Sunday, March 13, 2016

Free Agency Insanity

Well, the first wave of free agency is over as the NFL began its new league year last week.

And the insanity is in full swing.

Case #1 of insanity - The Giants.  Why in the world would you give Janoris Jenkins (who has been a solid NFL corner but never played in a Pro Bowl and who has been - admittedly - lazy at the end of games and who has played in zero post season games in his career) 62.5 million dollars is beyond me?

But the Giants didn't stop there.  They also inked someone named Oliver Vernon 85 million dollars.  Believe it or not, that is the richest contract for an NFL defensive end ever.

All of that dough for someone who has only managed all of 29 sacks in four seasons!  Over that period of time the Bengals' defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who actually made a Pro Bowl, has 36 sacks.  And he isn't making 85 million!  I mean JJ Watt, the best defensive end in the league, is making that kind of money, and Watt is actually worth it.

This is a great example of insanity in the NFL when it comes to free agency.

Why would you pay two totally unproven players 62.5 and 85 million dollars, respectively, when they have done hardly anything in the NLF?

The answer is simple: they are just the best free agents at their position in the 2016 free agency period.  It certainly doesn't mean they are the best in the NFL at their positions.

The Giants are big on overspending, hoping that they get a player who is about to entire his prime and who can excel in their system.

The Giants have won two Super Bowls in the last decade, so maybe they know what they're doing.  But they are totally wrecking the market in the NFL too.

In fact, I'll wager a month's salary that neither Jenkins nor Vernon will see the last years of those contracts.

What will most likely happen is they will have a year to two to blossom.  When they don't, the Giants will cut them to save money and then repeat the whole process over again.

What the Giants should be focus on, instead, is doing what the best teams in the NFL (New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and - I can't believe I'm actually typing this, but if you look at wins over the last five years you'll see that it's legit - Cincinnati) do - the draft, develop, and retain.

Case in point for the Giants: Prince Amukamara their first round corner from 2011.  The Giants selected him 19th overall.  Had they just developed him properly - or chose a more talented player (Richard Sherman when four rounds later to Seattle) - they could have retained him by extending his contract for much less than the 62.5 they're paying Jenkins and not mortgaging their future on an unproven corner.

If the Giants were wise - they'd draft better (they have been attempting for years to land a legit wide receivers.  After whiffing on names such as Sinorice Moss, Steve Smith (who was okay but is best known for his sensation grab in the Super Bowl a few years back), Hakeem Nicks, Rueben Randle . . . before hitting the ball out of the park with Odell Beckham) - and then pay those guys the record deals rather than going out on a limb for expensive free agents who might pan out.

Case #2 of insanity - the insane amount of money people are willing to pay second tier players.   The Bengals second and third receivers are great examples here.

Marvin Jones, a fifth round selection in 2012, is example number one.  Detroit (and Cincy was willing to pay him the same dollar amount.  He just chose to be the number one option in Detroit) paid him 8 million dollars a year.  All for a guy whose best season (2013) netted him 10 touchdowns. Jones has never had more than 850 yards receiving in a single season and he has actually missed one entire season because of injury.

Yet, Detroit (who like the Giants are notorious for wasting money in free agency) paid a good number two receiver a huge amount of money to try and fill the shoes of the retired Calvin Johnson.

Detroit wasn't foolish for the dollar amount.  They were foolish for thinking veteran wide receivers who change teams can have a big impact.  History doesn't indicate that this is likely to happen.  Here are past examples of solid number two receivers changing teams (and in some cases, number one receivers changing teams) and falling flat - Alvin Harper, Peerless Price, David Boston, Greg Jennings, Andre Rison, Eric Moulds, TJ Houshmandzadeh . . .).  It rare cases it works - Randy Moss had one monster year with the Pats, but bombed every other place he tried at Minnesota.

The problem is that Alvin Harper had Michael Irvin to compliment him.  In Tampa Bay, he was the whole show and he was terrible.  Andre Rison was a great fit in Atlanta's run and shoot, but he was a disaster for every other team he played for.  TJ Houshmandzadeh had Chad Johnson to compliment him.

