Commentary

Following the free-agent dollars

Whether big names or bargains, free agents don't always bring wins

Originally Published: May 19, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One of the busiest unrestricted free-agency periods in NFL history is coming to an end.

Technically, unrestricted free agency ends June 1, though players on the street can sign any day of the year. The significance of the deadline is that unrestricted free-agent signings after June 1 don't count against teams when calculating compensatory picks in next year's draft.

Though this year's free agency lacked sizzle, it sure was active. The deal Dwight Freeney reached with the San Diego Chargers on Saturday will make him the 161st unrestricted free agent to move to a different team, and there is a good chance 2013 will go down as the second-most active free-agent period ever.

The most movement was in 1995, when 171 players signed with new teams. With veterans such as Max Starks, Israel Idonije, Sedrick Ellis, Devery Henderson among those still available, this year could eventually top the 164 who moved during the mad post-lockout scramble in 2011.

It's been well established that the AFC is on a down cycle as a whole. The NFC had the better interconference record, and nine of the top 12 spots in the 2013 draft went to AFC teams based on their poor records. With that in mind, it's no surprise five of the seven top-spending teams in free agency were from the AFC.

[+] EnlargeDwight Freeney
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesAn injury in San Diego created an opening for Dwight Freeney to land one of the top deals since the first five days of free agency.

The Miami Dolphins ranked first, giving eight players contracts worth a combined $146.1 million. Hoping to build on their wild-card playoff run last year, the Indianapolis Colts were second with eight players getting $132 million worth of contracts.

The Tennessee Titans were third (10 players, $97.2 million), followed by the Philadelphia Eagles (10 players, $95.6 million), Cleveland Browns (eight players, $87.1 million), St. Louis Rams (two players, $69.1 million), Kansas City Chiefs (eight players, $62.4 million), Chicago Bears (seven players, $60 million), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (seven players, $50.4 million) and the Detroit Lions (three players, $49 million).

As is always the case, teams wanting the top players had to come out quickly and pay top dollar. The Dolphins grabbed Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in the first five days of free agency. The Colts spent $131 million in the first couple of days of free agency, landing seven of their eight acquisitions.

But let's look behind the numbers, because it's often said that smart teams wait for the market to calm down and then grab bargains. That held true this year, with Freeney becoming only the seventh unrestricted free agent -- joining Jake Long, Brent Grimes, Ed Reed, Phil Dawson, Osi Umenyiora and Glover Quin -- to sign for more than $2 million a year after the first five days of free agency.

Knowing that, you can see why John Abraham is having a hard time getting $4 million a year this late. It took Melvin Ingram's knee injury, which create an unexpected need in San Diego, for Freeney to avoid being in the same boat.

As for teams, three winners emerged from the post-frenzy shopping market -- Arizona, Chicago and Tennessee. Based on playing time from last year, I'd give the Cardinals the slight edge from the post-March 17 market. Among their signings, cornerback Antoine Cason played 976 snaps for the Chargers last year, Jasper Brinkley had 813 snaps at linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings, and Chilo Rachal had 643 snaps on the Bears' offensive line. The cost was a combined $5.7 million in contracts.

Bears general manager Phil Emery kept grabbing depth for his offensive line after being aggressive early and getting Jermon Bushrod and Martellus Bennett. Among the Bears' five post-March 17 signings were offensive linemen Matt Slauson and Eben Britton. Slauson started 16 games and had 786 snaps for the Jets in 2012. Britton had only 253 snaps last season, but he comes with 30 career starts. The cost was $1.53 million for both on one-year deals.

By being patient, the Titans picked up center Chris Spencer and defensive tackle Antonio Johnson, along with three other UFAs after March 17.

It's been pretty well proven that NFL championships can't be bought through free agency. Teams have tried and failed for decades. The key is being smart.

The Bucs were the free-agency winners in 2012, getting Vincent Jackson, Eric Wright and Carl Nicks, but they finished 7-9. How the Dolphins will do this season depends on the development of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He should improve with Wallace, Gibson and Dustin Keller as added targets.

Overall, though, the Denver Broncos should be recognized for what they did both in the hot early market and late in the game. They ranked 12th in unrestricted spending, putting up $44.5 million on five players, but all five had at least 634 snaps last season and four had 799 or more.

To help quarterback Peyton Manning, the team secured wide receiver Wes Welker and picked up one of the best guards on the market in Louis Vasquez. On defense, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Terrance Knighton should all help.

The Cardinals were in the middle of the pack in spending, ranking 14th with $36.9 million, but they added six players who played at least 492 snaps last season.

All this spending in free agency will help, of course, but winning depends far more on quarterback play and how front offices handle the draft.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer