Is NFL Free Agency Fool’s Gold? Evaluating Each Team’s Spending From This Offseason

Free agency can be a very exciting time for NFL fans; their teams get to add impact talent to their roster. However, are they receiving what they believe to be getting? After all, since these players are in great demand, their asking prices tend to be higher than it should be, and in most cases, teams oblige. Does that sound look adequate spending? In my opinion, the answer to that is an emphatic “no”.

Today, we’ll be looking at each team’s performance in free agency this offseason. Based on our adjusted version of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), we’ve been able to come up with an estimate for how much each is worth. Thus, we can see which teams spend their money the best; the most wise teams should have the greatest (+/-) difference between the player’s worth and the contract, while the inverse should be true for the less-responsible teams.

When I started on this project, I expected some teams, especially the ones that acquired players at premium positions, to have achieved the goal of obtaining surplus value. Yet, when looking at all significant free-agent contracts, tenders, and extensions, NO TEAM was successful. In other words, every NFL teams overpaid for players this offseason, which further backs up the notion that free agency is a poor method for team building.

Quickly, let’s go over each team’s (+/-) values from this offseason, before focusing on it from an individual contract perspective:

Net (+_-) vs. Team-2


#1: Philadephia Eagles ($-0.70M)

The Eagles came within $1 million of breaking even with their contracts this offseason, as they signed nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and offensive lineman Jason Peters for a grand total of $4.35 million. In the end, though, making Darius Slay the highest-paid cornerback, given his recent production, put them in the negative for this offseason.

#2: New England Patriots ($-3.09M)

It was mostly a quiet offseason for the Patriots, who lost Tom Brady and multiple imp[act defensive players. However, as per usual, they did a nice job of being responsible in free agency. Getting quarterback Cam Newton for a base salary of $1.75 million, in addition to the surplus value from re-signing safety Devin McCourty, vaults them up this list, though they did overpay for two below-average interior defenders in Beau Allen and Adam Butler.

#3: Pittsburgh Steelers (-$7.08M)

With very little salary space this offseason, the Steelers mostly stood pat, though they did responsibly upgrade their roster by signing tight end Eric Ebron and interior offensive lineman Stefen Wisniewski. Yet, they’re paying edge rusher Bud Dupree $15.83 million on the franchise tag, which is an absurd amount for a very replaceable player at a non-valuable position.

#4: New Orleans Saints (-$7.73M)

I don’t know what the Saints were doing signing a below-replacement player in interior offensive lineman Andrus Peat to a massive contract worth $11.5 million annually, but they did a nice job outside of that. Their two quarterback contracts, Drew Brees and Jameis Winston, came at well-below-average market rates, and the same can be said for the $8 million they’re paying for receiver Emmanuel Sanders (he’s worth double).

#5: Minnesota Vikings (-$8.49M)

The Stefon Diggs trade was very questionable, yet the Vikings were mostly responsible with their finances this offseason. They did overpay for some trench players, but the $11.44 million franchise tag is an absolute bargain for safety Anthony Harris.

#6: San Francisco 49ers (-$10.35M)

Let’s start off with the obvious; paying just $15 million for George Kittle a season is an absolute bargain, and a reflection of the tight end market as a whole. Besides that, though, San Francisco didn’t perform great this offseason; they overspent to retain defensive players Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward. If it weren’t for the Kittle extension, they’d rank in the bottom ten.

#7: Baltimore Ravens (-$15.05M)

The Ravens are a very responsible and smart organization, so it isn’t a surprise that they didn’t overspend on any of their free-agent contracts. Unfortunately, they slapped the $16.81 million franchise tag on edge rusher Matthew Judon, which is way too much for a player whose production benefits significantly from their defensive scheme- a lot of pressures came on unblocked reps, rather than him winning his one-on-one matchups.

#8: Cleveland Browns (-$17.10M)

I have no issues with what the Browns did this offseason, though they did likely pay too much to extend edge rusher Myles Garrett. Simply put, they just didn’t get any steals this offseason, so their slight negative contract values accumulated into their overalll -$17.10 million outcome.

