For all intents and purposes, free agency in the NFL is designed to be fruitful for both players and teams. Following an expiring contract, players have an opportunity to market themselves to the highest bidder and maximize their earning potential, while teams with enough cap space can improve their roster in the blink of an eye.
But in many cases, free agency has become a method for teams to waste valuable cap space without getting much return on investment. Take the Rams for example.
In March of 2012, the Rams were desperately in need of upgrading at cornerback. They had just released Ron Bartell, who was the team’s top cornerback but who also missed virtually all of 2011 after sustaining two neck fractures in the season opener. In steps free agent Cortland Finnegan, who was supposed to provide an injection of talent to the position to go along with his $50 million price tag ($27 million guaranteed).
On Monday of this week Finnegan was released from his second team when the Dolphins dumped him after only one season. He played just 23 games for the Rams over two substandard seasons.
Almost a year to the day of signing Finnegan, the Rams once again jumped feet-first into the free agency pool when they signed tight end Jared Cook to a five-year, $35 million contract. The acquisition was supposed to finally provide quarterback Sam Bradford with a weapon in the passing game, a true mismatch to use against undersized defensive backs and slower linebackers.
In two seasons with the Rams, Cook has caught 103 passes for 1,305 yards and eight touchdowns. Those aren’t terrible numbers but I’m sure that’s also not the type of production the Rams were hoping for when they handed Cook $16 million in guaranteed money. Only Jimmy Graham of the Saints ($20.9 million) and Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings ($18.5) were given more in guaranteed cash. What’s worse is that Cook ostensibly isn’t a fit in the Rams’ current offense, and hasn’t been since Jeff Fisher ditched the spread just a month into the 2013 season.
The Rams spent big before the 2013 season as well, signing tackle Jake Long to a four-year, $36 million contract. In December of that year he tore his right ACL and MCL and in October of the following season, he re-tore his right ACL in a Week 8 loss to the Chiefs. Had he stayed healthy maybe the Rams would have seen a better return on their $36 million investment. Instead, he’s currently facing a possible release as the Rams scramble to free up cap space for the 2015 offseason.
The Rams aren’t the only team that has struck out in free agency. There are countless examples of teams feeling great about their investment in March, only to realize their mistake a year or two later. (Just ask Daniel Snyder and the Redskins.) And just because Finnegan, Cook and Long didn’t make nearly the impact the Rams thought they would, doesn’t mean that the next big-money free agent will be a bust as well.
But free agency in general is a major roll of the dice and teams’ margin of error is razor thin because of the amount of cap space that they’re allocating to one player.
In many cases, teams are paying top dollar for past production as opposed to paying a free agent what he’ll be worth over the three-to-five-year span that he’ll be with his new team. That’s why many teams are scrambling to dump big contracts just two years into a long-term commitment.
Mike Iupati would look great donning a Rams’ helmet. He’s the perfect fit for the Rams’ power blocking scheme after playing six seasons in a similar system in San Francisco. But he could also command over $7 million per year, which is a huge investment for a Rams team that would still have to address other needs with limited cap space and only five draft picks. Justin Blalock is four years older than Iupati but would be half the cost, wouldn’t require the five-year commitment that Iupati is almost certain to receive on the open market, and is also a fit for the Rams’ power blocking scheme. (Blalock also has ties to current offensive line coach Paul Boudreau from their time together in Atlanta.)
There’s a reason why teams like the Packers treat free agency like a plauge and focus their attention on the draft. Successful teams, championship teams, build through the draft and find bargains in free agency to plug holes and build depth. Every once in a while Ted Thompson will sign a Julius Peppers in free agency, but his bread and butter is the draft.
There are examples of teams having success after making a splash in free agency, with the 2014 Broncos being one of them. But St. Louis doesn’t have Peyton Manning under center. There’s no need to rush into free agency and be baited into bidding wars for players that are unlikely to match production with their value.
A couple of shrewd moves by the Rams could have just as much impact as spending millions in guaranteed money on a player that has likely already played his best football.