Mo Sanu took 7 million a year to play in Atlanta, who has Julius Jones to take the heat off of him, but he is no Roddy White.

Case #3 of insanity - fans going nuts that their favorite team doesn't throw lavish money at these free agents.  The Cleveland Browns fans are angry that they haven't signed anyone despite being a miserable franchise.  The problem is that it's most likely true that none of these guys would help them get better right away.  Further more, the money they'd waste on these guys would make it less likely to draft, develop, and retain their own players.

Fans think free agency is a quick fix for a lousy team.  And you would think that to be true, but it just isn't.

Look at the Eagles in 2011-2012 (the last Andy Reid years).  The Eagles were good and close to making it to the Super Bowl.  Yet, in 2012 they went all out to assemble the "Dream Team" as Vince Young called it then.  And what happened?  It all fell apart.

Look at the Miami Dolphins who shelled out 100 million for Suh from Detroit.  He didn't have six sacks.  That's a great return on investment.  So Oliver Vernon couldn't generate a pass rush with a 100 million dollar defensive tackle playing alongside him, yet the Giants find it wise to give Vernon 85 million in hopes he can become a stud for them?  That's foolish.

Look at the misery of the Washington Redskins.  Ever since free agency came into existence, the 'skins have always tried to go for a 'win now' mentality.  And they haven't won at all.

The Truth -

What winning teams do is simple: First, draft players who fit their schemes (look at the success the Steelers have had landing wide receivers in the mid to late rounds and look at the success the Packers have had landing receivers in the second and third rounds . . . look at how Cincy has had success landing cornerback talent in the first round . . .  look at how New England, who has missed more often than not in the first round, wins in the mid rounds (Rob Gronkowski, Jaimie Collins . . .) by stockpiling draft picks . . .).

Second, give those drafted players time to develop.  In Cincy during their reign of misery, 1991-2002, they always counted on the draft to get at least three starters.  You could always pencil in their first and second rounders to start immediately.  They'd usually get a third or fourth rounder to plug in to the lineup before the end of the season too.

But when you look at very successful teams, you just don't see rookies playing major roles.  Instead, they are given time to grow and develop instead of being thrust into the starting lineup.

When was the last time you saw a major rookie year for a player in Denver, Seattle, or Green Bay?

Since Marvin Lewis took over - and since he rebooted the franchise for a second time in 2011, the Bengals have hardly had to start a rookie from day one (the exceptions being AJ Green and Dalton in 2011 and Russell Bodine in 2014).  The rest of the rookies have been able to be eased into the line up.

This has worked so well that for the last couple drafts, the Bengals have been so stocked that they hardly have had to rely on rookies playing at all.  In 2014, Jeremy Hill made a huge splash in the second half of his rookie year, but he hardly had more than a handful of carries the first half of the year.  The Bengals first round pick that year, Darqueez Denard, hardly even got on the field because of all the talent in front of him.

Last year, their first four picks in the first three rounds hardly played more than small roles (such as Jake Fisher being used as a third tackle or late in the season as a fullback after an injury to our Ryan Hewitt, our fullback) and special teams (our last pick in the third round, linebacker Paul Dawson, led us in special teams tackles, yet he could well be a starter in his second season).

Those players get to have a 'redshirt' year and watch the vets and learn.

And it has worked very well for Cincy as of late.

Third, retain your best players.  Yes, Cincy lost a couple key players (Marvin Jones and Mo Sanu and most likely Andre Smith and Reggie Nelson), but they were also able to extend two excellent players before the season began: AJ Green and Andrew Whitworth.  They also exercised their fifth year options on their top draft picks from 2012: Kevin Ziegler and Dre Kirkpatrick, each of whom will earn 6 million this year.

If you look back to the 2011 season, the Bengals have been smart about extending their own draft picks.  In 2011, they extended Leon Hall. In 2012 they extended Geno Atkins.  In 2013, they extended Carlos Dunlap.  In 2014, they extended Andy Dalton and Vontaze Burfict.  This season they'll likely try to extend Zeitler, Kirkpatrick, Tyler Eifter, and Gio Bernard before their contracts are up.  They could lose a couple of those guys (most likely Heitler and Kirkpatrick), but they will lock up their core players too.

