Here’s a narrative you may hear a lot of as free agency approaches: “The Bucs signed the best free agent of 2020 and that’s how you win a Super Bowl.”
This one, you’ll hear less: “In 2019, the Jets signed two of the top 10 free agents.”
In fact, the Jets aren’t the only New York team of recent memory to find themselves in a pit of despair less than two years after “winning” free agency. The Giants signed three of the top-10 free agents in 2016 and while that earned them a trip to a wild card loss that season, they’ve averaged 4.5 wins per season in the four years since.
Some players who are being dreamt of by hopeful fans right now, who’ll also never likely hit free agency, include Dak Prescott, Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Leonard Williams, Hunter Henry, Shaquil Barrett, Trent Williams, Lavonte David Yannick Ngakoue, Brandon Scherff, Taylor Moton, Carl Lawson, and Anthony Harris. Seems like an exceptional list but the majority are going to be franchise tagged or re-signed prior to free agency.
The reason for this partly being caused by the fact that teams know they face an underwhelming free agent landscape that admittedly could unlock your Super Bowl aspirations but in many, many, many more cases will simply turn into a poor allocation of funds.
Free agency foresight is not only useful in terms of tempering expectations both on the quality of available players and their productivity relative to salary thereafter, but also when it comes to trading for a franchise quarterback in January.
Had the LA Rams lost the bid for Matthew Stafford, what options would they have been left with other than staying the course with Jared Goff? You may disagree with this move on a future draft capital level, but few NFL personnel would seem to argue that the Rams didn’t improve at the position for next season. So long as Deshaun Watson or Dak Prescott aren’t traded, I don’t foresee how any teams are going to do a better job of upgrading at quarterback next season than LA.
Once the Cowboys tag or sign Prescott, the top free agent quarterbacks will all be players who were backups at some point in 2020: Mitchell Trubisky, Jameis Winston, Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco. Those who could join them, like Jimmy Garoppolo, Alex Smith, or Teddy Bridgewater, only become free agents because they are not upgrades for your starter.
And that is a typical free agent quarterback class.
The next quarterback traded after Stafford was Carson Wentz, a 2016 NFL Draft swap that I don’t imagine would have helped the Rams in any sense other than playing around with the multiverse. And saving first round picks. Bringing Sam Darnold back to Southern California wasn’t going to be the answer either. But LA wasn’t going to trade for Darnold or Wentz and the Colts only did so out of desperation to avoid the free agent market.
Indianapolis could do something that the Rams couldn’t, which is move into position to draft a quarterback this year. They still could. Maybe a team gets incredibly lucky with another Justin Herbert rookie season and sure Trevor Lawrence can probably help the Jaguars win four times as many games this year, but it’s now starting to look like no team will be able to top the Stafford upgrade at quarterback that the Rams completed.
It’s perfectly okay to disagree with the move, but I would still find that statement to be true: Stafford looks to be the best quarterback who will change teams this year.
The good news about Les Snead being bad with money in September is that it makes him almost incapable of being bad with money in March. As usual, the Rams probably won’t be involved in the high-profile free agent acquisitions next month. That’s fine.
Look at the last five years of free agency. I highlighted the top-10 free agents ranked on these lists and disagree with the order or not, an NFL “top-10” isn’t likely to leave off any all-pros or Pro Bowlers or generally elite players. I’m making no judgments about the order, I’m just giving examples of what a typical free agent class looks like at the top.
I’m not including players who were franchise tagged or re-signed by their teams prior to free agency. Or at least, I’m not intentionally doing that.
NFL.com’s top 99 free agents of 2016:
- Malik Jackson, DT (JAX, 6/$90)
- Olivier Vernon, DE (NYG, 5/$85)
- Keleche Osemele, G (OAK, 5/$58)
- Doug Martin, RB (TB, 5/$35)
- Bruce Irvin, OLB (OAK, 4/$37)
- Jason Pierre-Paul, DE (NYG, 1/$10)
- Mario Williams, DE (MIA, 2/$16)
- Eric Weddle, S (BAL, 4/$26)
- Danny Trevathan, LB (CHI, 4/$28)
- Janoris Jenkins, CB (NYG, 5/$62.5)
2016 free agency:
In case you weren’t as floored by it as I was, it’s only been five years since Malik Jackson was the number one free agent in the league. Coming off of a Super Bowl win with the Broncos, Jackson was his ‘ville’s first major indication of the two-year spending spree to come. The Jags also signed CB Prince Amukama (#20 free agent), RB Chris Ivory (#33), OT Kelvin Beachum (#36), and S Tashaun Gipson (#40). I’ll save Jacksonville’s full story for 2017, but they signed five of the top 40 free agents in 2016.
The Jags went 3-13 in 2016.
Get this: The Eagles also plan to release Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson.— Bo Wulf (@Bo_Wulf) February 19, 2021
The Giants signed three of the top-10 free agents, including Janoris Jenkins once he was set free by the Rams. They also signed DT Damon Harrison (#18), giving them four of the top-20. New York went 11-5 under Ben McAdoo in 2016, but barely outscored their opponents and got blown out by the Packers in the wild card round. McAdoo was fired after a 2-10 start in 2017 and the Giants have been as bad as any team in the NFL over the last four years.
