The Most Valuable Asset in NFL Free Agency is Discipline
Let’s start with a story, the kind best shared at a dimly lit Indianapolis steakhouse during the combine, as an example of why a certain NFL dynasty has thrived for more than a decade.
Today at 4 p.m. ET is the official start of NFL free agency, though legal tampering has gone on for two days, and illegal tampering for even longer. And every year, that brings another round of cautionary tales, desperate teams shelling out jaw-dropping money and holding triumphant press conferences for new acquisitions that in many cases turn out to be fool’s gold. Among those primed for a big payday this year: QB Mike Glennon, a sub-60 percent passer as a starter; CB A.J. Bouye, who a mere five months ago was the fourth cornerback on the Texans defense; and WR Alshon Jeffery, a sub-1,000 yard receiver each of the past two seasons.
Standing in stark contrast to much of the league is the Patriots, who approach free agency like no other team in the NFL. Here’s a story that illuminates how they do business.
During one recent offseason, a veteran player came to Foxborough for a free-agent visit. He wasn’t a big name, but the Patriots had identified him as a guy who could earn a starting role at a position of need, and also contribute on special teams. As his agent and director of player personnel Nick Caserio closed in on terms for a multi-year deal, the player got fitted for a helmet, picked out a locker—all the things you do when you’re about to settle in with your new team. The numbers were done before dinnertime, and all that was left to do was type up the contract.
Then, Bill Belichick called, not from New England, but rather, a warm beachside destination with some bad news. “I can’t do this deal,” he said to the agent. What? Why? Belichick couldn’t sign off on the terms the agent and Caserio had discussed. Of issue, Belichick explained, was the final year of the deal. Based on what the player’s age would be in that last year, and the position he plays, Belichick expected that he would be declining out of a starting role by that point. Plus, he figured they’d have drafted a replacement who’d be ready to replace the veteran player by then. By that logic, the salary figure in the final year of was simply too high to work for the Patriots.
The player could head home and go back on the open market, Belichick suggested. The other option was to re-open negotiations, and carve out a seven-figure chunk of money out of the back end of the deal. And that’s exactly what happened. The player signed for the reduced terms, and guess what? He started exactly the number of years Belichick guessed he would, and no more.
This, in a nutshell, is how the Patriots approach free agency: They think about what their 53-man roster will look like two or three years in advance. They don’t clutter up their roster with wasteful spending, and they let the market come to them. Wednesday’s trade for Dwayne Allen is a perfect example. Expecting that the price tag on Martellus Bennett will be too rich for their tastes, the Patriots find a bargain replacement before he officially leaves.
There’s an easy answer to the obvious question, Why don’t more teams operate this way? No one else has a coach with the unparalleled job security of Belichick, or a quarterback who is the greatest of all time but yet willing to earn below market value like Tom Brady. They have the equity to take risks, and their five Super Bowl rings afford them the unique ability to offer players below market value, knowing that the chance to compete for a title is priceless. (My colleague Robert Klemko expertly detailed this in January.)
But as we enter funny money season, a peek into how the Patriots approach this portion of the NFL calendar serves as a reminder of why discipline in free agency matters toward team success. Sure, there are examples of teams reaping the benefits of free agency—the Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 team, or the Giants’ defense last year. But more often than not, we see franchises doomed by looking to buy a shortcut to success, or a big-splash signing that will excite the fan base.
Jason Licht, Tampa Bay’s general manager, was schooled in the Patriots’ business principles in one season as their assistant director of player personnel and three seasons as their director of player personnel. But when he struck out on his own as a general manager, inheriting a Bucs team that had gone 4-12 the year before, Licht fell into the trap of going on a spending spree. He doled out close to $145 million in the 2014 free agency, including $55 million in guaranteed money. The Bucs went 2-14 that season and cut three of their biggest signings—DE Michael Johnson, LT Anthony Collins and QB Josh McCown—just one year later.
“I made some mistakes my first year,” Licht says. “The difference in a player that’s making ‘X’ amount of dollars (higher) to making this much (lower), what’s the difference in his talent level? The Patriots do a great job of saying, The difference in money doesn’t make sense to pay for this difference in talent.”
Licht has since pledged to the mantra he learned from his years in New England: It’s about the right 53, not the best 53. Building a roster is about putting the right puzzle pieces together. Look at the Patriots’ 2017 free-agent class. They traded away two players they knew they were not going to keep, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, before their contracts expired. For their players hitting the market this week, the Patriots’ standard operating procedure is right of first refusal: Go out and see what you can fetch, and let us know.
If they lose running back LeGarrette Blount, they’ll find another goal-line back in their price range. Same with CB Logan Ryan. A guy like Dont’a Hightower, whose forced fumble was one of the key plays in Super Bowl 51, might be the type of cornerstone player they work to keep against the open market, as happened with Devin McCourty two years ago. But let’s say Hightower commands far beyond their budget for an inside linebacker. The Patriots may very well be content in re-signing Alan Branch, the 32-year-old defensive tackle who will have a much smaller market, and counting on his presence up front to make the linebackers’ jobs easier behind him.
