April 24, 2014

NFL Free Agency: A 2013 Version of “Plan B?”

Cleveland Browns headquarters training campThe NFL hype machine is in full swing. NFL Live, NFL Total Access, SportsCenter, you name it – they all have been talking NFL free agent scenarios since the week after the Super Bowl. The buildup to the free agency period is as over-blown as anything you will see that doesn’t involve an actual game. You have to give the league credit though. Weeks and weeks of rumors and speculation lead up to a March 12th, 4 PM feeding frenzy. And they have us all hooked. Yesterday I was at the gym and ran into a friend who had parked himself in front of one of the TVs that had on ESPN. He said “I don’t want to miss anything as it comes down.”

Every Browns fan is so excited this morning. The new regime front office featuring Joe Banner and his trusty lieutenant Mike Lombardi struck early. Former Ravens 3-4 edge pass rusher Paul Kruger signed a five-year, $40 million deal with the Browns almost immediately after the clock struck four. Later in the evening, the front seven got another boost with the addition of former Oakland defensive tackle Desmond Bryant on a five-year, $34 million deal. This morning, Ray Horton’s defensive added one of his guys from Arizona, Outside Linebacker Quentin Groves for two years and $2.8 million.

Its definitely a “Banner Day” for the Browns. The front seven has been shored up with the additions of Kruger, Bryant, and Groves. Throw in the likes of Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, D’Qwell Jackson, Jabaal Sheard, and James Michael Johnson, and you have a really nice mix.

With that said, I can’t get overly jacked about free agent signings.

Some of our readers are probably too young to remember “Plan B” free agency, which started in 1989 and lasted just four years. It came to an end because of an antitrust lawsuit in 1992 which found the practice “constituted a restraint of trade by illegally limiting their ability to earn top salaries comparable with those of players in other pro sports.” Essentially this is how Plan B worked:

Plan B free agency permitted all teams in the NFL to preserve limited rights of no more than 37 total players a season. If a player was a protected Plan B free agent, he was incapable of signing with another team without providing his old team the first opportunity to sign him again. The rest of the players were left unprotected, liberated to negotiate contracts with the rest of the teams in the league.

In other words, the only guys who were out there to sign in free agency for the most part were junk, malcontent’s, or players that were passed their primes. Looking back at the Browns signings during this period is not exactly a who’s who of high quality talent. James Brooks, Joe Morris, Robert Banks, Ted Banker, and Mark Bavaro was some of the “name” players that Plan B brought to Cleveland.

Sounds similar to free agency in 2013 to me.

Unrestricted free agency as we know it came in 1993, when the first big name to change teams was pass rushing beast Reggie White. But in the pantheon of great free agent players changing teams, the list of Pro Bowl type players is not long. For every White and Charles Woodson free agent stories, I can give you 10 deals like Andre Rison to the Browns for five years and $17 million in 1995 with a five million signing bonus. He lasted one year in Cleveland. The Godfather of bad contracts of course is Albert Haynesworth and his seven-year, $100 million deal with Washington in 2009, signed the first day of the free agent period. Not only was he out of shape and performed poorly on the field, but Fat Albert was a horrible teammate and malcontent.

These situations are obviously the extreme cases, but the point of this exercise is simple – NFL Free Agency is fools gold. Look at the guys who were out and available for signing yesterday. The biggest names were Kruger and WR Mike Wallace? Sure, the Ravens lost Kruger and fellow defensive stalwart Dannell Ellerbe to the Browns and Dolphins respectively and it will be a big hit to the Super Bowl champs, but I ask you this. If these two players were so good, why would the Ravens let them walk? I know, they were maxed out on their salary cap number, but again, if these two were so indispensable wouldn’t Ozzie Newsome, who is arguably the best and smartest GM in the league, find a way to keep these two?

The Steelers, like the Ravens, are another model NFL franchise. They are notorious for watching players build themselves up and watch them walk for bigger money and greener pastures. Mike Wallace is just the latest example of that. Yes, they have cap issues too, but again I ask you this – if Wallace was such a huge part of their offensive attack, why wouldn’t they pony up and pay him? Because they know he is easily replaceable. The Dolphins gave Wallace five years and a whopping $60 million. $30 million of that is guaranteed. This coming off a season where his numbers fell and he was “plagued by drops,” according to USA Today’s Mike Garafolo. I am calling my shot now – that deal will not work out for the Dolphins.

