Spending big in free agency is the least efficient means to reliably build an annually competitive roster.
That statement may fly in the face of what you’re about to hear for the next month leading into free agency and the weeks immediately thereafter.
Soon, on air talent will be asked to answer the question: which teams won in free agency?
That’s the wrong question.
The right question is: which teams lost in free agency?
Most of the time, the proclaimed “winners” in free agency are those teams that spent the most money. They spent big money on big named players for four-year deals with big price tags. Add a couple of these big players in free agency plus a few others, spend a lot of money and BOOM, everyone thinks you’re a “winner”.
To land these impact players, teams inevitably enter bidding wars with rivals. Bidding wars lead to overspending. And that’s the biggest problem in free agency.
It’s not bad to add good players. It’s bad to overspend.
And unfortunately, “winning” in free agency therefore means overspending.
And as we're about to prove, overspending means losing on the football field. There is an extremely strong negative correlation between spending on free agents and winning football games. This is not theory or speculation. It is fact.
Years ago, I wrote about free agency spending. The research led to actionable takeaways.
As the NFL has evolved, and several years have passed, looking at the most recent research leads to actionable takeaways.
Free agency overspending begets losing.
Whether you want to look back at the last two years or expand back to the prior seven years, spending big in free agency has almost never resulted in teams winning more games in the future.
Examine the following graphic which drills home the point. The red trendline conveys that spending in free agency is inversely correlated with winning. The more teams spend in free agency the less they win.
Also notice how many teams sit in the bottom-right quadrant (below average free agency money spent and above average wins) and how few teams sit in the top-right quadrant (above average free agency money spent and above average wins).
What about looking at it slightly differently. Instead of summing total wins and total dollars over a time period, what if we just look at one season and compare free agent spending in the prior two offseasons? Perhaps spending for a couple years to build a team in free agency would yield better results? For instance: 2020 wins vs total dollars spent in 2019 and 2020 free agency periods. The result?
The same negative correlation.
What if we expand further, and look at season wins vs total free agency dollars spent the prior three offseasons (2020 wins vs total dollars spent in 2018, 2019 and 2020 free agency periods). The result?
The same negative correlation.
And it’s not just a 2020 thing, either. I looked at team wins in 2019 vs free agency dollars spent the prior two- and three-years. And then at 2018 wins, and then at 2017 wins... all the way back to 2013 wins. And the answer was unchanged.
Spending big in free agency typically results in fewer future wins, whether in that very next season over the course of several seasons.
So All Free Agency Spending is Bad, Right?
Wrong. This is not to suggest that teams should avoid free agency. On the contrary.
Teams should absolutely participate (especially in this unique 2021 offseason, more on that later) – but they must “hit” when they make moves, and they must avoid overpaying.
Many fans of NFL teams generally approach their perspective of team building wrong.
If their team hasn’t been successful, fans want their teams to spend big in free agency to land proven, stud players that can help them win big.
And when their team inevitably still fails to win big, fans think their team's GM will never get them back to their winning ways.
That’s also wrong.
In fact, teams have been able to turn things around quicker than you may believe.
And a key way they’ve turned things around is by being aggressive.
Aggressive everywhere… but in a smart way.
Aggressive but smart in free agency.
Aggressive but smart in the trade market.
Aggressive but smart in the NFL draft.
Aggressive but smart on the field.
Let’s start big picture with the following exercise.
Building a Super Bowl Champion
I went back through the quarterbacks and skill position corps of the last four Super Bowl Champions:
The 2020 Buccaneers, the 2019 Chiefs, the 2018 Patriots and the 2017 Eagles.
And I counted how many of those players were in their first contract with the team.
Of the 32 total players (8 per team), a whopping 23 were in their first contract. That’s 72%!
3 of the last 4 QBs (75%) – Brady (TB), Mahomes (KC), and both Foles/Wentz (PHI)
6 of the last 8 RBs (75%)
12 of the last 15 WRs (80%)
We’re not talking long-term building blocks and foundational players that were re-signed after being with a team for years.
