You can’t say free agency never works in the NFL.
In the last five years, general manager John Elway's Denver Broncos have won one Super Bowl, been to another and are off to a 4-0 start this season with rosters that have included several important free agents.
But the Broncos also are the exception.
The Green Bay Packers’ opponent this week, the New York Giants, are hoping to become another after their general manager, Jerry Reese, gave his all in free agency last spring by fully guaranteeing a staggering $92.5 million for three defensive players: end Olivier Vernon ($40 million guaranteed), cornerback Janoris Jenkins ($28.5 million) and tackle Damon Harrison ($24 million).
That’s the exact opposite approach from how GM Ted Thompson has built and maintained the Packers. Thompson’s 12-year record of working the open market consists essentially of signing Ryan Pickett (2006), Charles Woodson (‘06) and Julius Peppers (2014). In that context, tight end Jared Cook’s one-year, $2.75 million deal in the offseason was huge news.
My instinct is that Reese’s gambit won’t work. Most NFL teams that have gone this route have failed in a big way. First to mind is Washington throughout most of Daniel Snyder’s ownership, and Philadelphia in 2011 when it signed Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Steve Smith.
Now, Reese did what he did for a reason. He was on the hot seat after owner John Mara fired Tom Coughlin as coach because of the team’s 19-29 record the last three years. The Giants’ defense finished 2015 last in the NFL in yards allowed and No. 30 in points.
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“Jerry knows this is on him,” Mara said last January. “You can't hide from the record. It's up to you now to get it fixed, because the last three years are just not acceptable.”
So Reese went big to save his job. How does that usually turn out in the NFL?
And while Reese was the NFL’s most active buyer on the first day of free agency, Thompson did what he’s always done: He sat out the first week. While many GMs were working the phones the first day teams could sign players, Thompson was down in Madison scouting Wisconsin’s draft class. Same as it ever was.
And really, it’s hard to blame him. Vernon’s deal shows the premium paid for bidding against the most desperate teams for the most coveted players. He had only 7½ sacks in 16 games last season, and 25½ sacks from 2013-15, yet paid mainly on potential, his $40 million guaranteed was the most ever for a pass rusher at the time. It was surpassed only by the $42 million that Elway guaranteed Von Miller in July, and Miller probably is one of the NFL's two best defensive players.
Another problem is that first-time free agents usually are at least 26 years old and more often 27 or even 28. That might seem young, but it’s not unusual for NFL players to have their best year at 26 or 27. They do it in a system they’ve played in for multiple seasons. And suddenly they’re moving on to another team, another system and coaching staff, and teammates around them who might not be as good as what they’ve left.
While Reese’s three new players aren’t old — Vernon is 26, and Jenkins and Harrison are 27 — they might already have peaked, or at least aren’t far from it. And now they have to adapt to a new team and defense.
That’s why the big signings usually aren’t worth the money.
Now, the one way the signings are consistent with Reese’s philosophy is in the commitment to defensive-line play. He has been the Giants’ GM since 2007 and for most of that time continued his mentor Ernie Accorsi’s emphasis on building the defensive line.
That approach helped Reese’s team make two Super Bowl runs (in the 2007 and ’11 seasons) that included upset playoff wins over the Packers at Lambeau Field. From 2003 through ‘11, the Giants selected seven defensive linemen in the first or second round of the draft and signed two others (Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard) to big free-agent contracts.
But from 2012 through ’15 Reese used only a second-round pick (in ’13) on the line (Johnathan Hankins), and had no major signings. Paying big for Vernon and Harrison was a huge move back to emphasizing defensive-line play. The two free agents join Hankins and 2010 first-rounder Jason Pierre-Paul in the starting front four.
Elway’s success in Denver means you can’t dismiss the possibility that Reese’s desperate tactics just might work. Among the key free agents Elway signed are three core players: cornerback Aqib Talib, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and safety T.J. Ward.
But it’s also worth remembering the Broncos’ indispensable player, Miller, is an Elway draft pick. Without him, the signings probably don’t matter.
Yes, history is working against Reese, and is on Thompson’s side.
I’d still argue that Thompson could find more players like Cook — one- and two-year signings, so no commitment if it doesn’t work — if he’d just give a shot. He almost never even tries.
But still, going big like Reese usually is a sugar fix. You feel great in March but more often than not crash by December.