The Raiders signed two of the top five, plus CB Sean Smith (#14) and S Reggie Nelson (#22), and Oakland went 12-4 that season. But they were easily defeated by the Texans (2016 free agency: QB Brock Osweiler, 4/$72, RB Lamar Miller 4/$26) in the wild card round and the Raiders haven’t posted a winning record since.
SOME (not all) other 2016 contracts of note (good and bad):
- TE Coby Fleener, NO, 5/$36
- WR Marvin Jones, DET, 5/$40
- LT Russell Okung, DEN, 5/$53
- C Alex Mack, ATL, 5/$45
- G Brandon Brooks, PHI, 5/$40
- CB Josh Norman, WAS, 5/$75
Norman likely would have been a top-3 free agent but had to go an unusual route of being franchised, then un-franchised by Carolina first.
NFL.com’s top 101 free agents of 2017:
- Alshon Jeffery, WR (PHI, 1/$9.5)
- Calais Campbell, DE (JAX, 4/$60)
- Brandon Williams, DT (BAL, 5/$52)
- Dont’a Hightower, LB (NE, 4/$43.5)
- A.J. Bouye, CB (JAX, 5/$67.5)
- Stephon Gilmore, CB (NE, $65)
- Kevin Zeitler, G (CLE, 5/$60)
- Adrian Peterson, RB (NO, 2/$7)
- Terrelle Pryor, WR (WAS, 1/$6)
- Dontari Poe, DT (ATL, 1/$8)
2017 free agency:
There’s a lot of talk about one and two-year deals this year because of the lowered salary cap, but that doesn’t appear to be unusual. Jeffery, Pryor, and Poe all settled for one-year deals when the long-term market didn’t offer what they were looking for. Also, I am “Malik Jackson times 1,007” dumbfounded that Terrelle Pryor was considered a top-tier free agent only four years ago.
Coming off of a 77-catch, 1,007-yard season with the Browns, his first as a full-time wideout, Pryor had 36 catches for 492 yards over the rest of his career.
Bringing it back to the Jaguars, they signed two of the top-five free agents in 2017 (A.J. Bouye had been an overlooked restricted free agent a year earlier that nobody wanted), plus S Barry Church (#28). Teaming them with the 2016 free agents and top picks like Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville went 11-5 and reached the AFC Championship in 2017. But not winning that game may have been their undoing. The Jags have gone 5-11, 6-10, and 1-15 in the three seasons since, shedding themselves of virtually every player that they added in 2016-2017.
The Patriots did re-sign Hightower after he tested the market, then brought in Gilmore from the Bills, which you probably know now was the best move of 2017.
You also know that the Rams had a notable 2017 stint in free agency, signing Andrew Whitworth (#17) and Robert Woods (#74), and their place on that list also indicates that often the best acquisitions are often not the most publicized. In hindsight, Whitworth could have been the number two free agent and Woods would easily settle into the top-15.
As a receiver, Woods was ranked behind Jeffery, Pryor, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Kenny Britt, Brandon Marshall, Michael Floyd, Torrey Smith, Kenny Stills, Kendall Wright, and Cordarrelle Patterson in 2017 free agency.
SOME (not all) other 2017 contracts of note (good and bad):
- QB Mike Glennon, CHI, 3/$45
- WR Kenny Britt, CLE, 4/$32
- WR Kenny Stills, MIA, 4/$32
- WR Pierre Garcon, SF, 5/$47
- LT Russell Okung, SD, 4/$53 (again!)
- LT Matt Kalil, CAR, 5/$55
- G Kevin Zeitler, CLE, 5/$60
- S Tony Jefferson, BAL, 4/$34
Notice how often the Ravens sign safeties.
SB Nation’s top 100 free agents of 2018:
- Andrew Norwell, G (JAX, 5/$66.5)
- Kirk Cousins, QB (MIN, 3/$84)
- Jarvis Landry, WR (CLE, 5/$75) (Tag and trade)
- Tyrann Mathieu, S (HOU, 1/$7)
- Dion Lewis, RB (TEN, 4/$20)
- Jimmy Graham, TE (GB, 3/$30)
- Star Lotulelei, DT (BUF, 5/$50)
- E.J. Gaines, CB (CLE, 1/$4)
- Nate Solder, OT (NYG, 4/$62)
- Trumaine Johnson, CB (NYJ, 5/$72.5)
2018 free agency:
It may seem like Jacksonville must have slowed down in 2018, but actually they signed a consensus top-10 free agent and the premium interior offensive lineman on the market that year. As “safe” as you might think signing a guard could be, Norwell’s been considered a major disappointment in his three years with the Jaguars.
Now might be the right time to mention the Browns, a franchise that has done everything in its power to prove to people that having a lot of first round picks and spending a lot of money in free agency does not make you great. It just means that you are consistently not great. Teams that have-not, over-spend in free agency and overrate first round picks. And probably in some cases, ruin first round picks.
