Players in coveted positions quickly scooped up
Some teams approach free agency aggressively fearing that their needs might not be otherwise addressed.
It made me laugh this week when a few NFL front office executives grumbled about the high costs during the first wave of free agency.
Former Seahawks cornerback Ken Lucas got a six-year, $37 million deal from the Panthers, who also handed Packers guard Mike Wahle a five-year, $27-million deal. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones handed out almost $30 million in signing bonuses for Drew Bledsoe, Marco Rivera, Jason Ferguson and Anthony Henry. Jonas Jennings got a seven-year, $36 million contract from the 49ers and Kareem McKenzie moved from the Jets to the Giants at a staggering seven-year, $37 million price.
The only thing big about the names of the players who signed these contracts is the number of dead presidents owners stacked up in front of them to lure them to their teams. No, the league isn't going baseball crazy with salaries. Of the first 80 unrestricted free agents signed, there were about as many sub million-dollar deals as there were major million-dollar contracts.
The funny thing about the high price of doing business during the first week of free agency is the predictability. While it might be impossible to pick the teams who will spend for the players, the prices are right in line with expectations. To sign a top free agent during the first week of free agency requires an overpayment. Most positions for top players are three to five deep.
Those who fail to land those players at need positions find themselves in trouble because the options are the draft; restricted free agency, which is tough; or trades. And, yes, there is predictability in the numbers. Examples:
• The top cornerbacks this year weren't going to receive the seven-year, $65 million contract Champ Bailey received after being traded from Washington to Denver. Or even the six-year, $48 million deal that "franchised" Chris McAlister received from the Ravens last fall. All of this year's cornerback contracts were just percentage upgrades from last year's bidding frenzy. Shawn Springs headed the class of last year by coming out of the box quickly and getting a six-year, $31.3 million deal from the Redskins.
Predictably, Lucas got a six-year, $37 million deal. New Viking Fred Smoot got around the same six-year, $34.8 million contract Antoine Winfield received from the club last year. Gary Baxter went to the Browns and Henry went to the Cowboys for $5 million a year. That's not brain surgery. If you want the top guys, you have to reach out and pay them the market of last year's pool plus a little bit of a percentage increase.
• Offensive tackles are harder to find and rare to hit the market. Three-quarters of the 32 teams have first-round left tackles and rarely let them hit the market. If there is the threat an average left tackle is going to hit the free-agent market, the team has to step up and pay him roughly a five-year, $25 million contract. The Bills didn't think left tackle Jennings was worth it, but the 49ers did. He got more than $5 million a year.
McKenzie was the best right tackle and got a similar deal. While Wahle's deal at $5.4 million is a bit pricey for a guard, it's right in line with last year's six-year, $31 million contract the Lions gave to Damien Woody. The only difference with Wahle is that he has the flexibility to play tackle if coach John Fox wants.
• The defensive end position is equally predictable, and any front-office person worried about the market needs to chill. Chike Okeafor, now of the Cardinals, signed for $25 million over five years, and the Jaguars lured Reggie Hayward of the Broncos for $33 million over six. Grant Wistrom got a $33 million contract from Seattle last year, while Bertrand Berry got five years, $25 million from the Cardinals. Where's the beef? That's just the price of business.
What's also funny is going through the past couple years of free agency and seeing how teams did in the first wave -- the first 10 days of free agency. Thanks to recruiting at the Pro Bowl and at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, the market moves quickly. There is an average of 10 signings a day for the first 10 days of free agency, and most of the top players are gone by the end of the second week, if not at the end of the first week.
With only 84 available starters -- players who started eight games or more -- there was even going to be a quicker pace last year. It is interesting to note that the overpayments in the first week of the past two years have paid big dividends at the key positions.
• In 2003, the Panthers hit big on Jake Delhomme at $2 million a year in the first seven days, and Jake Plummer was the right fit for the Broncos. People thought the Saints were crazy to pay left tackle Wayne Gandy $25 million for six years at the age of 32, but he's been a steady rock along their offensive line the past two seasons. The Lions found a Pro Bowl cornerback in Dre' Bly coming out of the blocks and gave him a five-year, $24 million contract. The Colts had a steal in defensive tackle Montae Reagor.
• In 2004, you can't fault the moves of the Redskins on defense during the first week of free agency. They had solid hits with defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, linebacker Marcus Washington and cornerback Springs. All three played at Pro Bowl levels. The Cardinals scored a Pro Bowl player in Bert Berry. Where would the Falcons' defense be without defensive tackle Rod Coleman? Sure, they thought the $27.75 million price over six years was a lot, but when he played, the team averaged 3½ sacks a game. When Coleman didn't play, the Falcons couldn't pressure the quarterback.
Where teams have tended to make the biggest mistakes are when they reach for positions other than tackle, defensive end, quarterback and cornerback. The biggest failures have been at safety. The Saints gave Tebucky Jones seven-years and $29.25 million after trading for him in 2003 and are expected to cut him before the weekend. Dexter Jackson got a five-year, $14 million contract from the Cardinals and didn't make it through two seasons in the desert. The Falcons cut Cory Hall after two seasons of a five-year, $12.25-million contract.
|"The only thing big about the names of the players who signed these contract is the number of dead presidents owners stacked up in front of them to lure them to their teams."|
Free agency is becoming a refined art. Fewer players of quality are allowed to hit the market because of the ever-increasing salary cap and each team's better ability to manage it. But good players do hit the market, and it's not a mistake to grab them. Franchises need to build around the draft, but the draft often doesn't supply a large number of players who can be impact starters during the first season. The lower a team drafts in a round, the tougher it is to acquire first-year players who can help immediately.
The Cowboys dropped last year from a playoff to non-playoff team because they didn't fill holes in the initial market. They failed to replace cornerback Mario Edwards and had a nightmare trying to fill out coverage on the other side of Terence Newman. The Panthers thought Adam Meadows could be the right tackle if they moved Jordan Gross to left and cut Todd Steussie. Meadows couldn't make it through training camp and ended up retiring, and the Panthers had to patch the positions.
It's no surprise the Panthers and Cowboys jumped into free agency quickly in an attempt to fix some of last year's weak spots. Look at the Ravens. They tried to get Terrell Owens, but once that trade fell through, the receivers were gone and the Ravens were stuck with one- and two-receiver sets that didn't work for quarterback Kyle Boller.
Paying for the players in the first week of free agency is pricey and sometimes might not look to make sense. But football is a talent acquisition sport. No team can pay those steep prices every year, but if the alternative is floundering around and doing without, it's better to strike and strike fast.
The alternatives sometimes could be worse. They are known as losses.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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