The hot topics, of course, are the NFL Draft held in May of this coming spring and free agent player signings. The free agency period begins March 11, 4pm EST, but as Packers fans know, Ted Thompson probably won’t be in hot pursuit of many of the 2014 free agent class.
There is a continual debate in Packers Nation about whether or not Thompson should deviate from his precious draft and develop philosophy and dive into the murky waters of the pool of free agents. From the blogs I’ve read and conversations I’ve had, it seems fans are certainly in favor of bringing in free agents.
Many are questioning the “In Ted We Trust” mantra.
At face value it seems to make sense, bring aboard a proven veteran to fill a need. In theory a veteran player, in most cases can hit the ground running, whereas with a rookie it often takes some time, maybe a few seasons, for them to get up to speed and be a difference-making contributor. In the “win now” NFL time is of the essence.
This got me to thinking, how did the 2013 free agent class improve the teams they joined. I reviewed a list of the Top 100 free agents from 2013 and tallied the number of free agents signed by each team.
The Miami Dolphins clearly were the most eager to get out their checkbook, in doing so they signed 9 free agents (4 of 9 FA were previously under contract with the Dolphins). In 2012 the Dolphins finished 7-9, last season they finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
Although the Dolphins scenario leaves one thinking maybe Ted Thompson is on to something. In reality the Dolphins had a season of off the field drama due to the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin affair. It also could be that former Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland is a poor evaluator of talent. Or the ‘fins are just generally a mess.
The next most active team in free agency was the Indianapolis Colts; they signed seven of the top 100 free agent players available (1 of 7 FA was previously under contract with the Colts). In 2012 the Colts finished 11-5, the same record they posted in 2013. Hmmm… I began to wonder about all the free agent hoopla.
Then of course came the outlier, the Super Bowl-bound Denver Broncos. During 2013 the Broncos signed six free agents, only one of which was previously under contract with the team. In both 2012 and 2013 the Broncos were successful, posting a 13-3 record in each respective season. This makes things a bit more interesting.
If signing free agents provided the Broncos an advantage, recalling that they were also active in 2012. What did the other three teams that advanced to the AFC and NFC Championship Game do to improve their squads via free agency?
Staying within the AFC, the New England Patriots signed four free agents; two were previously under contract with the team the other two of course were not.
In the NFC both the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers signed two free agents each. Seattle used free agency to make an immediate impact on their defensive line. Signing two defensive linemen, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, the numbers 3 and 4 ranked free agent prospects, respectively.
To make an honest judgment of the merits of signing free agents I think you need to study the free signings per team over a period of time. And then weigh that against a draft and develop strategy.
The Denver Broncos have certainly used free agency to bridge a discernible gap in the talent of their team. When they signed Peyton Manning they realized that their Super Bowl window was small and their in-house talent was not up to snuff. Remember the Broncos last winning season was in 2006 and prior to the 2012 signing of Manning; Tim Tebow was their starting quarterback. Free agency signings were a smart and aggressive tactic by their GM John Elway to accommodate a unique situation.
On the other hand, Seattle signed a quarterback in 2011 Packer fans know well, Matt Flynn. We know what happens next. They stumbled upon a diamond in the rough in selecting quarterback Russell Wilson in the 2011 draft. Which brings me to my next point, neither the Seahawks nor the 49ers are paying their quarterback true market value, as they are both yet on their rookie deals. Hence they can afford to bring in a free agent or two from time to time.
Each NFL team has their own distinct dilemmas.
The Packers have a lot of their money invested in arguably the best quarterback in the NFL and one of the elite outside linebackers in the game. Ted Thompson’s draft and develop strategy is brilliant until it fails. Provided he hits on his draft picks year in and year out the Packers can support their two star players with inexpensive, yet hungry talent.
The crux of the deal is if a few drafted players don’t work out, like the scenario the Packers currently have at the safety position or the outside linebacker adjacent to Clay Matthews III a lot of time is wasted and of course games lost. But money not spent on free agents is saved. And free agent signings are not a sure bet.
Since 2006 the Packers have had six winning season, six trips to the playoffs, played in two NFC Championship games and won one Super Bowl. Compared to the Denver Broncos or even the Seattle Seahawks over the same span Packers Nation has had a lot to celebrate.
If you’re still with me at this point you are probably muttering that I am a Ted Thompson apologist, which isn’t the case.
If there is a player or two that can fill holes and not submarine the team’s payroll over time I am all for signing free agents. But the idea of slogging through losing season after losing season all to blow the wad in free agency on a season or two of good times doesn’t sit well with me.
Thompson’s strategy gives the Packers a chance year in and year out without compromising the foundation. Knowing full well that hope sells.