#9: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-$18.02M)

Whenever you can sign Tom Brady for just $25 million, that’s probably a good idea, and the Bucs mostly sat out free agency. Nevertheless, $36.33 million is an awful lot of money to retain the defensive front trio of Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Ndamukong Suh.

#10: Atlanta Falcons (-$20.05M)

If I would’ve conducted this study a few weeks ago, the Falcons, based on the absurdly poor Dante Fowler contract, would rank lower on this list. Luckily for them, though, they were able to acquire a very capable slot cornerback in Darqueze Dennard for just $1.01 million, when he’s worth more than five times that amount.

#11: Green Bay Packers (-$20.07M)

The Packers had a very questionable offseason, and had they been even more active in free agency, they likely would’ve made things even worse. Signing two fringe players in linebacker Christian Kirksey and offensive tackle Rick Wagner for a combined $12 million is confusing, to say the least, and certainly won’t move the needle for them.

#12: Denver Broncos (-$22.83M)

For the most part, the Broncos’ worst contracts were smaller deals/tenders given to tackle Elijah Wilkinson and tight end Nick Vannett, as well as the $8 million they gave to running back Melvin Gordon. I will give them credit for paying interior defender Shelby Harris only $3.25 million, though, as it’s very rare to come away with surplus value when signing a defensive tackle.

#13: Detroit Lions (-$27.99M)

If it weren’t for the $9 million they’re paying tackle Hal Vatai, the Lions could’ve had a much better offseason; simply giving receiver Geronimo Allison over the league minimum also isn’t a smart move. Still, they did make some nice signings, mainly the $2.96 million surplus value they’re getting from cornerback Desmond Trufant ($10 million).

#14: Los Angeles Chargers (-$28.03M)

The Chargers stole cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and tackle Bryan Bulaga away from the open market for just a combined $18.5 million, and actually got surplus value from a running back contract- Austin Ekeler for $6 million annually. Nevertheless, the $27 million per year extension given to edge rusher Joey Bosa could turn out to be crippling, especially if young quarterback Justin Herbert doesn’t pan out.

#15: Dallas Cowboys (-$30.39M)

A combined $6.75 million for safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and quarterback Andy Dalton is laughable, and $20 million per season is right around the amount receiver Amari Cooper is worth. At the same time, though, Dallas paid a decent amount for aging defensive veterans (Dontari Poe and Sean Lee), and who thought giving tackle Cam Erving more than the league minimum made any sense?

#16: Los Angeles Rams (-$32.99M)

The Rams came into the offseason with little financial flexibility, and only put themselves in a worse situation. The $26.5 million they’re paying for front-four players Leonard Floyd, Michael Brockers, and A’Shawn Robinson resulted in a net negative value of -$31.22 million, which certainly isn’t ideal.

#17: Las Vegas Raiders (-$33.26M)

We’ll get to the biggest steals in a moment, but I can tell that the $1.19 million the Raiders are paying for cornerback Prince Amukamara is at the top of that list; they also are underpaying linebacker Cory Littleton, safety Damarious Randall, and interior offensive lineman Richie Incognito. I’d love to see them explain the process of signing edge rusher Carl Nassib to a $8.33 million, however, and why is tight end Jason Witten getting $4 million to be their third tight end?

#18: New York Jets (-$33.37M)

The Jets went about this offseason trying to add as much depth as possible, and when they attacked the perimeter, they did well (Breshad Perriman, Pierre Desir, Brian Poole). Yet, it’s clear they massively overspent for offensive lineman George Fant, Alex Lewis, and Connor McGovern, and the same can be said about some of their smaller defensive signings.

#19: Jacksonville Jaguars (-$35.58M)

The Jaguars mostly stood pat this offseason, yet some of their defensive signings are strange. Edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, even if he plays, isn’t worth the $17.79 million he’s set to earn from the franchise tag, while interior defender Rodney Gunter and cornerback Rashaan Melvin shouldn’t have been asked to be thrust into starting roles (Melvin has opted out anyways).