Green Bay was more than willing to let WR Greg Jennings hit the market, despite being their top wide-out for five of the past six seasons. In 2102, Jennings was plagued by injury and the Packers saw what life was like without him. Now he hits the market looking for big money and someone will overpay for him based on his name. The fact is he will be 30 in September, coming off a season full of groin issues, and the Packers, who like the Ravens and Steelers are viewed as among the smartest franchises in the game, are willing to let him go.

Jared Cook? Martellus Bennett? Its not like these guys are Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis. Yet teams were lining up to overpay for them yesterday. Cook and Bennett have tons of ability, but questionable character. The key to free agency is who you get under the radar. I would much rather spend half of the money on a guy like Brandon Myers from Oakland to be the Browns Tight End than give $20 million to Bennett or $35 million to Cook.

Here is the bottom line – big stars in their primes NEVER become available in this league unless they are known clubhouse cancers or divas (see Harvin, Percy). They never hit free agency either. And I’m not talking about skill position players either – the Joe Thomas’s, the Demarcus Ware’s, the Troy Polamalu’s, these guys don’t just hit the open market. I know Nnamdi Asomugha was a free agent two seasons ago when the Raiders let him walk to Philly, but how did that one work out?

The Browns are doing what they need to do to fill needs. They are not overpaying for big name, past their prime guys. But there is still work to do. If they are going to get back to being what they were when I was a kid, it all comes down to smart drafting and player development. You cannot become an elite team without consistent years of hitting on great draft picks.

Just ask our old friend Ozzie.

  • boomhauertjs

    With Mike “Touchdown Tommy in the Top 10″ Lombardi making the picks, I’m sure the Browns will be in great shape for the draft…

  • BenRM

    HA! “Banner Day!”

    I think the Kruger contract is pretty reasonable. They may have overpaid slightly, but it doesn’t appear to be ridiculous. I’m a little less sure how I feel about Bryant’s deal. And the Groves contract seems likewise completely reasonable.

    I agree with the premise that “there is a reason someone’s a free agent,” but when you are signing guys to relatively reasonable deals, I don’t think a team hurting itself.

  • depressed@work

    Oh, you go to the gym? Cool.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I am hoping that everybody is enjoying free agency within the proper context of knowing that there are no star players out there. For the Browns, I’m just looking for them to fill holes with competent players at reasonable prices, and so far I think this is what we are seeing which is why I am so pumped. Joe Thomas, Joe Haden, DQ, and T-Rich are still our star players… I just want some capable guys added to the roster who can employ the schemes called for by Horton and Turner, and diminish the need to land starting-caliber players with the Browns’ 4-7 round draft picks.

  • BenRM

    In addition to the fact that it doesn’t immediately look like anyone was greatly overpaid, my favorite part of the moves so far is that they allow a ton of draft flexibility.

  • mgbode

    I agree with some of your points. NFL FA is oftentimes fool’s gold as the very best guys do not hit the market often. It is important for a team like the Browns to properly value who we obtain. I think that is why we are happy to get Groves ($1.5mil/year) and pay less for Kruger than expected ($8mil/year rather than $12mil).

    The 2nd wave of FA is where the bargains lie and where the smart teams (like NE) are able to find the guys who still can contribute for a small salary (Groves is an example there though we signed him early).

    However, I completely disagree with the Raven example. While NFL FA is fool’s gold for acquiring teams, it often can hurt the teams who are losing the guys. Baltimore is losing Kruger, Ellerbe, Ray Lewis and likely Ed Reed from their defense. Those are 4 of the best 6 guys on their defense. It will be difficult for them to replace as starters and as depth.

  • TNB

    I don’t really agree with the tone of this article at all. On a first note, Green Bay just offered Jennings 10m a year. They obviously value him. Also, Ozzy Smith is consistently talking about how well Ellerbe and Kruger play and how he’d like to keep them. A big part of the reason people like Kruger and Ellerbe are walking is because Ozzy has to make the decisions as to who to keep that can produce on the field and off it. He has to decode which players to keep to keep the core of the team happy, keep the fans happy, all while looking to replace the production lost. Also, often times teams will let good players go because they feel they have someone who is good or great behind them who can get the job done, and most of the time for cheaper.

    While I agree FA signings are often overpaid and often have expectations that are too high, the implication I got from this article is that there’s little point to signing people, but ask Denver if they regret picking up Peyton.

  • Garry_Owen

    Is Ozzy Smith a heavy metal shortstop?

  • Big Z

    This article is silly. Everyone knows that free agents all come with question marks and that star players are rarely allowed to walk away from their teams, but it’s ludicrous to liken this year’s free agents to plan B free agents – there are quite a few pro-bowlers, solid veterans, and proven young competitors to be had out there. The quality of this free agent crop isn’t markedly better or worse than those in the recent past.

