Shop Right In the first decade of NFL free agency, teams have learned that it's a hit-or-miss affair--and that you don't have to spend big to win

August 25, 2002

During one tough period of his childhood in Washingtonville, N.Y.,
Scott Pioli watched his father juggle three jobs to support a
wife and four kids. The family didn't have credit cards; Ron and
Diane Pioli didn't believe in them. Scott remembers his dad
saying, If we don't have the money, we do without.

That's a credo Scott follows as director of player personnel for
the New England Patriots. For example, Pioli and coach Bill
Belichick desperately wanted to sign mountainous free-agent
tackle Jon Runyan in early 2000, but New England was $10.5
million over the salary cap entering the off-season. They passed.
Last year the Seattle Seahawks offered Patriots defensive tackle
Chad Eaton, one of Belichick's favorite players, a $10.7 million
deal, including a $3.5 million signing bonus. Eaton called the
Patriots to see if they'd match, but Belichick and Pioli decided
that his price was too high.

Entering the tenth season of unfettered free agency, NFL teams
could learn a lot from the way Belichick and Pioli built last
season's Super Bowl-winning roster. New England went shopping at
Wal-Mart. The 20 free agents Pioli and senior vice president Andy
Wasynczuk locked up cost the Patriots just $2.57 million in
signing bonuses (the only guaranteed money NFL players receive).
Not one of the signees had a base salary of more than $525,000.
Seven of those bargains started in New England's win over the St.
Louis Rams last February, and four--wideout David Patten, running
back Antowain Smith and linebackers Mike Vrabel and Roman
Phifer--were Super Bowl heroes. Eight other signees came off the
bench. Meanwhile Eaton, who had just 44 tackles and one sack with
the Seahawks in 2001, watched the Super Bowl from home.

Now, in the waning weeks of the off-season, Pioli is hunkering
down in his windowless box of an office at Gillette Stadium in
Foxboro. Inspirational signs dot the walls (WE ARE BUILDING A
TEAM, NOT COLLECTING TALENT). What Pioli's father preached in
Washingtonville is practiced here every day: Set a price for the
position you need to fill. Make a priority list. Go down the list
until you get a player at your price. Last spring the Patriots
were in the market for a tight end, a position they valued at
about $1 million a year. They targeted Ken Dilger of the
Indianapolis Colts, but he wanted $2.5 million. The next man on
their list, the Minnesota Vikings' Byron Chamberlain, wanted even
more, so New England settled on the Seahawks' Christian Fauria,
who signed for $1.07 million. "Last year," said Pioli, "I
remember Bill Belichick saying to me, 'Well, we're either going
to succeed or we'll crash and burn. But at least we'll do it the
way we believe it should be done.' And we knew we weren't going
to be in salary-cap jail anymore."

Other teams are following the Patriots' lead. The Dallas Cowboys
and the San Francisco 49ers, both salary-cap-strapped during the
late 1990s, have stopped mortgaging their futures. Up-and-comers
like the Buffalo Bills are discovering the wonders of just saying
no. And the Philadelphia Eagles are showing how teams can live
under the cap, save up for an emergency acquisition and still
contend for the Super Bowl.

It took awhile, even for some first-rate football minds, to get
to know and love the free-agency game. In 1995, in the midst of
his team's return to prominence, Green Bay Packers general
manager Ron Wolf was contemptuous of the fledgling system. "I
hate this new football," he snarled. The NFL establishment was
used to building teams for the long haul. Now, because of the
roster changeover from year to year, executives had to run their
teams as if they were college football programs without the
redshirt year. Said Wolf, "It's come down to a game for
accountants and lawyers."

But he and the other free-agency naysayers have seen football
survive--and continue to evolve. Scoring was up to 40.4 points per
game in 2001, versus 37.5 in 1992. Quarterbacks completed 59% of
their passes last season, up from 57.5% in '92. Plus there were
two fewer turnovers per weekend last season than in '92.

And, unlike baseball, where big-market teams tend to become
dynasties, everybody has had a chance in the NFL. In the first
nine seasons of free agency only the Cincinnati Bengals and the
Cleveland Browns, who didn't start play until 1999, failed to
make the postseason. The 36 spots in the conference championship
games have been filled by 22 franchises. (Sixteen teams filled
those slots in the nine years before free agency.) The last three
Super Bowl winners--the Rams, the Baltimore Ravens and the
Patriots--were coming off years in which they won four, eight and
five games, respectively. "Clearly," Wolf says now, "the game
hasn't suffered."

The Packers, in fact, have been among the best at handling free
agency. They stunned the pro football world by signing Reggie
White for $17 million in April 1993, but more than any team they
have learned when to say no in negotiating with their own free
agents. Likewise, the Pittsburgh Steelers have developed so many
quality linebackers that they could afford to let players like
Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes go. The Miami Dolphins
have won by drafting well and signing reasonably priced free
agents such as defensive end Trace Armstrong and running back
Lamar Smith.

