Are the Buffalo Bills Winning or Losing Free Agency?

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Updated: March 15, 2013
Flowchart

The NFL’s offseason has grown in magnitude to the point where it is an event bigger than most (every?) other sports’ regular season. Do you know who leads the NHL in goals? Unless you’re reading this from Canada, probably not. But we all know that the 34th receiver in yards last year just signed with the Dolphins. The NFL has pulled off this wonderful magic trick that allows it to control the attention of the sports world for most of the calendar year via strategically placed events like free agency and the draft. For those of us who love The League, it gives us something to focus on during the cold winter months that in a way, extend well into July. Football doesn’t have a hot stove, it has a blazing forest fire to warm our extremities.

One interesting aspect of these giant events is that since they are so far removed from the action of regular season games, we end up treating them as having the same impact of a game, if not more. Think about it. What did you spend more time previewing, analyzing, and reacting to: last year’s draft, or last year’s week 5 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers?

If you are reading this blog, chances are it was the draft. This is mostly a function of time; NFL games are relatively crammed up against each other while the draft and free agency are spread apart by months. As a result, we end up wanting to “win” free agency or the draft just as much as any game. After all, it is a competition against every other team, and some teams will do better than others. To take it a step further, the teams that sign prescient contract extensions, exhibit self-control via awareness of when to let a player walk, and make productive draft picks are writing the prelude to Super Bowl contention.

The problem is that despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there won’t be any concrete way to evaluate the productivity of free agency until the regular season begins 6 months from now, everyone must decide who “won” free agency immediately. The model of evaluation is flawed and fairly simple: look at each team’s depth chart, circle the 3-6 thinnest positions, and count how much money is spent and how many players are brought in at each of those positions. Miami had a bum squad of receivers last year? They “really helped themselves” by bringing one of them back and overpaying for Mike Wallace. Detroit couldn’t run the ball well? Reggie Bush is a “great fit in Detroit.” Buddy Nix has only signed one new free agent? He must be old and asleep!

This form of “analysis” is an issue because it is completely unrelated to the steps required to build a roster capable of winning games. Sure, Miami has a receiver that should be able to go downfield and get the ball now, but that assumes they have a quarterback than can accurately throw the rock that deep. And even if Wallace is productive and improves the offense noticeably, will he do it to a degree that justifies his mega contract? Was Miami a deep threat away from competing for a Super Bowl? Even if Wallace does noticeably improve the offense, will it be to a degree that justifies his mega contract and won’t leave Miami saddled with dead money that freezes their ability to keep their roster intact in future years?

Who knows. But the fact is the larger the contract, the harder it is for the player to justify the money they receive. At this point of the argument, a common rebuttal is “who cares if some old billionaire member at Augusta spends a little too much?” Well, a couple such owners, such as Jerrah Jones, Woody Johnson, and Dan Snyder, are essentially having to sit free agency out due to the fact that after a 4 or 5 year hiatus, the cap is back and a major factor in limiting teams’ ability to sign new players (this is especially funny in the Jets case considering departed GM Mike Tannenbaum was a “cap” guy).

In fact, big market, cash rich owners such as the aforementioned specifically structured the new CBA to prevent small market franchises like Cincinnati and Buffalo from sticking the money from TV revenue sharing in their pocket. As a result, NFL payrolls are getting much more even, and will continue to do so. More plainly, Ralph couldn’t be cheap if he wanted to. He must “sprinkle the cheddar,” as it were.

With the newly implemented salary floor that is so close to the cap, prudently structuring contracts and squeezing maximum value out of your roster becomes critical in building a championship team.  The money will be spent one way or another, but as several teams are learning, too much coin on the wrong players  will set a franchise back for years. Arguably the league’s best defensive player on a team that plays in the largest market in the country is about to be traded because the Jets are handcuffed until they can clear cap space. And when you consider Russ Brandon’s mention of implementing “analytics,” this is the first and most important place it will show up. Advanced stats are just tools, the real fruit is in finding undervalued assets, or at least getting market value for the dollars you do spend.

So far, there hasn’t been much of this year’s free agency market. Remember this play?

See number 93 for the Packers, the guy running the wrong way? The Colts just gave him a 16 million dollar deal. Still angry the Bills have sat this one out? (Am I overdoing asking questions as a rhetorical device? ) Of course, it doesn’t matter because Indianapolis has Andrew Luck, and one play isn’t a way to evaluate a player, but this juxtaposition provides a good metaphor for this year’s free agency period- lots of money being spent on non premium players by impatient general managers.

The silver lining in all of this is that the combination of big early money being spent with a somewhat tight cap should provide an opportunity for a team that has money but hasn’t spent it (like Buffalo) to get some help at a relative value. For instance, the cornerback market is flooded with quality players, but has seen the “bottom fall out of the market” as one reporter described. It’s microeconomics 101.

In any event, the point remains that it will be years before we can really do any sort of accurate analysis as to which teams made productive signings in free agency. However, value matters, and the more a team pays a player, the harder it is for that player to live up to the contract. If nothing else, teams sitting this round of free agency out are leaving themselves flexibility both later in free agency and years down the road.