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Examining historical spending and success in free agency among NFL teams

Paradise, Nevada, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. The Buccaneers defeated the Raiders 45-20. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency kicks off in less than two weeks, with the “legal tampering” window opening on March 15 and deals becoming official on March 17. Even with a drop in the salary cap, make no mistake: the top players available will still get their due.

Expect some outside-the-box contract structuring to make everything fit under around a $180 million to $185 million salary cap, but marquee free agents aren’t concerned with a team’s salary cap situation, and they have no reason to be.

A handful of big names headline a strong class in free agency, but as we’ve discussed in-depth before, teams must be wary of fool’s gold. Every club has its own approach to free agent spending, with some preferring to draft and develop (e.g., Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers) and others consistently adding major pieces on the open market (e.g., New York Jets, Las Vegas Raiders).

Of course, there is selection bias when viewing free agency spending. Historically bad teams are going to spend more because they have deficient rosters in need of upgrades with fewer homegrown players in need of extensions. 

We decided to look at every contract handed out in unrestricted free agency from 2016 to 2020 to a player not returning to his incumbent franchise. Even if the incumbent team let the player test the market and then ultimately agreed to a reunion, they were not included. Because total values of NFL contracts do not paint the full picture — or really even come close — we also broke those same deals down by total guarantees. 

There are issues with total guarantees, as well — just ask former Dolphins linebacker Kyle Van Noy, whose four-year, $51 million contract with $30 million in total guarantees ultimately ended up as a one-year, $15 million deal. “Total guarantees” encompasses two things that are not actually guaranteed: 

  • First, money can be guaranteed for injury only. That means if the player is healthy when cut and released for “skill” or “cap” reasons, then that money does not get paid out. 
  • Second, there can be money that becomes guaranteed or “vests” at a later date, but the team can cut the player before that trigger date occurs.

Nevertheless, total guarantees definitely provide us with a much more accurate data point to examine league-wide spending. There are again outliers here, with teams such as Green Bay and Pittsburgh rarely guaranteeing any money beyond the signing bonus. We’ll start with the AFC East, where one team (surprise!) is not like the others.

Finally, we wanted to see who got the most out of their free agent dollars. Free agent contracts are obviously not necessarily one-year propositions, but to keep comparisons cleaner, we sought to determine who made the biggest splashes right away for their new clubs.

We found each player’s Year 1 wins above replacement with their new team and compared that with the total guaranteed money in their contract to illustrate the most efficient and least efficient signings.

Considering the top spenders are often teams coming off down seasons, perhaps with general managers/head coaches attempting to keep their jobs with immediate improvements, that first year is crucial. 

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