Free agency littered with disappointments

Recent history shows that there are plenty of mistakes made in free agency, and this year won't be any different, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: March 6, 2007, 12:16 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Two years ago, in an effort to bolster their defense and add some much-needed muscle versus the run, the Atlanta Falcons signed unrestricted free-agent middle linebacker Ed Hartwell to a six-year, $26.25 million contract that included an initial signing bonus of $8 million.

And last week, after watching Hartwell limp through two injury-plagued seasons in which he did little to distinguish himself, the Falcons unceremoniously released him. The anemic dividend on an investment that totaled $10 million in compensation for two years: 13 starts, 63 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

Those are hardly the kinds of numbers Atlanta officials anticipated when they signed Hartwell, who had played the early portion of his career in the shadow of Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis and seemed poised to emerge from his former teammate's shadow.

That said, they aren't altogether unusual, either.

The opening forays of the free-agent signing period over the weekend produced some mind-boggling dollar figures, again demonstrating the lack of fiscal responsibility that traditionally exists at this time of year. Some number crunching of the leaguewide ledger book reinforced the caveat emptor inherent to the free agency exercise.

Consider this: In the week preceding the start of the free agency period, NFL teams released 16 players they had signed as free agents only a year earlier. Ten more veterans added as free agents only two years ago were lopped from rosters.

Guys such as Hartwell, quarterback Aaron Brooks, linebacker LaVar Arrington and cornerback Fred Smoot, to cite only a few, went from veterans considered quick fixes by the franchises that signed them to players earning speedy pink slips.

"It just didn't work," acknowledged Smoot, who rebounded from his release by the Minnesota Vikings late last week by quickly re-signing with the Washington Redskins, his original franchise. "I guess it happens."

Indeed, it does, and with more regularity than it should.

In fact, that some teams and players fail so miserably in free agency is one of the most perplexing components of a system that should not be so flawed. Unlike the draft, free agency affords teams the opportunity to assess players based on their NFL track records. Because players cannot become unrestricted free agents until they have accrued four seasons of service in the league, there is a body of work to be studied.

Teams can kick the tires before making the buy.

Yet as recent history has indicated, there are still a lot of lemons. Even with four years of videotape with which to analyze the free agents, with a ton of empirical evidence on which to base decisions, too many errors are made.

And there is no reason to believe more weren't made over the weekend.

The spending spree began with a frenzy despite assessments that this year's pool of unrestricted veterans was the most diluted ever. Teams especially were enamored of offensive linemen, none of whom have ever been to a Pro Bowl game but many of whom still garnered contracts that will average $6 million to $7 million annually.

Said the president of one AFC franchise that still prefers to build through the draft: "For a lot of these teams, money just burns a hole in their pockets. If they've got it, they're going to spend it, even on middle-level players. They've taken the middle class and raised it up, believe me. And a year from now, they'll be releasing half the guys they signed because they found out they were poor fits."

If there is one unlearned lesson, it seems, from nearly a decade and a half under the current free-agent system, it's that "fit" must be the key to any addition. Instead, free agency for the most part has been about squeezing square pieces into round holes.

Arguably the most notable acquisition of the weekend was New England's addition of Adalius Thomas. He is a prototype hybrid edge linebacker from a 3-4 defense joining a coach who essentially created the position. What a novel approach, spending on a player who already fits an existing job description.

Teams ought to do more of it, but they don't, which is why so many clubs end up discarding free agents so quickly.

And why, in just a year or two, we'll see many of the same players who signed big-money deals this weekend back on the street again.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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