The 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.