And no, I have no idea why E.J. Gaines is so high. But SB Nation wasn’t the only place to rate him that high and he was coming off of a strong (but typically short) season with the Bills. He played in six games with Cleveland, the last six of his career. At least he didn’t cost as much as Trumaine Johnson.
The Browns also signed Chris Hubbard and Carlos Hyde in 2018, two more underwhelming additions from that year. Hyde played six games for Cleveland. Yes, the Browns were better as of 2020, but mostly in spite of their free agent moves.
SOME (not all) other 2018 contracts of note (good and bad):
- WR Allen Robinson, CHI, 3/$48
- WR Sammy Watkins, KC, 3/$48
- QB Case Keenum, DEN, 2/$36
- C Weston Richburg, SF, 5/$47
- C Ryan Jensen, TB, 4/$42
- CB Malcolm Butler, TEN, 5/$61
- LB Anthony Hitchens, KC, 5/$45
NFL.com’s top-101 free agents of 2019:
- Le’Veon Bell, RB (NYJ, 4/$52.5)
- Earl Thomas, S (BAL, 4/$55)
- Trey Flowers, DE (DET, 5/$90)
- Nick Foles, QB (JAX, 4/$88)
- Landon Collins, SS (WAS, 6/$84)
- Anthony Barr, OLB (MIN, 5/$67.5)
- C.J. Mosley, LB (NYJ, 5/$85)
- Justin Houston, OLB (IND, 2/$24)
- K.J. Wright, OLB (SEA, 2/$15.5)
- Sheldon Richardson, DT (CLE, 3/$36)
2019 free agency:
Three years after Malik, it was Trey Flowers who turned his Super Bowl win into a long-term $90 million deal. Now it was for five years instead of six. Flowers is also not a premium pass rusher and he has posted nine sacks in 22 games with the Lions in two years. Of course, Detroit also has one of the worst defenses in the NFL still.
The Jaguars keep trying for some reason.
The Vikings actually did lose Barr to the Jets temporarily, but he changed his mind and went back to Minnesota, pleading temporary insanity. New York still got Le’Veon Bell, who would have been the top free agent in 2018 if not for the franchise tag. The Jets have gotten two games from Mosley in two years and they cut Bell after one. Their best moves were the players they retained: Jamison Crowder and Brian Poole.
The Ravens signed another safety. Thomas was released after one season for bad behavior.
Going into his second season as the head coach again, Jon Gruden’s Raiders were aggressive in 2019: RT Trent Brown, WR Tyrell Williams, S Lamarcus Joyner. The team has gone 7-9 and 8-8 over the last two years.
SOME (not all) other 2019 contracts of note (good and bad):
- S Tyrann Mathieu, KC, 3/$42
- DT Ndamukong Suh, TB, 1/$9
- S Lamarcus Joyner, OAK, 4/$42
- LB ZaDarius Smith, GB, 4/$66
- OT Trent Brown, OAK, 4/$66
- WR Tyrell Williams, OAK, 4/$44
- G Rodger Saffold, TEN, 4/$44
- LB Shaq Barrett, TB, 1/$5
SB Nation’s top-100 free agents of 2020:
- Tom Brady, QB (TB, 2/$50)
- Jadeveon Clowney, DE (TEN, 1/$13)
- Byron Jones, CB (MIA, 5/$82.5)
- Everson Griffen, DE (DAL, 1/$6)
- Philip Rivers, QB (IND, 1/$25)
- Kyle Van Noy, OLB (MIA, 4/$51)
- Austin Hooper, TE (CLE, 4/$42)
- D.J. Reader, DT (CIN, 4/$53)
- Chris Harris, CB (LAC, 2/$20)
- Dante Fowler, OLB (ATL, 3/$48)
2020 free agency:
Of course the name everyone will point to is Brady, but the Buccaneers actually weren’t even that aggressive in free agency and that’s definitely not how they built a championship roster for Brady to slide into. The Bucs added Brady on a rather modest deal for a GOAT quarterback, they traded for Rob Gronkowski, and they retained their own: Barrett, Suh, and Pierre-Paul. All of those players were acquired in free agency, but on similarly modest deals for their talent.
The Chargers added Harris and RT Bryan Bulaga and DT Linval Joseph, but their defense and offensive line were both weak spots en route to a 7-9 record.
Clowney had zero sacks in eight games. Reeder played in five games. Griffen played in seven games for the Cowboys, then went to the Lions. Fowler had two sacks. It’s hard to find “success” stories at the top of the free agent pile. It’s easier to find them in the middle or the bottom.
It’s also easy to find failures in the middle and the bottom. Though it can be safer than the draft in some ways, it also carries a significantly heavier financial burden and those expenditures still often lead to disappointments. Both on an individual level and a franchise level.
And other than the once-a-decade signings like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, you really want to steer away from the quarterbacks.
SOME (not all) other 2020 contracts of note (good and bad):
- QB Teddy Bridgewater, CAR, 3/$66
- DE Robert Quinn, CHI, 5/$70
- LB Joe Schobert, JAX, 5/$53
- OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, DET, 5/$45
- CB James Bradberry, NYG, 3/$43
- CB Trae Waynes, CIN, 3/$42
- LB Cory Littleton, LV, 3/$35