Being selective in free agency a formula for winning Super Bowls
If the draft is the foundation of NFL roster building, then free agency is the finishing touch.
That much becomes clear when examining the last decade of Super Bowl winners. Each signed at least a significant role player prior to winning it all. Many added at least one key starter, and some signed several.
Yet there's another crucial layer to this pattern. Super Bowl teams spend wisely. They don't dole out lavish deals to players who don't produce, and they rarely whiffed on their targets.
"The teams that are limited in free agency — add one or two guys that are complementary pieces — I think those are the ones that have success," former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Gil Brandt told USA TODAY Sports. "The ones that go out and spend all this money on guys they don't know, the mortality rate is pretty high."
Building through the draft remains the way to go. For each strategic free agent a team added, there were many more linchpins plucked out of college. The New England Patriots drafted and developed Tom Brady, Devin McCourty and Vince Wilfork. The Seattle Seahawks laid their foundation with Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. The Baltimore Ravens had Joe Flacco, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. The Green Bay Packers picked Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Clay Matthews.
And the list goes on.
Yet it's also safe to say that without Darrelle Revis, Brandon LaFell and Brandon Browner, New England might not claim victory in Super Bowl XLIX. Without Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, the Seahawks' pass rush wouldn't have been as dominant down the stretch in the 2013 postseason. Defensive back Charles Woodson provided key plays and leadership during the Packers' 2010 title drive a few years after arriving from the Oakland Raiders. And without Darren Sharper — not to mention the signing of Drew Brees in 2006 — the New Orleans Saints may have never even been close in 2009.
"You need a successful system to obtain players through the draft," Brandt said. "It's like Seattle: They're a team that gets the Bobby Wagners, the Russell Wilsons, the Kam Chancellors to play above expectations for where they're drafted. I think those are the teams that are able to control the salary cap, teach those guys, bring them up in their system and be picky about the free agents they go after."
Looking at the deals that have been inked among recent Super Bowl champions, it's hard to find a bad contract in the bunch. Nothing close to what the Washington Redskins forked over in 2009 to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth: seven years, $100 million. Or Miami's more recent contract to receiver Mike Wallace (five years, $60 million) in 2013 along with major deals to linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Haynesworth started 12 games and was out of Washington after two years. Wallace underperformed, grated with management and was traded to the Minnesota Vikings earlier this month. Ellerbe and Wheeler were also cast off this offseason.
It's the shrewder, less heralded additions that tend to pay off more handsomely.
The Indianapolis Colts signed kicker Adam Vinatieri in 2006. Not only did he score all the points in Indianapolis' 15-6 divisional round victory against the Ravens, he also converted 14 of 15 postseason field goal attempts en route to a title in Super Bowl XLI. Vinatieri's addition came after years of disappointing playoff misses from predecessor Mike Vanderjagt.
Sharper was a big play waiting to happen for the 2009 Saints, leading the league with nine interceptions, three returned for touchdowns.
But it's the unfamiliarity of free agents that make them risky. There's no telling whether they will assimilate and produce or annoy and underwhelm.
"(When) you're extending guys on your own team, you know the player," executive vice president of football operations for the Eagles Howie Roseman said at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "You've lived with the player. You know what they're doing in your scheme. So when you go back and look at the history of free agency versus extending your own players, you have a lot more success of extending your own players."
Added Brandt: "Your chances of changing somebody that hasn't been a competitor for 25 years are pretty remote. And if you give them all this money, a lot of those guys quit. So if you're going to sign a free agent, one of the things that I would always do is to make sure his competitiveness is above the norm."
Revis' arrangement (one-year, $12 million contract with a $20 million option for 2015) was cap friendly. A one-year trial period for one of the NFL's premier — if not best — cornerbacks proved a Lombardi-winning gamble.
But New England felt Revis was too expensive to keep in 2015, declining his option. He hit the market and re-signed with the New York Jets for five years and $70 million, $39 million of which is guaranteed.
Such temptation to spend big is always there, but history shows big free agent contracts rarely lead to winning big. So despite making recent headlines, the Jets and Dolphins, who landed Ndamukong Suh with a six-year, $114 million contract, should probably temper their expectations in 2015. Same goes for the Philadelphia Eagles, who added DeMarco Murray and Byron Maxwell at a combined $105 million.
But those teams are all worried about their foundations rather than the crown molding.
Indianapolis may be poised for a Super Bowl 50 shot after signing running back Frank Gore, receiver Andre Johnson and linebacker Trent Cole, all low-cost, veteran options at positions of need. The Arizona Cardinals procured free agency's best guard in Mike Iupati and also signed needed defensive help with Cory Redding and Sean Weatherspoon. With a fully healthy team in 2015, the Cardinals could be another legitimate championship contender.
"I don't know why you get out of bed in the morning with these jobs in this league if you don't have the belief that you can win it all," Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said in February at the NFL scouting combine. "That's our goal and what we're trying to do every day.
"And every move we make has that in mind."
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