We’re talking players in their first few years with a team on their first contract with the team.
And 72% is no small number.
These players came from all walks. Some were a team’s own draft pick in their rookie contract. Some were free agents in their first contract. Some were players acquired in a trade in their first contract with that team.
What should this signal?
That it’s possible to turn a team around quicker than you may think.
And to do so, General Managers must be aggressive… more than they’ve traditionally been.
But they need to be aggressive in an intelligent manner.
They can’t just spend a lot of money to sign big time players in free agency. We’ve shown that isn’t the recipe for success.
“Fine”, you say, “but let’s not discuss generalities – it could work maybe for one team to spend and win a Super Bowl”.
Not in the modern NFL.
Not in recent memory.
And to drill that point home, let’s check out another exercise:
Super Bowl teams generally aren’t built in one offseason. They take a couple of years.
So, I took every Super Bowl winner since 2016, and I added up the total free agency money they spent in the three offseasons leading to their Super Bowl win. For example: how much money did the Bucs spend in free agency from 2018-2020 ahead of their 2020 Super Bowl run?
I also looked at the draft capital they spent in the three offseasons leading to the Super Bowl win (I did this using the concept of draft points, which allocates more “points” to the #1 overall pick and almost zero “points” to the last draft pick of the seventh round).
And I plotted each of them out compared to all the other teams that season.
The vertical axis depicts the total free agency dollars a team has spent over the last 3 offseasons (least to the bottom, most to the top). The horizontal axis depicts the total draft capital spent (least to the left, most to the right). Thus, the bottom left quadrant (where most of these Super Bowl Champions sit) shows they spent less than the NFL average in free agency the past three years and less than the NFL average in draft capital the last three years.
What is clear?
Not a single team was above average in free agency spending in the three years leading to their Super Bowl.
But none of these teams were at the extreme in terms of spending next to nothing in free agency.
Most spent close-to but just under the NFL average in free agency over that period leading to their Super Bowl.
So, they didn’t overspend… but when they spent, they made it count.
As an example: look at the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles.
In literally the 2017 offseason, right before their Super Bowl run, look at who they added in free agency:
And also their #1 and #3 WRs Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
And also their #1 RB LeGarrette Blount.
And also the defender who led the team in interceptions (Patrick Robinson) and the defender with the 3rd most sacks (Chris Long).
Without their free agency spending in 2017, they don’t come close to winning the Super Bowl.
But guess what?
They only ranked #21 in free agency spending in 2017. They came in below average!
How could they land all those massive contributors to winning the Super Bowl despite spending below average in free agency?
The answer is they spent wisely in free agency.
Most of those players signed just one-year deals. Nick Foles signed a two-year deal but for backup QB money at only $5.5M per year. As such, GM Howie Roseman made a number of signings, and was aggressive, but was extremely smart.
Remember: it’s not bad to add good players… it’s bad to overspend.
Everyone will point back to the 2020 Super Bowl Champions as the team that “bought” a Super Bowl.
Yes, Tampa Bay did bring in a lot of players last offseason to win a Super Bowl.
But they, too, finished below average in both free agency spending, ranking #17 (they spent $5 Million below the NFL average).
Tom Brady signed for $25M per year on a two-year deal, which was incredible value considering recent QB contracts. Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, Ndamukong Suh and many, many others signed just one-year deals.
In fact, of the 15 unrestricted free agents the Bucs signed in 2020’s offseason, the only one which was signed to a multi-year deal was Tom Brady, and he only received two years. The 14 other unrestricted free agents they signed received one-year, team-friendly deals.
No, they didn’t win the Super Bowl by landing high-paid free agents. They won the Super Bowl by spending below average dollars wisely in free agency. They pursued free agency very aggressively, but in a smart way.
