Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Jul 2011

Free Agents You Meet in Hell

Bill Barnwell's latest for Grantland is a look at free agent groups that have traditionally yielded very poor results for buying teams. Regular readers of this site will not be surprised to see older running backs on the list.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 19 Jul 2011

44 comments, Last at 23 Jul 2011, 11:29am by dwshafiz


by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 2:09pm

"The Broncos, for one, have been vocal about wanting to add a running back in free agency, compounding their mistake to waste a first-round pick on Knowshon Moreno two years ago."

So, Barnwell is convinced Denver needs to trade for a RB? (Because outside of the draft and free agency, I don't see another way for them to pick anybody up.) If they couldn't pick a winner using a first round pick, does he really think they'd have nailed it using a later-round pick? And they actually did do a RB trade last year. Unfortunately, it was the trade that sent Peyton Hillis to Cleveland for Brady Quinn.

by trill :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 2:43pm

It doesn't seem like he's advocating a trade. There's a difference between signing a FA like, say, Derrick Locke or Graig Cooper, and signing a big-money back like DeAngelo Williams.

The overarching point that Bill is making is that high-dollar free agents are almost never worth the money. Teams just target guys who put up numbers, which oversimplifies the issue. In what type of system did they produce? What was the caliber of their supporting cast? How much more production can we expect out of this high-dollar FA versus a cheaper FA, a rookie, or someone already on our roster? Those are the questions that keep teams from making mistakes in free agency.

by sundown (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 6:37pm

I think there was some sarcasm font in use in that original post. Reading Bill's piece, it does sound like he's against Denver going after ANY free agent RB and that drafting one also isn't an option. Just poor wording on his part. And I can't figure out why he didn't he mention DeAngelo Williams by name since it's reported Fox wants the Broncos to sign him. Bill tends to be kind of sloppy and this is no exception.

by Harrison Bergeron (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 2:10pm

Are competitively-bid free agents (as opposed to near-minimum salary guys, who might only have one or two offers) ever worth it? Not only does the winner's curse apply, as it does to all auctions, but as Bill points out, contracts are based on past performance and the NFL is unpredictable. Unless a vet stays healthy, fits into the system at least as well as he fit into his last team's system, and maintains his level of performance, he's going to be overpaid almost by definition.

It seems unnecessary to break this down into categories, when almost every big-name free agent signing is going to be a disappointment. For instance, check out this list of last year's top 50 free agents:

Peppers, Dansby, and Tomlinson are the only ones who made any significant impact at all. As Dan Snyder has yet to learn, signing another team's free agents doesn't get you anywhere.

by trill :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 3:02pm

I agree, but just to play devil's advocate - maybe the issue isn't that free agency is an inefficient way to acquire talent, but just that it's not the magic bullet a lot of teams think it is. Look at the Saints, for example. They nabbed several key contributors (Brees, Sharper, Greer, Heath Evans) through FA/trades, but the reason these moves worked out for them was because 1. they didn't overpay, and 2. they had a solid plan in place for how these new guys were going to succeed in their system. Bad GM's/owners think if they spend enough on "talent," they'll get a high-quality product on the field; good GM's/owners realize other parts of the equation (continuity, the ability to scout/draft/develop players) are just as important to success.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 5:00pm

I suspect the Lions would say Vanden Bosch was a good signing and was worth the money.

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 9:48pm

Maybe it's an NFC North thing. Along with Peppers mentioned below, the Vikings did OK with Jared Allen and several years ago the Packers signed some guy named Reggie. (Yes, Allen wasn't a FA, but he was franchised and otherwise would have been.)

by t.d. :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 8:31am

Aaron Kampman was pretty damned good for the Jags, too, til he got hurt

by Nevic (not verified) :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 1:06pm

Don't forget about that Woodson fella the Packers signed a couple years ago. All he did was co-headline a top defense...

by Dean :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 1:34pm

I don't remember a defensive end named Woodson?

by Bobby Wommack (not verified) :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 12:29pm

Really? Bosch has been washed up for 3 years. He's done nothing for the Lions.

