The NFL’s free agency negotiating window wasn’t even a day old when an NFL owner texted the following observation: “Crazy FA period!!!”
If it seems we say that every year, it’s probably because we do. Both the names and the contracts seem to get bigger each offseason. In fact, the New England Patriots’ commitment of $152 million in guarantees during the first eight days this year is the highest in league history, according to Spotrac, surpassing the $146.5 million the Miami Dolphins allocated last offseason and nearly doubling what the next-closest club has spent this offseason. (NOTE: All spending totals and spending rankings in this piece were sourced from Spotrac.)
The fact that it comes in the same year the salary cap decreased by some $16 million because of lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic makes the splurge even more noteworthy and puts the Patriots, in some people’s eyes, at the front of the pack in the unofficial race to win free agency. But do not count history among those people, because it shows no direct link between offseason spending and on-field success.
Last offseason, the Dolphins committed all that money to free agents — and then failed to make the playoffs. It was the third time in the previous 10 years that they missed the playoffs after leading the league in guaranteed money committed to free agents that offseason.
Two years ago, the Raiders committed $84 million in guarantees to free agents, third-most in the league in 2019. They not only missed the playoffs, but their three highest-priced signings were off the team after only two seasons, taking just under $80 million with them.
The cold reality is that over the past 10 offseasons, only half of the 10 teams that committed the most guaranteed dollars in free agency advanced to the playoffs — and none won a Super Bowl.
That is not to say the Patriots can’t break that trend, but two things concern me: They’ve already signed at least 21 free agents, which means there will be a significant adjustment period while players get to know one another and determine who the leaders are; and I’m not sold on Cam Newton being the answer at quarterback.
Sure, the Patriots are likely to run more two-tight end sets after signing Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, which will allow Newton to work the middle of the field, a place he has been most comfortable over his career. But Newton was not the same player after returning from a positive COVID test last season, and it’s hard not to wonder if Father Time and injuries have conspired to diminish the 31-year-old’s skills as a passer. New England still could bring in another QB through the draft or trade, but at the moment, it appears the Patriots are willing to gamble on Newton, which is a risky proposition.
For me, the winners in free agency are not the clubs that go out and spend a lot of money — unless that money brings in a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback like Tom Brady (the Bucs ranked fifth in free agency guaranteed dollars last offseason after signing Brady, with their nearly $63 million falling roughly $84 million behind the Dolphins). My winners are those that either strike strategically, finding bargains after the initial wave of big-money spending, or use their capital to re-sign their own frontline players, as Tampa Bay and San Francisco have done.
Understand, I love how Cleveland supplemented its playoff roster, luring two talents from the Los Angeles Rams secondary (John Johnson and Troy Hill) to help compensate for a pass rush in need of a complement to Myles Garrett. And the New York Jets have been smart with their money, signing several prominent players — but only to short-term deals as they seek to build through the draft.
But my free agency winners are the Bucs and 49ers for choosing to largely trust in what they have rather than go on external shopping sprees. San Francisco reached the Super Bowl two years ago, then was decimated by injury last season, losing its most important players on each side of the ball for much of the year. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo played in just six games and edge rusher Nick Bosa appeared in only two before injuries sidelined them. Not surprisingly, the 49ers fell from 13 wins to six.
With both returning, as well as a number of others who missed time, the 49ers are in a prime position to make another run — which highlights the significance of re-signing key free agents, like offensive tackle Trent Williams, cornerbacks Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley and K'Waun Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and safety Jaquiski Tartt. Plus, the restricting of some contracts allowed them to be strategic on the external market in signing center Alex Mack, who previously played under coach Kyle Shanahan in Cleveland and Atlanta, as well as edge rusher Samson Ebukam.
Bucs coach Bruce Arians proclaimed “we’re going for two” after winning the Super Bowl, and Tampa Bay is doing just that, thanks to deft work by the front office and its cap managers, who found the funds to retain key players like edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, linebacker Lavonte David, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, tight end Rob Gronkowski and kicker Ryan Succop.
The moves don’t make either squad a lock to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but in my eyes, it makes them the early winners in free agency.
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