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“The most important thing in building a team is getting players to play above the price that you’re paying them”

Is signing top end free agents worth it?

Kansas City Chiefs v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Just last week I came across the interview below, where commentator Domonique Foxworth was discussing the potentially very rosy future of the Washington Football Team. During the course of the interview, he stated what I would assert is one of the most foundational tenets of team-building: “Everyone thinks what you need to have is a QB first, to build your team. I think we take for granted that the most important thing in building a team is getting players to play above the price that you’re paying them.” Cast that in bronze, plate it in gold, and hang that plaque above the entryway to the WFT front office.

With Bill’s assistance pulling Pro Football Focus scores, I decided to take a look at the relative performance from 2019 to 2020 of the top free agents who changed teams during the past offseason (PFF grades are post-Week 14 for 2020). This list does not include players who were franchise tagged or retained by their own team as free agents. One rationale for this, among others, is that their “parent” teams probably have the most accurate assessment of a player’s value in terms of the extent to which their success may be the result, at least in part, of external factors.

Top 10 Free Agent Signings in 2020 (non-franchise tag/switching teams):

  1. Tom Brady (QB) - In 2019, with the Patriots, Brady’s PFF grade was 79. This year, his PFF grade has gone up significantly, to 90. Brady is the 17th highest paid QB in the league, with an average annual salary of $25M. Brady is currently 6th of 39 QBs in PFF ranking.
  2. Jadeveon Clowney (EDGE) - In 2019, Clowney had a PFF grade of 80.8 with the Seahawks. So far in 2020, his PFF grade is 74.9. Clowney is the 23rd highest-paid EDGE rusher in the league, with an average annual salary of $13M. Clowney is currently 16th of 110 EDGE rushers.
  3. Byron Jones (CB) - Last season, with the Cowboys, Jones had a PFF grade of 76.1. This year, with the Dolphins, he’s had a very pedestrian 60.6. Jones is the 5th highest paid cornerback in the league, with an average annual salary of $16.5M. Jones is currently 60th of 127 cornerbacks.
  4. Everson Griffen (DE) - In 2019, Griffen had a PFF grade of 76 with the Vikings. So far this year, with the Cowboys and Lions, he’s had a grade of 61.9. Griffen is the 44th highest paid EDGE rusher in the league, with an average annual salary of $6M. Griffen is currently 62nd of 110 DLs.
  5. Philip Rivers (QB) - Rivers had a PFF grade of 74.3 in his last year with the Chargers. This season, with the Colts, he has a slightly improved 78.6 grade. Rivers is the 18th highest paid QB in the league, with an average annual salary of $25M. Rivers is currently 14th of 39 QBs.
  6. Kyle Van Noy (LB) - Van Noy had an impressive PFF grade of 84.2 last season with the Patriots. This season, with the Dolphins, he’s had a much more average PFF score of 60.8. Van Noy is the 25th highest paid EDGE rusher in the league, with an average annual salary of $12.75M. Van Noy is currently 36th of 87 LBs.
  7. Austin Hooper (TE) - Last year, with the Falcons, had an impressive PFF grade of 78.3. In 2020, with the Browns his PFF grade has dropped to 65.6. Hooper is the 4th highest-paid tight end in the league this year, with an average annual salary of $10.5M. Hooper is currently 32nd of 71 TEs.
  8. DJ Reader (DT) - With Houston, in 2019, Reader had PFF grade of 85.4. That grade has dropped to 69.6 this year with the Bengals. Reader is the 13th highest paid interior defensive lineman in the league, with an annual average salary of $13.25M. Reader is currently 39th of 127 EDGE rushers.
  9. Chris Harris Jr. (CB) - In 2019, Harris had a PFF grade of 69.9 with the Broncos. That grade has dropped off substantially in 2020 to 57.4 with the Chargers. Harris is the 23rd highest-paid cornerback in the league, with an average annual salary of $8.5M. Harris is currently 74th of 127 cornerbacks.
  10. Dante Fowler (EDGE) - Last season, with the Rams, Fowler put up a PFF grade of 72. This year, with the Falcons, his PFF production has dropped to 53. Fowler is the 17th highest paid EDGE rusher in the league, with an average annual salary of $15M. Fowler is currently 99th of 110 EDGE rushers.

This is admittedly a limited sample, but it’s fascinating to see that, across the board, the 8 non-QBs are all performing worse - in some cases, much worse - in 2020 than they did in 2019. Conversely, the two QBs, Brady and Rivers, are performing better than they did last year. Could that be because the QB is in a better position to “shape his own destiny” than any other position on the field? It’s hard to say.

What it definitely does suggest to me though, is that, when defenders look enticingly good, particularly if they’ve been allowed to walk in free agency from their prior team, it’s worth strongly considering how much their success has been the product of their teammates or prior scheme.

Hooper is the only non-QB offensive player on this list. I recall there being similar questions about whether he would have the same success in Cleveland he had seen in Atlanta, where he was no longer going to be Matt Ryan’s safety valve in a pass-heavy offense. In retrospect, at least after one year in, it looks like the Browns badly overpaid for his services.

It should also be noted that the Washington Football Team only had two players signed from other teams who appeared on that free agent list linked above: Kendall Fuller (#71) and Ronald Darby (#89).

Cincinnati Bengals v Washington Football Team Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Kendall Fuller (CB) - Interestingly, just like above, Fuller is - per PFF’s grading - playing a bit worse in 2020 (64.4) than he did in 2019 (70.1). As a side note, he also had an enormous drop off when he originally went from Washington in 2017 (90.6) to the Chiefs in 2018 (72.4).

Ronald Darby (CB) - Finally, with Darby, we find a non-QB who improved dramatically the season after he left in free agency. Darby, who was injured in 2019, posted a miserable 44.8 with the Eagles last year. This season, he’s graded at 76.7, which is the second-highest grade of his six-year career. Darby is also the 10th ranked CB out of 126 qualified players. Fuller is 45th out of the same group.

Collectively, these results seem to be in line with the findings of previous investigations, like this one, “Do NFL teams improve after signing top free agents?

But does it pay off, this expensive off-season competition for free agents? Will the teams that sign big names end up winning big games? The short answer is no, or at least not often. Despite some notable exceptions (think Peyton Manning or Drew Brees), the teams that land top free agents don’t gain much in the standings.

What the author found was that the signing of the top ten free agents resulted in something like .1 additional wins for their new team, almost inconsequential. Interestingly, he did find that the loss of these players - often coming off rookie deals and outperforming those contracts - does appear to hurt the teams that lose them, to the tune of about .5 additional losses in the year after they left.

Let’s hope Ron Rivera, Kyle Smith, and the decision-makers with the Washington Football Team take findings like these to heart in the offseason, and stick with the path they blazed this past offseason. There are lots of reasons to believe their value-based approach to relying on the draft and cost-effective free agents is the way to a new era of football success in Washington, and that the signing of high-priced free agents is little more than fool’s gold.

Additional Reading:

In NFL free agency, the biggest moves rarely prove to be worth the price - Chicago Tribune

Free agency is bad - Field Gulls

Poll

This offseason, would you like to see the WFT go fishing for high priced free agents?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Yes, we have plenty of cap space to get several.
    (29 votes)
  • 39%
    Yes, I’d like the team to pursue one high priced free agent.
    (203 votes)
  • 55%
    No, I think the team should take the same approach it did this year, pursuing mid-range and low-cost free agents.
    (286 votes)
518 votes total Vote Now