Learn your lessons - 

The Bengals used to take heat for their frugal ways; however, they will never ever have to cut good players to try and get under the salary cap.  They will never toss money at players who are not worth the contract, even if it looks good to the fan base or might put them over the top.

In this regard, the Bengals are the NFL's version of Dave Ramsey.  They spend wisely and invest in their own.

Recently TJ Houshmandzadeh was interviewed and he said the same thing.  Back in 2009, his contract was up.  He had three bidders: Cincy, Seattle, and Minnesota.

He chose to go to Seattle for a little more cash.

And he regretted it dearly.  If he'd have signed with MN, he'd have played with Brett Favre and made the 2009 NFC Championship game.

If he'd have gone to Cincy, he'd have played out his full contract and made every single dollar.  As it happened, he chose Seattle who fired their coach shortly after and cut TJ to save money.  At that point, nobody wanted an older, slower receiver.  He played briefly with Oakland and then was forced to retire early.

Since Cincy doesn't sign bad contracts (such as pushing a lot of cash in to the front of contracts for extended years . . . years most teams know the player will never play because they'll just cut them).

So TJ saw some of the big money from Seattle, but he was gone after a season and never saw the rest.

Here is an example - Leon Hall.  Hall signed a big contract extension after his teammate, Jonathan Joseph spurned the contract from Cincy to sign with Houston.  Hall played very, very well in 2011 before tearing an achilles.  He rebounded to have a fantastic 2012.  He was having another great season in 2013 before he tore his achilles again.  In 2014 and 2015 Hall was set to make significant dollars.  Most teams at this point would have cut him to save money.  Not Cincy.  They shelled out the a lot of money to be loyal to the player.  So for a cheap franchise, the Bengals had the most expensive third corner in the league last year as they honored the final 9 million dollar year of Hall's contract.

Now a few hard core fans will scream, BUT SHELL OUT FOR A FEW GOOD PLAYERS TO PUT US OVER THE TOP.

The problem with that philosophy is that mortgaging your future for now rarely works out.  Again, look at the Eagles of 2008-12 as an example.  When they assembled their "dream team," it wrecked the solid foundation they were building.

I've read recently that some fans are pointing to Denver this year.  Yes, they did have some solid free agent additions (Peyton Manning, Demarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders, TJ Ward, Aqib Taleb).  They certainly helped round out a very solid roster, but the reason they had a solid roster was that they first build through the draft.  Just look at the real foundation of the Denver Broncos: Von Miller (first round pick 2011), CJ Anderson (undrafted free agent 2013), Demaryius Thomas (first round 2010), Malik Jackson (midroudn pick 2012), and Danny Trevathan (6th round pick 2012).

Even when they made a big trade before the trade deadline (for tight end Vernon Davis), it turned out to be worthless for Davis contributed nothing to the Broncos once he arrived.

And if you look at Denver's season - yes they did win the Super Bowl thanks to an amazing defense, but despite all of that, they were lucky to win the SB.  A missed field goal by Mike Nugent allowed them to beat Cincy to secure the #2 seed in the NFL.  A late season loss by New England allowed Denver to move up to the #1 seed.  Then, thanks to Manning being put back in late against San Diego in the final game, the Broncos won and secured the number one seed.  Then thanks to a late game fumble from Pittsburgh, Denver was able to win their first playoff game.  Then in the AFC championship, that incredible Denver defense was nowhere to be seen, as Brady breezed up and dow the field, only losing because they missed an extra point and had to go for two several times late in the game.

So, build through drafting well.  Don't rush your rookies onto the field.  Let them develop.  When they blossom, resign them to deals that you can manage throughout the life of the contract.  Be prepared to lose some key young people.  That is just the price of drafting well (look at how Pittsburgh has lost receiver after receiver yet continues to excel in that area).

So if your team didn't spend 100 million last week, good.  You've got a chance at the playoffs.

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