Stats & Info: free agency

NFL free-agent class: Star-power potential

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12

Tim Fuller/USA Today Ndamukong Suh is among the top players who can become free agents this offseason.

With NFL free agency beginning March 10, ESPN Stats & Information will examine some of the biggest issues surrounding the 2015 free-agent class.

This year’s free-agent class is highlighted by its star power. Among the top players who might be available are three-time first-team All-Pro Ndamukong Suh and the NFL’s 2014 leaders in rushing yards (DeMarco Murray), sacks (Justin Houston) and receiving touchdowns (Dez Bryant).

The class features 67 players who have been named to a Pro Bowl, 21 who have been named first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press at some point in their careers (including five in 2014) and four coming off franchise record-breaking seasons (see below).

History could be an indicator of whether the biggest names find new addresses:

DeMarco Murray: The NFL’s leading rusher one season has never started the next season on a different team after moving via free agency. The most recent player who led the NFL in rushing and started the next season on a different team was Bill Dudley, who was traded from the Steelers to the Lions before the 1947 season.

Dez Bryant: Since unrestricted free agency began in 1992, Muhsin Muhammad is the only player to lead the NFL in receiving touchdowns and start the next season on a different team. Muhammad was released by the Carolina Panthers and signed by the Chicago Bears in 2005.

Demaryius Thomas: Among the 30 previous occurrences of an NFL player recording 1,500 receiving yards in a season, there have been no instances of the player starting his next season on a different team. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Muhammad has the most receiving yards (1,405) of any player to start the next season on a different team.

Justin Houston: Among the 32 players to lead the NFL in sacks since sacks became an official stat in 1982, two players started the next season on a different team. Most recently, Jared Allen was traded from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Minnesota Vikings between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Kevin Greene was the other; he was released by the Panthers after the 1996 season and signed with the San Francisco 49ers.

The period with the most significant free-agent moves might have been the offseason between the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

Free agency can be multiple-choice test

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11

Chris Humphreys/USA TodayTwo of Denver's top receiving threats, Julius Thomas (80) and Demaryius Thomas, are free agents.
With NFL free agency beginning March 10, ESPN Stats & Information will examine some of the biggest issues surrounding the 2015 free-agent class.

Tough decisions this offseason: Some teams have several key contributors hitting the free-agent market this offseason and insufficient cap space to sign them all. Given a choice between multiple players, which one do you take?

COWBOYS: RB DeMarco Murray or WR Dez Bryant?
DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant accounted for more than 56 percent of the Dallas Cowboys’ yards from scrimmage last season, second-highest among teammates in the NFL.

The case for Murray:
• He will be 27 at the start of the 2015 season.
• He led the NFL in rushing (1,845 yards, a franchise record) and yards from scrimmage (2,261 yards) in 2014. His yards from scrimmage were 36 percent of the team’s total, highest in the NFL last season.
• The Cowboys ran on an NFL-high 48 percent of their plays in 2014.

The case for Bryant:
• He will turn 27 during the 2015 season.
• He led the NFL and set the Cowboys’ franchise record with 16 receiving touchdowns in 2014.
• He has gained 1,000 or more yards and scored 10 or more touchdowns in three successive seasons.
• He caught 68 percent of his targets from quarterback Tony Romo in 2014.

Buyer beware
One risk of investing in Murray is his workload in 2014. Murray’s season was the 42nd instance in NFL history of a player having at least 400 touches (rushes and receptions) in a season.

In the previous 41 instances, the players in the season after their 400-touch campaigns averaged 106 fewer touches and 590 fewer yards, and more than half of the players (25) averaged fewer yards per touch.

BRONCOS: WR Demaryius Thomas or TE Julius Thomas?
The case for Demaryius Thomas:
• He will turn 28 during the 2015 season.
• Over the past three seasons, he ranks third in the NFL in receptions (297), second in receiving yards (4,483) and second in receiving touchdowns (35).
• He has had 90 or more receptions, 1,400 or more yards and 10 or more touchdowns in each of the past three seasons.
• He leads the NFL with 1,874 yards after the catch over the past three seasons.

The case for Julius Thomas:
• He will be 27 at the start of the 2015 season.
• He scored 12 touchdowns in the 13 games he played last season (tied for the most touchdowns among tight ends).
• His 24 receiving touchdowns the past two seasons are the fourth-most in the NFL in that time -- second among tight ends.
• He caught 87 percent of red zone targets last season.

Buyer beware
With quarterback Peyton Manning’s status for the 2015 season still in question, can either of the Thomases produce at the same level without him?
Although a small sample, Julius Thomas has caught two of nine passes (22.2 percent) thrown by quarterbacks other than Manning in his career (73.8 percent from Manning). Demaryius Thomas has more than doubled his production from 2010-11, when he was without Manning.

PACKERS: WR Randall Cobb, OT Bryan Bulaga or CB Tramon Williams?
The case for Randall Cobb:
• He has caught 75 percent of his targets from Aaron Rodgers in his career.
• He led the NFL in receptions (75), receiving yards (1,067) and receiving touchdowns (12) from the slot last season.

The case for Bryan Bulaga:
• The Green Bay Packers allowed pressure on 20 percent of their dropbacks with Bulaga on the field the past five seasons (24 percent with him off the field).
• Rodgers has suffered a broken collarbone and calf injuries the past two seasons.