#20: Cincinnati Bengals (-$35.85M)

It’s still shocking that the Bengals spent legitimate money in free agency, though they probably should go back to being conservative. They certainly overvalued cornerback Trae Waynes, interior defender DJ Reader, and safety Vonn Bell, and, to be honest, their only positive contract on the open market was the $1.65 million deal they gave to linebacker Josh Bynes. Considering that they knew that they were going to draft quarterback Joe Burrow with the first overall pick, perhaps they should’ve focused more on supporting him, or at least bringing in more proven players to bolster their pass coverage.

#21: Carolina Panthers (-$36.17M)

The Panthers probably paid too much for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (-$8.84M), though it’s some of their defensive contracts – linebacker Tahir Whitehead and edge rusher Stephen Weatherly – that keep them out of the top 20. On the bright side, safety Tre Boston is only receiving around 1/3 of the amount he’s worth with his new three-year, $18 million deal.

#22: Indianapolis Colts (-$37.79M)

I was impressed by the Colts’ ability to not only upgrade at quarterback with Phillip Rivers for just $25 million, but also to do so on just a one-year deal. The rest of Indianapolis’ offseason, however, was rather puzzling. When you add the first-round pick they gave up to sign him to a $84 million contract, the whole process of acquiring interior defender DeForest Buckner may have been the worst move of the offseason; they’re also entrusting cornerback Xavier Rhodes with a starting role when he projects as a below-replacement level player. General manager Chris Ballard is regarded as an extremely responsible executive, yet he clearly acted with more aggressiveness this offseason.

#23: Washington Football Team (-$41.86M)

Washington didn’t make any splash signings, yet, outside of their deals with safety Sean Davis, tackle Cornelius Lucas, and receiver Cody Lattimer, they didn’t obtain any surplus value. The franchise tag was an awful lot to play for an interior offensive lineman in Brandon Scherff, and although they added some secondary players, you would’ve thought Washington could do better with a combined $13 million than Kendall Fuller and Ronald Darby.

#24: Kansas City Chiefs (-$45.39M)

$45 million per year is no small amount to keep quarterback Patrick Mahomes, but it’s hard to see that contract not becoming a bargain in a few years, with the way the quarterback market continues to rise; extending tight end Travis Kelce for around $14.25 million per year was also great business. Kansas City’s signings on the defensive side of the ball, however, weren’t as pleasant. Interior defender Chris Jones is a great player, yet it’s hard to see him being worth $20 million per year, based on the position he plays, while cornerback Breshaud Breeland really struggled last season- they’re paying him $4 million that could’ve got them a better cornerback, such as Pierre Desir. On the bright side, though, running back DeAndre Washington provides a little surplus value as a backup for just $1.05 million.

#25: Miami Dolphins (-$47.58M)

Before even considering how much pressure their man-heavy scheme places on the ability to have high-end cornerbacks, the Dolphins’ decision to sign Byron Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million deal was a no-brainer, while they managed not to overpay for edge rusher Kyle Van Noy. The rest of their maneuvers, on the other hand, weren’t as team-friendly. Edge rushers Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah are serviceable players, but not fo a combined $17.5 million, and $10 million for an average interior offensive lineman in Ereck Flowers is a lot. A greater emphasis on perimeter talent, as well as a reliable offensive tackle (Bryan Bulaga) may have provided them with more surplus value.

#26: Houston Texans (-$51.24M)

Trading away DeAndre Hopkins for a very small amount was easily his most questionable decision, yet head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien also managed to not sign one player to a contract that projects to provide surplus value. $22 million for an offensive tackle with one elite season on his resume (Laremy Tunsil) is an extraordinary amount. Further down, receiver Randall Cobb, nickel defender Eric Murray, and cornerback Bradley Roby are being paid a combined $25.5 million, where they project to be worth just $12.73 million.

