming off injuries, the question of taking a risk on a player with behavioral, legal or substance abuse issues is a difficult one for teams, whether it's regarding a free agent or draft choice. Is a lineman who was busted for steroids going to lose some strength when he's off the juice? GMs have to do their due diligence and decide if they can trust their sources and -- sometimes -- their gut instincts. If they move forward on these players, they have to negotiate hard to get the best deal possible for their team, and then hope the player fulfills the deal.
For Lynch, his transgressions (misdemeanor gun charge resulting in a three-game suspension) were in his early Buffalo years and the Seahawks believe he has settled down.
For Johnson, his excessive touchdown celebrations resulted in penalties and a benching, but the Bills apparently are confident that he will mature and overcome his "look at me" mentality. Conversely, the Eagles likely want to see more proof from Jackson that he can do the same before they commit to him long-term.
In dealing with the trouble/talent balancing act, teams protect themselves by putting clauses in contracts that punish a player financially, demanding for signing bonus reimbursement and cancellation of guarantees if they cause problems.
Personally, I always was more apprehensive about signing players with an injury history, substance abuse issues or legal problems (especially domestic violence) than those with behavioral problems that often stem from immaturity. It was my hope that those players would grow up and learn to be true professionals in their new environment. But I always wrote protective language into contracts for any questionable player, whether it be structuring some of the base salary into playing time incentives for injury-prone players or the penal clauses for drug/alcohol/steroid/legal issues.
Like all GMs and team presidents, I was involved with good and bad free agent deals. Fortunately, I never had a major free agent signing that turned into a bust, but we had our share of deals that didn't work out as well as we hoped. I also saw many free agents contribute to our winning teams. I remember some sleepless nights after I re-signed Vikings free agent running back Robert Smith to a top market deal in 1998, when I had to match a potential offer sheet on him as our transition player. He had great talent but an extensive injury history, and talked of wanting to do other things with his life. After the signing, Smith had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, led the NFC in rushing in 2000 and helped the Vikings to two NFC title games in three years. Then he abruptly retired at age 28. We got good but not max value out of that deal.
How do teams evaluate players they may be less familiar with from other teams? Before signing unrestricted free agents from other teams, GMs will talk to former coaches, past teammates and others who know him well enough in order to gauge the player's character and potential fit within the team's scheme and locker room. They want to be sure he's smart enough to learn a new system if necessary, and that he's dedicated to the game so he won't become complacent when he gets the big bucks.
The GM will make sure that his coaches are "all in" on the player and committed to making him successful. It helps to have veterans on the team who will keep him in line. The Patriots have trusted the discipline in their locker room to bring in a few talented but risky players over the years, like Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco and Corey Dillon. In most cases, those moves have worked.
When discussing the pitfalls of free agency, I often challenge people to list five players who have played better with their new teams than with their old teams. There's Reggie White in Green Bay, Drew Brees in New Orleans and perhaps Deion Sanders in San Francisco and Dallas.
There are more, but the horror stories of free agency are far more plentiful. Albert Haynesworth might be the ultimate, an All-Pro defensive tackle with the Titans who went to Washington in 2009 for a ballyhooed $100 million contract. The Redskins gave up on him after two turbulent seasons in which Haynesworth was paid $35.6 million. Last year's big free agent prize, Nnamdi Asomugha, received a $12 million per year deal (with $25 million guaranteed) from the Eagles. Due in part to the lockout making it tough on players moving to new systems, Asomugha did not play up to his All-Pro expectations, especially early in the season. The Eagles will certainly be expecting more from him on a consistent basis in 2012.
The top teams always try to hold on to their best players, since you always know your own players best. Then they approach free agency carefully, making perhaps one or two major strikes before waiting for the second wave of free agency to try to find some bargain deals.
Some teams aren't in a position to spend, thanks to salary cap constraints. But there are plenty of teams, such as Denver and Tampa Bay, with a boatload of cap room who should be ready to spend. As they wade or dive into the free agency waters, GMs will be crossing their fingers and hoping for minimal risk and maximum reward.