When the Patriots bring in pieces from the outside to supplement their roster, they do so with a specific role in mind. Two months after losing the AFC Championship Game to Denver, for example, they spent $12 million on Darrelle Revis, a cornerback who could cover Demaryius Thomas. Last offseason, they offered Chris Long a one-year, $3 million contract to be a situational player on their defensive line. Both players won a championship, and left. A big part of success is identifying the kind of players that fit their scheme, and counting on their coaching and structure to help the player pick it up quickly and contribute right away. A great example: Replacing Collins with a midseason trade for Kyle Van Noy.
Agents who have negotiated with the team point to the fact that the Patriots have one voice, Belichick. Unlike many other teams across the league, they acquire and release players without competing agendas inside the building (or clutter left over from past regimes). Another key to their system working is that Caserio, Belichick’s personnel deputy, is basically embedded with the coaching staff. Caserio is on the practice field, and during games, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels counts him among the three “coaches” he communicates with up in the booth. They talk between plays, and between series. Says McDaniels, “There are not many guys who have his role who are that clued into the actual coaching of the game and the utilization of all the personnel. … He knows exactly what we are looking for.”
The Patriots’ sustained success may allow them to do business in this way; but you could also say that doing business this way is also what allows them to have this sustained success. Keep that in mind as the market floods open today.
“To get to that point, you have to have a pretty good team, a pretty good foundation to get to where they are at,” Licht says. “But you can’t buy a championship, you just can’t.”
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FIRST AND 10
1. Bill O’Brien has had a winning record for three straight years, and made the playoffs two straight years, with questionable quarterback play. I want to see what he could do with Tony Romo.
2. Signing Brandon Marshall to a two-year deal makes on-field football sense for the Giants, who needed another outside threat opposite Odell Beckham Jr., and particularly a red-zone target. However, let’s not ignore the fact that there’s at least some risk for the Giants in putting two strong personalities—and two guys who are used to being the No. 1 receiver—in the same position meeting room.
3. Joe Mixon ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at Oklahoma’s pro day on Wednesday, which further supports what many teams believe: Talent-wise, he’s a first-rounder, behind only Leonard Fournette in this year’s RB class. What round teams are actually comfortable drafting Mixon, of course, depends on their evaluation of what led to him punching a female student and fracturing four bones in her face in 2014, and what actions he’s taken since to correct his behavior.
4. The Bills keeping Tyrod Taylor is a big win for the new coaching staff—both in their ability to win this year, and the power balance in their arranged marriage with GM Doug Whaley.
5. The combine was pushed back a week this year, butting up right against free agency. Expect it to stay that way for this reason—it gives the NFL one big event per month as the offseason begins. Super Bowl in Feburary. Combine in March. Draft in April.
6. John Ross’ 40-yard dash was impressive to teams not only for its time, a combine record 4.22 seconds, but also how he handled it afterward. He came across as a humble kid who wasn’t showboating.
7. On the other hand, here’s something that may raise some eyebrows: Ross told NFL Network he pulled out of the rest of his on-field workout because he was cramping up at the end of his first 40-yard dash. That’s a short distance to elicit muscle cramps. There may be nothing to it, but teams look into everything.
8. Heard this often in Indy: This is a far better year to go into the draft needing help on defense, than needing help on offense.
9. Good tidbit, and reminder of why questions swirl about this year’s quarterbacks class, from NFL Network’s Kim Jones: The last time Mitchell Trubisky played under center in a game was sixth grade. Wow.
10. Last week in MMQB, Peter King described how the miss rate for OL drafted in the top half of the first round is higher than for QBs. Here’s a smart take from longtime Chargers center Nick Hardwick on why teams might be looking for the wrong thing.
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1. I’m sticking to the theory that even Bill Belichick can be bought. The Browns just have to see what the price is for Jimmy Garoppolo. Mike Garafolo of NFL Network reported it’s in the neighborhood of a first-round pick both this year and next, a veritably hefty tag. But the Browns have a lot of extra draft capital to make a compelling offer. This year, they have both the No. 1 and No. 12 picks, an extra second-rounder and four compensatory picks, including a third-rounder; they also have an extra second-round pick in 2018. That’s enough to take Myles Garrett at No. 1, and offer, say, the No. 12 pick plus a Day 2 pick, either this year or next. I have no idea if that would pass muster for either side. But the Browns need to make a move, and they don’t have a lot of options. It’s not rocket science to expect that they’ll try to address the QB position through multiple avenues this offseason, both a veteran and one, or maybe even two, draft picks. With Tyrod Taylor working out a restructured contract to stay with the Bills, and A.J. McCarron not going to be dealt within the division, options are drying up. The Browns went through hell last season doing a total roster teardown. Now it’s time to put the next phase of the plan to work and pony up for the quarterback they really want.