No team is in better salary-cap shape than the Eagles, who at
week's end were $8.8 million under the 2002 cap of $71.4
million. Using a frugal approach, Philadelphia is a Super Bowl
contender, with 21 starters signed through 2003. In the late
'90s the Eagles began locking up key players two or three years
before they were eligible for free agency. The bonuses are
smaller than what a bona fide free agent would get, but the
players wind up with more money earlier in their careers. This
year the Eagles will most likely re-sign two or three
veterans--like safety Brian Dawkins--and give them the up-front
money as a roster bonus. (A roster bonus is assigned to the cap
the year it is paid; a signing bonus is prorated over the length
of the contract.)

"Managing free agency and the cap is not that hard," says Eagles
president Joe Banner, "if you remember what Andy Reid always
says: 'Stay disciplined. It's a team sport.' There aren't many
coaches or general managers with the guts to risk signing guys so
early. The public will kill you if you're wrong. But if you draft
well, it's the best way to keep a team intact."

At the other extreme are the Bengals and the Arizona Cardinals.
Both franchises have sad recent histories and owners who don't
seem to get it. As a result, both must pay above market value for
players. Just last March cornerback Duane Starks signed with
Arizona for $4.6 million a year, at least $1 million per year
more than anyone else was offering.

Parity has touched every franchise but the Bengals, the one team
that hasn't finished above .500 since 1993. Players only go
there as a last resort, and then can't wait to escape. After
waiver-wire pickup Garrison Hearst led the team in rushing in
1996, Cincinnati made him a three-year, $1.8 million free-agent
offer. "The Bengals were offering him $600,000 a year," said a
close friend of Hearst's, "and he wouldn't have signed in
Cincinnati for $6 million a year." Hearst wound up with a
one-year deal from San Francisco and made $1.5 million.

Bright guy, that Hearst. Even in the complicated and
unpredictable world of free agency, you can never go wrong
choosing the 49ers over the Bengals.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER HIT ANTOWAIN SMITH The bargain pickup--he made $1.1 million in 2001--ran for 1,157 yards. COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN FREDRICKSON/REUTERS MISS SCOTT MITCHELL Detroit blew $13 million in signing bonuses. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER HIT REGGIE WHITE COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO MISS LARRY BROWN COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES HIT HARDY NICKERSON COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER MISS DANA STUBBLEFIELD COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER HIT KEENAN MCCARDELL COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES MISS ERIC GREEN

Smart Money?
HOW THEY RANK SI rates the NFL's 32 teams on how they have
handled free agency in its first decade, based on quality of
signings, wins, playoff appearances and salary-cap management.

TEAM
AVG. WINS (RANK) BEST SIGNING WORST SIGNING
THE SKINNY

1. Steelers
9.8 (3) LB Kevin Greene, 1993 CB Donnell Woolford, 1997
Least dead money (salaries for nonroster players) of any team,
plus revenue from Heinz Field means cash to throw at their own
marquee talent

2. Eagles
7.9 (16) CB Troy Vincent, 1996 DT William Perry, 1994
President Joe Banner has done a remarkable job managing the
salary cap, and rainy day fund allows them to address areas of
need

3. Packers
10.6 (1) DE Reggie White, 1993 G Raleigh McKenzie, 1999
Top-notch scouting staff keeps them from overpaying for free
agents like TE Jackie Harris, DE Gabe Wilkins and CB Doug Evans

4. Dolphins
9.6 (5) FS Brock Marion, 1998 TE Eric Green, 1995
They know how to draft and have the NFL's most underrated scout-
capologist in player personnel honcho Rick Spielman

5. Patriots
8.3 (13) CB Otis Smith, 2000 RB Marion Butts, 1994
Paid the price in 2000 after having to trim $10.5 million
from cap but were hoisting the Lombardi Trophy a season later

6. 49ers
10.3 (2) CB Deion Sanders, 1994 DE Gabe Wilkins, 1998
First team to really feel the salary-cap crunch ($24 million
over in 1999) celebrated its first playoff appearance in three
years last season

7. Bills
8.6 (11) DT Ted Washington, 1995 G Joe Panos, 1998
New G.M. Tom Donahoe didn't win many friends with his big-name purge
last year, but the Bills are now poised to be the Patriots of 2002

8. Broncos
9.8 (3) WR Ed McCaffrey, 1995 CB Dale Carter, 1999
Won two straight Super Bowls thanks to bargain signings like
McCaffrey and LB Bill Romanowski but are just 25-23 in the three
seasons since

9. Bucs
8.5 (15) LB Hardy Nickerson, 1993 WR Alvin Harper, 1995
Wasted big money on big busts early on but have become better
shoppers in recent years, picking up players like C Jeff Christy