#27: Chicago Bears (-$53.61M)

When you trade two first-round picks to pay an edge defender in Khalil Mack $23.5 million per year, you have to be responsible managing funds. That hasn’t been the case with the Bears, however. Despite the investment in Mack, they doubled-down on their pass rush by handing out $70 million (five years) for edge rusher Robert Quinn, in addition to a combined $15.5 million for tight end Jimmy Graham and linebacker Danny Trevathan.

#28: New York Giants (-$58.57M)

General manager Dave Gettleman infamously wants to build his team through the trenches, so it shouldn’t be a surprised that his three worst contracts are with front-four players: Leonard Williams, Kyler Fackrell, and Markus Golden. Nevertheless, he also overspent on a perimeter player, as James Bradberry’s produced at an average level for the first four years of his career, yet Gettleman gave him around double the amount ($14.5 million) my model would’ve been comfortable paying him ($7.57 million).

#29: Buffalo Bills (-$58.57M)

The Bills are a well-run organization that generally has built their team through the perimeter, as demonstrated with their trade for star receiver Stefon Diggs. At the same time, though, they invested a lot of resources in their defense this offseason, and the results weren’t great. Edge rusher Mario Addison, interior defenders Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson, linebacker AJ Klein, and cornerback Josh Norman all project to be worth around $8 million in lost value, based on the contracts handed out to them. Plus, solid offensive tackle play is relatively replaceable, which makes the $15 million they’re paying Dion Dawkins on his new extension too much.

#30: Seattle Seahawks (-$59.26M)

The Seahawks gave up two first-round picks for safety Jamal Adams, and if they had used to their available salary cap space better this year, perhaps they wouldn’t have felt the need to do so. To put it in simple terms, they’re paying interior defender Jarran Reed, tight end Greg Olsen, edge rusher Bruce Irvin, and offensive linemen Brandon Shell and BJ Finney a combined $32.5 million. Yikes.

#31: Arizona Cardinals (-$65.26M)

The Cardinals are expected to be a playoff contender this season, but I’m not as sold on them. Their performance in free agency doesn’t help matters, as instead of upgrading roster, they spent big (around $23 million) on below replacement-level defensive players in Jordan Phillips, Devon Kennard, De’Vondre Campbell. Meanwhile, they also spent another $23 million to retain running back Kenyan Drake and replaceable offensive tackle DJ Humphries.

#32: Tennessee Titans (-$68.26M)

My model isn’t yet convinced that Ryan Tannehill is a high-end quarterback, and would’ve preferred for the Titans to make him prove himself worthy of a long-term contract. There’s at least considerable upside with extending him, however, while the same can’t be said about running back Derrick Henry ($12.5 million). Meanwhile, Vic Beasley projected as a poor edge rusher based on his recent production, and they paid him $9.5 million to “help” their pass rush?

Best/Worst Contracts

Of the non-quarterback contracts, my model sees the following three contracts as the ones providing the least amount of value:

  • EDGE Vic Beasley: One Year, $9.5 Million- Titans
  • EDGE Yannick Ngakoue: $17.79 Million Franchise Tag- Jaguars
  • EDGE Devon Kennard: Three Years, $20 Million- Cardinals

Meanwhile, the following four contracts project to produce the most surplus value:

  • TE George Kittle: Five Years, $75 Million- 49ers
  • TE Travis Kelce: Four Years, $57.25 Million- Chiefs
  • CB Prince Amukamara: One Year, $1.19 Million- Raiders
  • S Tre Boston: Three Years, $18 Million- Panthers

So, what should we take away from this? In the end, free agency appears to be an absolute trap. Not only does it separate the responsible front offices from the irresponsible ones, but it’s incredibly hard to find value, especially when trying to fill holes at non-valuable positions. Free agency is useful when an executive patiently waits for a player’s market to dry up enough for there to be attainable surplus value, yet the first wave up of it, and intensity it generates, often leads executives to make irrational, emotionally-driven decisions. Based on how cheap rookie contracts are, the most sustainable way to build a winning team, as has always been, is through the draft. Thus, losing free agents, and gaining compensatory picks (or simply trading the player for draft picks) appears to be the appropriate strategy that not enough teams, outside the Patriots, are taking.

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