2. This is how much of a surprise it is that the Dolphins were able to re-sign WR Kenny Stills: They were preparing to lose him in free agency as far back as last year’s draft. (Stills re-signed Wednesday to a reported four-year, $32 million deal.) Remember when the Dolphins spent a lot of draft capital—a sixth-rounder, and their 2017 third- and fourth-rounders—to trade up for Rutgers’ Leonte Carroo? They did it with two things in mind: 1) They knew they’d get some compensatory picks back in 2017, which they did, including a third-rounder; and 2) Stills hitting free agency this year. Being able to keep Stills is a big win for head coach Adam Gase, but the fact that they had also executed a contingency plan is nearly as impressive. It’s a case of the Dolphins showing the same kind of foresight we talked about above with the Patriots.
3. Here’s one theory on why Deshaun Watson’s combine performance was so good. One attribute teams love about the Clemson QB, and defending national champion, is that he thrives on competition. Well, the on-field drills at the combine are completed in alphabetical order. The quarterbacks do each event, including the passing drills, one at a time, according to last name. QB No. 14 was Mitchell Trubisky. QB No. 15? Watson. So as the quarterbacks were asked to throw the route tree, Watson was standing in line right behind Trubisky, watching him make each throw, waiting for his turn. Trubisky, by most evaluators’ accounts, had a good day. You think Watson wanted to be shown up? No chance. We know what happened next: Watson turned in the best day of any of the quarterbacks, just another example of him rising to the occasion.
4. The question-asking quarterback. Earlier this week, I wrote about the three retired quarterbacks—Mark Brunell, Chad Pennington and Ryan Leaf—who were working at the combine for the NFL as mentors to the incoming class of players. Those guys gain as much insight into the current class of QBs in four days in Indy as anyone else. This didn’t make it into the story, but Brunell described a quarterback last year who didn’t have first-round hype but stood out from the crowd. He asked a lot of questions, got along with everybody and didn’t get overwhelmed by the big stage. His name was Dak Prescott.
Sure, hindsight might be 20/20, but it goes to show that the way players carry themselves in situations like the combine—high pressure and out of their comfort zone—can sometimes be a tell. With that in mind, I asked Brunell how much teams try to mine him for information. “This is the first year that I have been asked to do a little recon on some guys,” Brunell said. “Teams I have played with and worked for before will say, tell me about that Kizer kid. What do you think of Trubisky? One coach asked, try to spend a little more time with this kid and tell me what you think. I wasn’t exactly comfortable, because I am not here to scout or give out information. I just said, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a good kid.’ I would only say anything positive about him, because it is just not why I am here. But I have definitely been asked.”
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OFFSEASON LESSON TO LEAVE WITH YOU
To further sober your zest for free agency, I present to you a look back at the 2015 free-agent class. The biggest spender that year was the Jets, who committed $168 million to five signings. They have since released two of the five players, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, who inked the largest deals. They missed the playoffs in 2015 and 2016 and are now embarking on a total rebuild.
I logged the 20 biggest free-agent contracts handed out that year, based on total value and counting only players who moved from one team to another, and how they’ve fared since. Of these 20 splash signings, nine players are no longer with the teams that signed them (including the Julius Thomas trade that will become official in the new league year) and just five Pro Bowl nods were produced over the past two seasons. In short: Buyer beware.
|MIA DT Ndamukong Suh||6 yr, $114M||Started 32 games, ’16 Pro Bowl|
|NYJ CB Darrelle Revis||5 yr, $70M||Cut ‘17|
|PHI CB Byron Maxwell||6 yr, $63M||Traded ‘16|
|KC WR Jeremy Maclin||5 yr, $55M||1,624 yds, 10 TD in 27 games|
|JAX TE Julius Thomas||5 yr, $46M||Trade ’17 (pending new league year)|
|OAK C Rodney Hudson||5 yr, $44.5M||Started 29 games, ’16 Pro Bowl|
|JAX DL Jared Odrick||5 yr, $42.5M||Cut ‘17|
|ARI G Mike Iupati||5 yr, $40M||Started 28 games, ’15 Pro Bowl|
|PHI RB DeMarco Murray||5 yr, $40M||Traded ‘16|
|SF WR Torrey Smith||5 yr, $40M||Cut ‘17|
|CHI OLB Pernell McPhee||5 yr, $38.75M||Played 23 games, started 12|
|BUF TE Charles Clay||5 yr, $38M||1,080 yds, 7 TDs in 28 games|
|LAC G Orlando Franklin||5 yr, $36.5M||Started 26 games|
|WAS CB Chris Culliver||4 yr, $32M||Cut ‘16|
|NYJ CB Antonio Cromartie||4 yr, $32M||Cut ‘16|
|JAX RT Jermey Parnell||5 yr, $32M||Started 31 games|
|TEN OLB Brian Orakpo||4 yr, $31M||Started 32 games, ’16 Pro Bowl|
|OAK DT Dan Williams||4 yr, $25M||Played 32 games|
|NYJ CB Buster Skrine||4 yr, $25M||Played 30 games, started 22|
|JAX S Davon House||4 yr, $24.5M||Cut ‘17|
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