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 4:00pm

He didn't have a ton of sacks, but he was 6th on the team in tackles in 11 games. The more important role was he was the leader on defense and the high-effort guy needed on a line that has had a lot of high-talent low-motor guys like Shaun Rogers over the years. You didn't see Lion DLs catching RBs from behind until last year. His personal numbers aren't amazing, but sort of like Peppers, you see some of his presence in Jackson, McBride, and Avril's numbers.

by Dave0 :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 4:03pm

i think its pretty silly that grantland doesnt link to espns player cards.

by Anonymous1 (not verified) :: Thu, 07/21/2011 - 3:08pm

They want to keep their ESPN connection less visible, I think.

by dbt* (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 4:27pm

Peppers made that defense; judging his contribution by sack totals is terrible.

Now, you can argue he's going to fall off a cliff, and maybe he will, but you can't knock that contract based on his contribution to the Bears last year.

by tuluse :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 4:47pm

Yeah that analysis was awful.

Chicago defensive DVOA 2009: 7.2% (22nd)
Carolina defensive DVOA 2009: -10.9% (5th)

Chicago defensive DVOA 2010: -7.7% (6th)
Carolina defensive DVOA 2010: 1.8% (16th)

Now not all of that improvement for Chicago was Peppers, the Bears essentially added Urlacher, Tinoisamoa, and Chris Harris as well, but I think you have to credit Peppers for some of it. I think anyone who watched a single game for the Bears saw the impact he was making.

by Marko :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 9:03pm

I completely agree. First, the heading for the section discussing Peppers was
"The Defensive End Coming Off Of A Big Year." That suggests a player who had a big jump in production from prior years and might be a one-year wonder. That doesn't describe Peppers at all. He was consistently one of the best DEs in the league, and his last year in Carolina wasn't considered one of his best.

Second, it assumes that DEs only rush the passer and are judged solely by their sack totals. Newsflash: DEs do other things, too. Peppers is an all-around end who plays the run very well, pursues downfield, drops back on zone blitzes effectively, and bats down or deflects a lot of passes. Off the top of my head, I recall at least two passes that the Bears picked off after deflections by Peppers. One of those Peppers picked off himself after batting the ball high in the air. He also forced his share of hurried passes and flushed the QB out of the pocket often, plays that helped the Bears but didn't result in sacks.

Peppers also contributed on special teams. He blocked an important field goal attempt in the Bears' win over Green Bay. So you can't fairly assess the contribution of Peppers (or any DE) by merely looking at his sack total.

by Bobby Wommack (not verified) :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 12:32pm

Sadly, Barnwell was ranting against Peppers all year on Twitter. It got old after awhile. People gave him alot of shit about it.

He's thrown out that "sack" stat so many times as his only defense. Anybody who actually watched the Bears this year knows how valuable he was. He was my defensive player of the year.

by Lebo :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 4:48pm

That photo in the body building ad is the silliest yet.

by Theo :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 7:30pm

You browsing the internet without adblocker plus is more silly though.

by Dean :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 9:50am

Unless he's on an office computer and doesn't have IT Admin access to install unauthorized software on his work machine.

by dwshafiz (not verified) :: Sat, 07/23/2011 - 11:24am

Unless you want to support your favorite sites... I'm sure FO gets some money for each page view, and even more if you actually click on one of the adds. I'm not saying you shouldn't use an adblocker--some sites are just asking for it--but don't use it to the detriment of a great site like this.

by Raiderjoe :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 7:40pm

Old guyu who looks like beetle or pictuire witrh long haired hippie guy whith Scharwanegger body by pool?

by Lebo :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 4:22pm

Old beetle. Although just seen that Schwarzenegger one now and had shivers. Is he trying to seduce us?

by Kevin from Philly :: Fri, 07/22/2011 - 11:34am

I wonder if Mike Kafka is training with that guy during the lockout.

by FooBarFooFoo (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 5:33pm

RE "You're not smarter than the Pittsburgh Steelers"

Impressive list, but I suppose you "forgot" to mention Mike Vrabel? 3 SB, 1 Pro Bowl.