And that’s exactly what we stated earlier. Whether it’s the 2017 Eagles, the 2020 Bucs, or any other team that wants to win a Super Bowl:
more GMs must be aggressive in free agency, but in a smart way.
Beyond free agency, an interesting note as it relates to draft capital: four of the last five Super Bowl Champions spent below average draft capital in the few years leading to their Super Bowl run.
To win a Super Bowl, you don’t need the most draft capital. While it’s absolutely true that hitting on draft picks is hard thus having more arrows (picks) in your quiver improves your odds of nailing a higher volume of draft picks, teams don’t need to go overboard amassing draft capital.
Lately we’ve seen more teams trade away future draft picks for known commodity players than can help them win in the next couple of years.
There are many ways to play the NFL draft, just like in free agency. There is no one, true formula that will assure success.
What we know more about is what ensures failure.
The graphic above clearly shows failure comes when relying too much on free agency and overspending or relying too much on the NFL draft and needing to hit on too many picks.
We first discussed the myth of “winning” free agency.
We also discussed the importance of being aggressive and smart in free agency, the trade market and the NFL draft. In general, an aggressive front office approach.
And we proved the last handful of Super Bowl winners all had these traits which helped build their Championship teams.
Lastly, they also were aggressive and smart on the field.
Bringing Front Office Aggressiveness onto the Field
Look at the ranking of pass aggressiveness* for the last four Super Bowl Champions:
2020 Buccaneers: #3
2019 Chiefs: #1
2018 Patriots: #10
2017 Eagles: #10
*early down pass rate in the first three quarters
These teams all knew the way to win games in the modern NFL is through the air, and they won a lot of games in the regular season by throwing early and often, and then they went undefeated in the playoffs by sticking with that same philosophy.
A Unique Opportunity in 2021... and a Prediction
Whether it’s free agency or trades or the NFL draft, NFL General Managers must be extremely aggressive, they just need to be smart about it. And when it comes to on-field decision making, NFL coaches must be extremely aggressive and smart.
We’ve showcased three thoughts here:
Overspending in free agency begets losing. GMs need to be active and aggressive in free agency, but smart about how they spend. Super Bowl Champions aren’t built through overspending in free agency or through massive draft capital, but through aggressive and smart roster construction.
Where does that put us in 2021? In an exciting place.
With a reduced cap, I predict we will see many well-known veteran players cut to save salary cap space. I believe there will be an influx of talented free agents in the marketplace, more than we’ve seen in years. And I think many of these free agents will be open to taking short-term, one-year deals. Not to “prove-it”, but to enable a return to free agency again in 2022 when the cap is likely much higher, allowing them to land bigger contracts.
If GMs play this right, I predict we will see the formation of more “super teams” this offseason than we’ve ever seen in the NFL.
With more star players willing to take on the risk of a short-term deal, this opens the door to any GM that wants to follow this outline and spend extremely aggressively but in a smart manner.
Teams can take massive leaps in win output and make runs to the Super Bowl.
The 2020 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl doing everything outlined here. They were aggressive but smart in free agency. They were aggressive but smart in the draft. They were aggressive but smart with trades. And they had one of the most aggressive passing attacks in the NFL.
If you are a fan of a team that you don’t think is ready to take that step to a Super Bowl in the next year or two, ask yourself - why is that acceptable? Fans shouldn’t accept bad results from teams year after year after year when being aggressive the right way can build Super Bowl caliber rosters within a few years.
It will be fun to see which GMs spend the wisest this free agency and which “super team” is able to win the 2021 Super Bowl.
But remember: in two weeks, the most intelligent discourse you will hear on free agency will be from analysts who first discuss which teams “lost” free agency rather than which teams “won”. And if the topic does turn to teams that “won” free agency, keep this in mind: the true "winners" of free agency spending wisely at no more than a league-average rate. The top spenders don’t “win” free agency. In fact, if history is a guide, those heralded “winners” will lose on the field in 2021.