10. Rams
7.6 (18) G Adam Timmerman, 1999 G Dwayne White, 1995
In excellent cap shape for a team with so many stars, and
Marshall Faulk and Aeneas Williams testify that no one has fared
better with trades

11. Raiders
8.4 (12) QB Rich Gannon, 1999 CB Larry Brown, 1996
Got seven starting seasons from QBs Jeff Hostetler and Rich
Gannon but made a big, costly mistake in between with the signing
of Jeff George

12. Cowboys
8.9 (8) CB Deion Sanders, 1995 G Everett McIver, 1998
Deion helped deliver a Super Bowl win in January 1996, but the
team was soon plagued by cap problems and began a long, slow
decline

13. Titans
8.7 (10) LB Randall Godfrey, 2000 WR Yancey Thigpen, 1998
Nondescript signings like Godfrey, TE Frank Wycheck and P Craig
Hentrich fit the system they like to run, and it's hard to knock
the results

14. Chiefs
9.3 (7) RB Priest Holmes, 2001 WR/KR Tony Horne, 2001
Proved there are bargains to be found in free agency when they
signed Holmes for $1.6 million a year and he won the rushing title

15. Bears
7.1 (23) T Andy Heck, 1994 CB Thomas Smith, 1999
Signing of Heck didn't create much stir at the time, but he's
one of the five most underrated free-agent pickups ever

16. Chargers
6.6 (26) DT John Parrella, 1994 G Aaron Taylor, 1998
Built terrific interior defensive line with Parrella and Norman
Hand from '97 to '99 and found a gem in '98 in LB Gerald Dixon

17. Jets
7.3 (21) RB Curtis Martin, 1998 S Steve Atwater, 1999
Had to strike deal with Texans to take high-priced veterans in
expansion draft and had to part with promising young T Ryan
Young as a result

18. Falcons
6.9 (24) WR Terance Mathis, 1994 RB Craig Heyward, 1994
Hardest team to evaluate--big busts, great buys and the most
free agents (24) to have started at least 20 games

19. Colts
7.2 (22) C Kirk Lowdermilk, 1993 WR Floyd Turner, 1994
Bought the guts of a playoff line with Lowdermilk and Will
Wolford in the mid-'90s, but can you remember any other big
splashes?

20. Ravens
7.7 (17) DB Rod Woodson, 1998 TE Eric Green, 1996
Loaded up for a Super Bowl run in 2000 and won it all, but
they're beginning to look an awful lot like the '97 Florida Marlins

21. Vikings
9.6 (5) K Gary Anderson, 1998 DE John Burrough, 1999
Have to eat $21.6 million in dead money this year, which
explains why they had to let free-agent LB Kailee Wong walk

22. Giants
8.3 (13) G Ron Stone, 1996 LB Mike Croel, 1995
Have a bad track record of overpaying their own players and not
saving enough to spend on free agents from other teams

23. Browns
4.0 (31) P Chris Gardocki, 1999 DE Orpheus Roye, 2000
Awful in free agency in their first three years as an expansion
franchise, but coach Butch Davis is finally getting things in
order

24. Seahawks
7.4 (19) LB Chad Brown, 1997 CB Nate Odomes, 1994
Simply paid too much for players who contributed too little,
most recently last season with aging DT John Randle

25. Jaguars
8.8 (9) WR Keenan McCardell, 1996 LB Bryce Paup, 1998
Ridiculous overpayments to their own players over the years
forced them to gut the roster this year and rebuild with
low-cost signings

26. Redskins
6.9 (24) LB Ken Harvey, 1994 DT Dana Stubblefield, 1998
Signings like Deion Sanders and Jeff George have been the
biggest busts, dollar for dollar, in history of the system

27. Saints
6.3 (28) WR Joe Horn, 2000 WR Albert Connell, 2001
Needy defensive team shouldn't have let two of its own--DE Joe
Johnson and DT La'Roi Glover--get away during the off-season

28. Panthers
6.6 (26) CB Eric Davis, 1996 DT Sean Gilbert, 1998
Bad enough they gave Gilbert a $46.5 million deal, but they also
had to send the Redskins two first-round draft picks as
compensation

29. Lions
7.4 (19) T Ray Roberts, 1996 QB Scott Mitchell, 1994
Got little return on the $23 million in bonus money they doled
out to Mitchell and fellow QB Charlie Batch, both now gone

30. Cardinals
6.1 (29) LB Rob Frederickson, 1999 T Larry Tharpe, 1995
Owner Bill Bidwill has ruined a potentially great situation,
botching, among other things, stadium deals and player
negotiations

31. Bengals
5.0 (30) DT Oliver Gibson, 1999 QB Jon Kitna, 2001
All you need to know is that the best signing for a franchise
that always seems to be well under the cap is Gibson

N/A Texans

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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