But I agree ... usually, the Steelers are smarter when it comes to veterans.

by MilkmanDanimal :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 5:43pm

Being that Vrabel was on the Steelers for four seasons and totaled 37 tackles, I'd guess he was little more than a special teams guy with occasional spot duty. Not really the same thing.

by Jerry :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 3:34am

No disrespect to Vrabel, who had a fine career, but which Steeler starter should he have played ahead of?

by PantsB (not verified) :: Thu, 07/21/2011 - 12:23pm

I think the "not smarter" line is at least defensible... but not the overall assertion "outside of the Eagles, nobody is more confident about letting their veterans leave." The Patriots have been doing that almost to a fault for a decade from Bledsoe to Milloy a week before the season to Law to Branch to Seymour to McGinest to Vrabel.

by Dean :: Thu, 07/21/2011 - 12:36pm

I'll see your "Bledsoe to Milloy a week before the season to Law to Branch to Seymour to McGinest to Vrabel" and raise you Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Jeremiah Trotter (twice), Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, Brian Dawkins, Correll Buckhalter, LJ Smith, Takeo Spikes, Sean Consindine, Jeff Garcia, Donte Stallworth, Dhani Jones, Michael Lewis, Shawn Barber, Darwin Walker, Corey Simon, Jerome McDougle, Rod Hood, ND Kalu, Hollis Thomas and I could go on but I think you get the point.

by RichC (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 5:48pm

I love how he just cuts out players who don't conform to his theories.

What a shitty article.

by Chit Whipman (not verified) :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 6:33pm

That might be a good point RichC. Can you quantify that?

by chemical burn :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 8:07pm

It's Barnwell, he's burned all his "you need to justify what you're saying about his article" points. Without having read the article in question, I fully trust any assertion that his analysis is terrible and as a matter of course he data mines to an ridiculous degree.

If someone wrote, "wow, what a great article by Barnwell," that would demand proof.

by JimmyOz (not verified) :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 4:08am

Grantland is the death of journalism. Its a fairytale storybook about popular culture, which includes sports. Any link from Grantland gets the same treatment - if you agree with the article, you'd need to prove it because the writer certainly isn't going to bother.

Its weird, because i think a lot of the non-top-10-list stuff on ESPN is pretty good.

Insider is ESPN's honour roll and Grantland is ESPN's special-ed class?

by Aaron Brooks' Good Twin (not verified) :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 4:04pm

It's a shame, because Klosterman's first piece for Grantland was one of my favorite sports stories in years. It's everything Grantland could be.

Sadly, Molly Lambert seems to be what Grantland actually is.

by tuluse :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 4:40pm

I think the problem here was partially your expectations of Grantland. It's supposed to be a giant collection of op-ed pieces. I think "a fairytale storybook about popular culture, which includes sports" is exactly what Bill Simmons wanted to create.

by Shattenjager :: Tue, 07/19/2011 - 8:11pm

I know this will be a controversial statement that will get ripped by many, but I just want to say I enjoyed that one.

And I'm not going to argue about it.

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 4:44am

I enjoyed it as well.

I particularly liked the Andre Rison and Jerry Rice lines.

I didn't realise just how bad the record of running backs is, although I think the case against Michael Turner as only a qualified success is pretty weak.

Basically though, the conclusion about free agency is that you can't rely on it to get the best players on your team, because you only get the leavings of other teams.

by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 7:56am

That, plus if you sign a guy who peaked on another team with different coaches and teammates, he probably won't peak on your team. Which should be obvious but rarely seems to get noted. Plus he's old and regression to the mean and so on.

by Dean :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 9:52am

I enjoyed reminiscing about free-agency days gone by. But I knew going in not to think too hard about it.

Even then, it's hard to call Kevin Curtis and his 70 catches (in a system that spreads the ball around) a bust.

by Kal :: Wed, 07/20/2011 - 7:28pm

In general, aren't free agents busts more than successes? Especially when they go from being the second string guy to the top guy on a team? Thinking back, I can think of several CB, DT, QB, WR, TE, or safety problems. There are a few successes, but I suspect they align well with fewest injuries in general.

by Kevin from Philly :: Fri, 07/22/2011 - 11:36am

As I recall, the Packers signed Reggie White coming off a pretty good season, and that worked out OK for them (but bad for me).

by chemical burn :: Fri, 07/22/2011 - 8:51pm

It worked out great for Norman Braman, though!

by dwshafiz (not verified) :: Sat, 07/23/2011 - 11:29am

Would Corey Dillon count as a counter-example? Or does he fall under Rison's the too-insane-to-keep clause?