  • TNB

    Yeah, I dunno what my phone thinks I wanted to type ther.
    Regardless of the amount of metal, dove heads, and darkness, the point remains!

  • Garry_Owen

    Siri is my personal nemesis. She’s a cold-hearted, thick-headed . . .
    I. Hate. Her.

  • JK

    Do you even lift, bro?

  • Jim

    “Here is the bottom line – big stars in their primes NEVER become
    available in this league unless they are known clubhouse cancers or
    divas (see Harvin, Percy). They never hit free agency either.”

    Yes because Drew Brees, Kurt Warner (to the Cardinals), and Peyton Manning never hit free agency and made a difference with their new team. Oh wait.

  • eldaveablo

    Or Reggie White (ancient history, but still…).

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    24 ounce curls baby!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Siri is hawt!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I disagree I think they got a deal on Paul don’t call me Freddy Kruger. Everyone was expecting him to get $10-12M a year he only cost $8M, that’s a steal!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    It’s just refreshing to see Cleveland teams doing something other then losing, drafting followed by more drafting and more losing.

  • TD

    Brees was coming off of shoulder surgery and the Chargers drafted Rivers. He became a star in N.O., but he failed his physical in Miami. Cant forget that. Warner was thought to be past his prime. Remember his NY Giants fiasco? He was left for dead. Manning sat out a full year in his late 30s with a neck injury. And the Colts drafted Andrew Luck.

  • eldaveablo

    Agreed. What transaction in the NFL isn’t a question mark? Re-signing your own players can be a risk, draft picks are a risk, trades are a risk… Everyone would agree that the Browns needed to improve. Everyone would agree the Browns had a relatively large amount of money to spend in free agency. Is it such a bad thing to invest some of those dollars on some good (possibly really good) players just entering their primes that just so happen to address needs? Right now the Browns are a ore talented team than they were 24 hours ago. this is not a time to be a big downer.

    This just goes to show you how beaten down our fanbase is.

  • SDA

    I agree TD signing supposed stars in FA is a disaster waiting to happen. I do think we’ve made some good moves so far. Add in a good draft and I think the ship is headed in the right direction. But what do I know … Harv?

  • mgbode

    ok, if we want to think of something chilling, then this is the thought:

    we are able to pay this money for these free agents (with plenty of room to spare right now) because we have so many young players on their 1st contracts. over the next few seasons, those 1st contracts will turn into 2nd contracts making them more expensive players. unless we keep the influx of talent coming in the draft, we will start losing some of what looks to be incredible depth (on the D side at least).

    the NFL is a beast and the bills come due often. just ask Arizona what happens if you fail to get to the mountaintop before that bill gets past due.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The nature of the beast when it comes to the NFL. It’s the organizations like New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Baltimore who continually find ways to win, on and off the field, that set them apart. I’ll be interested to see what SF does because it appears that they are next in line with the way they are running the team. Of course we will all be watching what the Browns do to see if the new coaching staff can continue what the front office has done and then if the front office can keep it up in year two. I’m not picky I’m just happy to finally have something to watch even if it’s off the field right now.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Agree 1000%!

  • maxfnmloans

    I told my wife one day that we should have named our son “Siri” so then maybe she’d pay attention to him. Man, our couch sure is uncomfortable

  • Vindictive_Pat

    That is fantastic. I have no interest in trying to sleep on our short couch, so I am not planning to use, but I can dream about using it. Probably more apt for my wife would be asking if we should put our 1-year-old son on Facebook so she’ll pay attention to him.

  • Harv 21

    Look, this free agency thing is fine for the Browns because our roster is transitioning from bad to mediocre and gaps can be filled with decent, while we wait for more competent drafts. Call it Bad Draft Limited Recovery System. The cupboard is completely bare in spots (3-4 LBs, seam TEs) and in need of more decent in others (D-line). Our wallet is stuffed – feed me some meh and start winning some games while we wait for recent decent draft picks to get traction. The Ravens and Steelers have plenty of decent, an established system and good drafts rolling through. This ain’t for them so much.

    Question (Dwight Schrute voice): “…a season full of groin issues,” Now was this on-field, off-field or both? Answer might change my interest in Jennings.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    One man’s “being a downer” is another man’s “being realistic”.

  • saggy

    what kind of signing was Mario Williams last year? Does 10.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles = bust?

  • SDA

    more the exception than the rule though don’t you think?