History Shows NFL Free Agency is a Fool’s Gold Rush

While it’s difficult to temper their enthusiasm, most NFL fans know better. The “tampering period” of free agency has begun, which essentially means that free agency has begun.

Even though players aren’t allowed to agree to deals with new teams until it officially opens Wednesday afternoon, backroom deals and secret handshakes will undoubtedly occur over the next 24-48 hours.

josh mccown
Josh McCown was released by Tampa Bay in 2015 after signing a 2-year, $10 million there in 2014.

Teams will overspend on players and fans will get overly excited their perennial loser is somehow now a Super Bowl contender.

Then a year from now the team(s) that “won” in free agency will be sitting at home when the playoffs begin.

That’s because free agency is nothing but fool’s gold in the NFL.

Pundits praised the Dolphins in 2013 for landing high-priced free agent talent on both sides of the ball.

The Fins signed receiver Mike Wallace, as well as linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, all of whom no longer wear teal and orange.

In 2014, the Bucs paid big money to defensive end Michael Johnson, offensive tackle Anthony Collins, cornerback Alterraun Verner, and quarterback Josh McCown.

A year later, Collins was on the streets, McCown was in Cleveland, and Johnson was back in Cincinnati.

Miami was back at it in 2015, investing $114 million in free agent Ndamukong Suh last year, as well as adding tight end Jordan Cameron and free safety Louis Delmas. And just like in ’13, the additions didn’t help the Dolphins make the playoffs.

The Jaguars were also hailed as offseason winners last year after they sent a Brink’s truck to the home of tight end Julius Thomas, then added Jeremy Parnell, Davon House, Sergio Brown and Dan Skuta.

While the team’s offense has them on the rise, the Jags haven’t won more than 5 games in a given year under head coach Gus Bradley, who now heads into his fourth season in Jacksonville.

Granted, some outliers have spent and won big in free agency.

A prime example here is John Elway’s Broncos. Over the last few off-seasons, Elway spent free agent dollars on defensive backs Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, as well as pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and most notably, Peyton Manning.

Elway’s moves paid off last month when he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

And while the Colts and Eagles have had some measure of free agency success as well, these teams are the exceptions to the rule. The Dolphins, Titans, Raiders, Jets, Jaguars, Bears, Browns, Falcons, Bucs and Redskins have committed plenty of dollars to free agency over the past three years with minimal results where it matters most: On the field.

On the other side of the equation are teams like the Packers, Panthers, Seahawks, Bengals and Chiefs, who are more frugal than the teams listed above and have combined for four Super Bowl appearances between them since 2010. (If you’re wondering about the Patriots, they’re often right in the middle when it comes to spending.)

The counter argument is the Dolphins, Jaguars and Browns have had free agent money to burn over the past three years, which is true. Jacksonville, Miami, Cleveland, Tennessee and Oakland have recently found themselves at the top of the heap in terms of cap space.

Are these teams not supposed to use available resources to improve their rosters?

But there’s the underlying issue with these teams: They haven’t strung enough successful drafts together in order to build a solid core. The draft is every team’s lifeblood and without that steady foundation in place, no amount of money invested in free agency is going to turn the franchise’s misfortunate around.

When teams spend big in free agency, all they’re doing is essentially trying to get rich quick. They’re attempting to atone for mistakes made in the draft by patching holes with overpaid players being paid on past production instead of on future potential.

Free agency works best when teams make one significant signing (and this could be re-signing one of the aforementioned core pieces) and focus the rest of their resources on depth and role players that will be brought in on cheap, one-year deals so the investment is never steep.

Value is rarely found at this time of year – only overspending and heightened fan expectations that are doomed to crumble. So while some pundits will continue to suggest teams “won” in free agency, the truth is that in the NFL, you can’t “win” anything in March.