The best play in NFL free agency is to be in position to pass.
Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson might take criticism for his hands-off approach to the frenzy of free agency, but the Packers are in the Super Bowl hunt every year. Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome mastered the game of turning lost free agents into mounds of compensatory draft picks, and the Ravens just had their first losing season -- an injury-dominated one -- since Kyle Boller was taking snaps. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers do their best to stay out of free agency and invest their time drafting players and hitting on street free agents (players who were released before the end of their contracts).
As the Denver Broncos proved in 2014 after a Super Bowl loss to Seattle, free agency can help to a certain degree. The Broncos hit on cornerback Aqib Talib, Emmanuel Sanders and street free agent DeMarcus Ware. The New York Jets almost made the playoffs after hitting free agency hard last year.
But most other teams learned the hard way. Free agency isn't free, and it doesn't win championships.
The formula for winning was clearly defined last year. First, you need an elite quarterback (though the Broncos proved to be an exception). Then you need a solid defense. It helps to have a decent running attack. Finding starters out of the draft is the key.
Half of last year's playoff teams shied away from free agency. The Packers have mostly stayed away from unrestricted free agents over the past six years. In the past three years, the Cincinnati Bengals invested only $6.78 million in unrestricted free-agent contracts but have made the playoffs every year.
"I don't think we go through life in the NFL saying, 'OK, now we're going to having this philosophy or a few years from now we're going to have to change to some other philosophy,' " the Packers' Thompson said at the scouting combine. "I think you have a philosophy in how you think is the best way to build a team. We sign free agents. We look at free agents. We've been doing it for the last several months about prospective free agency. No, we're not going to chase ghosts because the clock is ticking."
Thompson did sign Julius Peppers as a street free agent, but his solid drafting and reluctance to sign unrestricted free agents netted him 10 compensatory picks over the past six years. The biggest success story from that group is defensive end Mike Daniels, who recently signed a four-year, $42 million contract extension that looks like a bargain compared to deals we've seen this week.
Even though Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were quiet during the first couple of days of free agency, the team does some of the most creative adjusting when it comes to free agency. In 2009 and 2010, the Patriots played the compensatory game and replaced seven lost players in free agency with seven compensatory picks. The wins keep coming.
In some years, the Patriots will be strategic in their signees. Last year, New England hit a home run with Jabaal Sheard on a two-year, $11 million contract. In 2013, the Patriots signed wide receiver Danny Amendola for $5.7 million a year, the most the team has paid an unrestricted free agent since 2007. He has 146 catches since his arrival.
The Patriots get creative trading for players in the last year of their rookie contracts, giving them the option of re-signing them or putting them in play for possible compensatory picks. They traded for wide receiver Keshawn Martin and signed him to a two-year deal. They might get a nice compensatory pick if defensive end Akiem Hicks gets $5 million or $6 million a year from another team. Hicks came from New Orleans in a trade.
Here are some of the other non-players in free agency who ultimately are players in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers don't say no to free agency, but they are smart about how they use it. This year, they signed tight end Ladarius Green for $5 million a year. When they needed a safety, they signed Mike Mitchell for $5 million a year. Since 2010, they have been in position to receive 11 compensatory picks.
Seattle Seahawks: General manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll are very active in player acquisitions. In 2013, they signed Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in unrestricted free agency and both have become core defenders who have signed second contracts. But once the Seahawks have established themselves as a Super Bowl challenger, they've shied away from free agency. Last year, they signed defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin to a one-year, $2.6 million contract and added him to the core group with a three-year, $12 million extension this offseason. They signed two players to NFL minimum deals in 2014. Last year they got four compensatory picks and could get at least three this year, including a third-rounder and two fifth-rounders.
Carolina Panthers: General manager Dave Gettleman inherited a talented roster when he took over. He's willing to use free agency but at bargain-basement prices. Since 2013, he has signed 13 unrestricted free agents, none for more than $1.75 million a year. The Panthers have hit on Kurt Coleman, Charles Tillman, Ted Ginn Jr., Ed Dickson, Mike Mitchell and Jerricho Cotchery.
Baltimore Ravens: Newsome will go into free agency for urgent needs. Needing a tight end, he signed Benjamin Watson this week. Last year, he signed safety Kendrick Lewis. But the plan is to draft well and try to keep as many starters as possible. But you can't keep every player. Because of that, the Ravens have picked up 15 compensatory picks since 2011 and are expected to get three more this year.
There's no question that free agency has helped really good teams in recent years, but the best teams consistently manage to pick their spots after drafting well, developing talent, and spending the bulk of their money on making sure their best players never actually reach free agency.