PHOENIX – NFL free agency might buy the love of fans, but overly generous spending rarely helps a franchise win a championship.
The best proof of that might be found right here in the Valley of the Sun, where NFL owners will gather this week for their annual spring meetings. A year ago, the hometown Arizona Cardinals acquired running back Edgerrin James in free agency, taking him from the Indianapolis Colts.
Arizona fans bought into the dream that James and his four-year, $30 million contract conjured. They filled the seats at the beautiful new University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. They then watched James struggle behind a horrendous offensive line and eventually saw the Cardinals implode in yet another awful season.
Meanwhile, the Colts, who usually try to retain their own offensive players but otherwise tread lightly in free agency, won a Super Bowl. In the process, they faced a Chicago Bears team that didn't make any big splashes in free agency.
However, for teams like the 1995 Dolphins, who spent freely to collect a roster filled with 19 former first-round picks, or the Redskins of just about any year since Dan Snyder bought the team, free agency has rarely paid off the way front offices and fans projected. So for all the excitement that has gone with the signing of a bunch of mediocre players to some exorbitant contracts (see: Buffalo Bills guard Derrick Dockery), about the only thing to know is that free agency has just been expensive.
"I see the same thing I see every time which is we're all initially shocked by the market," Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay said. "The first 10 days, everybody sits there and says 'wow' about the size of the contracts and the activity. But, in reality, when the cap goes up as much as it's gone up the last two years, it's really not all that unexpected. And every team has to do what they see best within this system. And so I really don't see this being a lot different than when we had the market shift in '98."
With that in mind, it's worth waiting a moment before crowning the New England Patriots as champions after their busy offseason.
New England has been plenty effective at shoring up key holes at linebacker and wide receiver with the likes of Adalius Thomas, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker. The Patriots even broke out of their cheap tendencies to keep cornerback Asante Samuel as a franchise player.
But if fans are expecting that these moves will vault the Patriots from their loss in the AFC championship against Indianapolis to another Super Bowl, they'd best keep a firm grip on history. Don't forget that in 2001, when the Patriots won the first of their three Super Bowls, they took the low road when it came to free agency, signing a dozen players for less than it cost them to get Thomas this year.
Here's a look at the winners and losers so far in '07 free agency.
New England Patriots
The signing of Thomas was critical to rebuilding a linebacking corps that deteriorated quickly last season. By the time the Patriots got to the AFC title game, their linebackers were a coverage liability which Indianapolis exposed. Furthermore, the Patriots weren't getting the type of pass rush they needed. Thomas provides a pass rush (11 sacks last season and 28 over the past three years) and an uncanny ability to cover despite being 270 pounds.
The Patriots made a mistake in the 2006 offseason by refusing to agree to Deion Branch's contract demands and trading him away. Instead of denying that mistake, New England embraced it and filled the gaps with three talented guys. Stallworth is the deep threat the Patriots missed all last season. Welker, acquired in a trade with Miami, is the heir to Troy Brown's consistent presence over the middle. Washington, lost in the shuffle with the Cincinnati Bengals, is just plain talented.
Stallworth and Washington are a bit out of character for the Patriots in that they have had attitude and off-field problems in the past. However, New England is smart when taking problem guys. First, they never take too many. Second, they augment the roster with lots of good guys and certainly Thomas, Welker and fellow free agents Sammy Morris and Kyle Brady fit the bill.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You have to tip your cap to any team that gets both its No. 1 and No. 2 targets at quarterback in the offseason. OK, it doesn't appear that first option Jake Plummer is going to play despite speculation to the contrary. However, the Bucs' ability to get Jeff Garcia away from the Oakland Raiders after the Plummer situation imploded was crucial. Garcia might not produce the way he did with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, but Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden loves veteran quarterbacks and he'll make this work.
The Bucs were busy in other areas. They picked up veteran defensive lineman Kevin Carter when Dewayne White left for Detroit. They also made a great pickup to get Cato June on the cheap when his market value decreased. June is a perfect linebacker in the Bucs' system. Throw in some nice parts such as defensive tackles Lance Legree and Kenny Smith and you have the makings of something interesting.
The hole at left guard created by the departure of Steve Hutchinson a year ago remains unfilled despite a strong run at Kris Dielman, who re-signed with the San Diego Chargers. That issue is a work in progress.
Still, the Seahawks did a nice job of upgrading the defense with the signing of safety Deon Grant and defensive end Patrick Kerney. The Seahawks have done a good job in the past of signing expensive players and making it work (Grant Wistrom and Julian Peterson are the most recent examples). These two should make it work as well.
Denver made two nice pickups. They finally came up with a real running back in Travis Henry after spending two years toying with the likes of Tatum Bell. They also picked up tight end Daniel Graham, who was vastly underused in New England.
It's fair to say that the Raiders just don't get it. Running back Dominic Rhodes is a solid backup, but the rest of the signings were a bunch of flotsam. Center Jeremy Newberry is just about done and fullback Justin Griffith is just a guy. Worse yet, the Raiders were badly snubbed by a series of players such as Garcia and just about any top free agent running back.
In fact, just about any agent you talk to essentially laughed about the notion of signing his player with the Raiders, admitting that Oakland was merely used as a bargaining chip with other teams in hopes of forcing the price up. Most of the time, the strategy failed as teams saw through the ploy.
What the Raiders are left with is a serious problem at quarterback (Andrew "Tree Stump" Walter is all they have right now) and an offensive line that was no better than a year ago. Even with the No. 1 overall pick, the Raiders have a weak foundation to build upon.
Sometimes you just have to wonder what teams are thinking. The Bills signed three offensive linemen (Dockery, tackle Langston Walker and guard Jason Whittle) who combined for zero Pro Bowls. All of them got contracts that were considered steep, even by this year's standards.
Meanwhile, top defenders such as cornerback Nate Clements and linebacker London Fletcher are gone. Starting running back Willis McGahee was traded for a couple of middling picks. Now, linebacker Takeo Spikes is reportedly on the trade block. That's a big pinch on impact players with really nothing in return.
If you want good special teams players, the Vikings got them with the likes of linebacker Vinny Ciurciu and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Acutally, Shiancoe is probably better than that, having been stuck on the Giants behind Jeremy Shockey.
Still, the Vikings needed to get a solid receiver and came up well short when their visit with Kevin Curtis became a nightmare. Curtis ended up with the Eagles and the Vikings still have a glaring hole at receiver. Beyond that, they deteriorated at cornerback and at linebacker.
The Falcons might have salvaged this offseason with the trade of quarterback Matt Schaub to Houston, but the deal's worth (Falcons exchanged first-round picks with Houston Texans and also got two second-rounders) won't be determined until after the NFL draft.
As for what they acquired in free agency, fullback Ovie Mughelli from the Ravens is the type of player who every team wants to have – they just don't want him at the price the Falcons paid ($18 million over six years). Linebacker Marcus Wilkins is just a guy and for all the talent that wide receiver Joe Horn and guard Toniu Fonoti have, they are both huge potential headcases.
Of course, there are a number of teams (Indianapolis and the New York Giants) that essentially sat out free agency. But a lot of that has to do with policy. Those teams and others, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, generally don't play heavy in the free agent market, if they even play at all.