The case for Tramon Williams:
• He has 28 career interceptions, the sixth-most since 2007.
• He has missed one game in his career.

Buyer beware
Cobb might be the biggest name, but the Packers might want to support Rodgers in other ways.

The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010. That season, they ranked second in points per game allowed, their highest rank of the Rodgers era. Rodgers was pressured on 19 percent of his dropbacks that season, the lowest percentage of his career.

Tango: How many wins does $100 million buy?

March, 8, 2010
Last week, we built a team of 25 free agents on one-year deals for a total cost of less than $100 million. The obvious next question is: How many games could this team win?

To figure it out, let's examine each player, come up with a reasonable assessment of where they stand relative to other players at their positions, and see how much better or worse they are than average.

First let's start with the infield, which is probably where the team is strongest. We have four infielders for second base, shortstop, and third base (Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, and Felipe Lopez), plus a utility player that can also play in the outfield (Jerry Hairston). Offensively, these players are a tick above average for their position group, and defensively, they are well above average. It's fair to say that this group would be one or two wins above average.

We also have a small strength in our first baseman and designated hitter (Nick Johnson, Adam Laroche). They are average to slightly above-average hitters for their positions. And both have a capable glove at first base. Overall, a slight positive, maybe gaining us another win above average.

Our catchers (Yorvit Torreabla and Rod Barajas) make up a roughly average tandem among catchers. They are neither an advantage or a disadvantage for this team, relatively-speaking.

Our outfield (Johnny Damon, Coco Crisp, Gabe Gross, and Randy Winn) is going to hurt us a little bit on the hitting side. As a group, they are passable hitters, but they're all slick with the leather, so that makes up for it a little bit. Overall, this group is a slight negative, maybe one win below average.

Among our position players, we have pretty much a team that is barely above average.

With our starting staff, we have one star in Rich Harden, and four pitchers who are pretty much the definition of a league-average starter. Given the health-risk that Harden poses, we can say that our starting staff is about as average as it gets.

Our top relief tandem (Rafael Soriano, Matt Capps) offers us about average performance for a relief ace and set-up guy. Once again, these pitchers will neither hurt or help us relative to the average team.

The rest of our bullpen is fungible, just like it is for most teams. We have Kelvim Escobar who's effective when healthy, but rarely healthy. Kevin Gregg and Tyler Walker are fairly reliable, and Brendan Donnelly and Javier Lopez can handle mop-up duty.

Overall, we have ourselves pretty close to a .500 team. And we built this team with zero cost in future years, as they all signed to one-year deals. And though we have no player development system to speak of, the combination of quality free agents available this off-season, coupled with the slowdown in the economy, gave us a chance to build a bargain-level competitive team. With a little more cash for a Matt Holliday or John Lackey, this team could compete in some divisions.

Tom Tango writes for Inside The Book

Tango: One team, one year, $100M

March, 4, 2010
Nearly $2.7 billion was spent on player salaries last season. That is an average of almost $90 million per team. This excludes minor league salaries, signing bonuses for draft picks and all other player development costs.

But what if a team decided to scrap its entire player development system, put an extra $10 million into player salaries, and tried to build a roster for under $100 million, using only players who'd sign one-year deals? What kind of team could you put together?

ESPN's free agent tracker allows you to select all players who signed one-year deals for 2010. Of those, we will remove each player who re-signed with his former team. So here is the best team $100 million can buy for one year.

Catcher: There were eight catchers in our pool, who signed for a collective $10.4 million. This is not going to be a strength. I'll go with Yorvit Torrealba and Rod Barajas.
Running cost: $1.75 million

Infielders (2B, SS and 3B): We'll go with five players here: Adrian Beltre at third, Orlando Cabrera at short and Orlando Hudson at second, with Felipe Lopez and Jerry Hairston as our utility infielders. (Hairston can also provide support in the outfield.) We've got a fairly strong bunch here, who come at a collective $21.1 million.
Running cost: $22.85 million

Outfielders: We'll go with four here. Coco Crisp in center, Johnny Damon in LF and Gabe Gross in RF, with Randy Winn as the fourth outfielder gives us an outfield costing $15.1.
Running cost: $37.95 million

1B/DH: I like Nick Johnson and Adam LaRoche for that role, who come at a collective $11.75.
Running cost: $49.7 million

Alright, we just filled up half our team, 13 position players, at just under $50 million. All we have to do is spend the other $50 million on 12 pitchers.

Starters: There's some decent starters here, and we'll grab most of them: Rich Harden, Brad Penny, Jon Garland, Doug Davis, and Brett Myers. That's a $30.65 million starting staff.
Running cost: $80.35 million

Relievers: Our closer and setup guy are Rafael Soriano and Matt Capps, who come at around $11 million, while the other five relievers are righties Kevin Gregg, Brendan Donnelly, Kelvim Escobar and Tyler Walker, with lefty Javier Lopez for a total of $7 million. That's 12 pitchers for just over $48 million.
Running cost: $98 million

There you have it: the best one-year free agent team $100 million can buy. But the question is: How many games can they win? I'll look at that in part 2.

Tom Tango writes for Inside The Book.