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The irrational avoidance of veteran free agency due to over-valuation of thriftiness, ‘building through the draft’ and ‘homegrown talent’

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Editorializing about roster-building in the NFL

Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Notice

This article runs well over 6,000 words. It will probably require 15 to 30 minutes to read in its entirety. If you simply aren’t interested in that investment, feel free to scroll right to the bottom of the article where you will see a 6-paragraph section headlined “tl;dr”.

Reading that will give you the ‘bottom line’ of the article without any of its reasoning. Otherwise, feel free to go straight to the comments section and start saying why the ideas in the article are wrong based solely on how you feel about the headline.


Mistakes happen

Let’s be clear - mistakes get made in building NFL rosters.

Drafts, trades and free agency

The Draft
Talented players sit around till the late rounds of the draft (Tom Brady), or maybe don’t get drafted at all (Quinton Dunbar), while some high draft picks don’t amount to anything (Johnny Manzeil).

Trades
Some trades are made that never really work for one (or both) teams (Hershel Walker, RG3).

Free agency
In free agency, some guys sit on the market, overlooked by most or all of the league (Adrian Peterson, 2018). Some guys get signed to monster contracts with great fanfare but things never really work out (Ndomakong Suh and the Dolphins, 2015). Guys get signed who may not burn a lot of cap space, but just never really contribute to the team (Orlando Scandrick, DRC to Redskins). Some are cut or allowed to walk, only to go on and show their value in a different place (Raheem Mostert).

But mistakes, be they bad draft picks, players overlooked in the draft, bad trades or free agent decisions that are questionable due to lack of performance or large contracts, don’t invalidate any of the three methods of adding players to a team.

A good front office utilizes all three methods of player acquisition in roster-building (along with others, like utilizing waivers), but when it comes to fans, there can be biases that can color perceptions of the “right way” or “wrong way” for the front office to go about building a roster, and for many different reasons.

Fan bias

For example, fans might be heavily influenced by the recent success of certain teams. You may recall that, following the Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl victory, there were videos produced and articles written about how Howie Roseman had discovered the secret formula to building a champion team overnight. When the Rams made it back to the party last year, a new model of success became the flavor of the month. This year saw teams with heavy reliance on the run and strong defenses have a lot of success in the playoffs, meaning that the Titans-49ers model was seen as a great roadmap... until the Kansas City buzzsaw destroyed the happy endings for both of those teams. Now, we seem to be back to the Patriot model — get a good coach and pair him with the best quarterback in the league.

Fan bias might be driven by the past history of their favorite team. The Redskins had a lot of success in my lifetime with competent quarterback play combined with strong running attacks utilizing solid running backs and talented offensive lines. On the positive side, then, Redskins fans have been known to support the philosophy of “building the trenches”. On the other hand, our darkest hours in the past half century have been associated with big spending in free agency for players with marquee-value names approaching the end of their careers. The concept of “winning the offseason” became associated with failed strategies, and Redskins fans have often adopted a view of free agency as an evil to be avoided, and the signing any player over the age of 26 as a return to the bad old days.

Fans might also be heavily influenced by articles they have read about smart strategies or the philosophies of great coaches. It’s a rare fan who hasn’t at one time or another considered WWBBD (What would Bill Belichick do?). It’s appealing to think that there’s a simple secret to success — a checklist one can use, or a simple formula to follow.

The middle path

Living in Thailand, as I do, I get a lot of exposure to Buddhist philosophy, which, among its many intricate beliefs, has as one of its central teachings the concept of the “middle path” or the “middle way”, which is often thought of as a philosophy of moderation in all things, but is just as often (in Thailand) expressed as an acceptance of all people, things and ideas that aren’t actively harmful.

The middle path, as it relates to NFL roster-building, at least in my view, would involve an acceptance of all three forms of player acquisition — the draft, trades, and free agency — as each having value to a team. However, in my view, a large segment of the Redskins fan base has become almost irrationally negative about signing veteran free agents from other teams.

I believe that there are many reasons for this, not the least being the previous Snyder-driven practice of signing over-the-hill free agents to large contracts, but also the perception that teams must always “overpay” for free agents — a view reinforced by the large contract given to Josh Norman that never returned sufficient dividends, and the more recent top-4-at-the-safety-position 6-year contract signed by Landon Collins that reflects a huge commitment of salary cap to the former NY Giant.

Three reasons why fans want to avoid veteran free agency

I’d like to look at three mutually reinforcing factors in particular that I believe have led fans to undervalue veteran free agency as an important roster-building tool. These three factors are:

  • A focus on thriftiness — the idea that spending less money on a player contract is better than spending a lot of money on a player contract
  • A focus on building through the draft — the idea that drafting players out of college is superior to acquiring veterans, especially those who may be seen as short-term solutions
  • A focus on retaining “homegrown talent” - the idea that re-signing a team’s own players is inherently superior to signing veteran players from other teams

Let me reinforce that I don’t see these as three separate ideas, but as three facets of one mindset, and as mutually-supporting facets at that. In other words, each facet is related to the other two, and the three beliefs, integrated and woven together into what feels like a coherent belief system, lead to fans having an irrational bias against signing veteran free agents.

caveat

My purpose in this article is absolutely not to say that signing veteran free agents is the best way to build a roster, or that free agency is superior to the draft or the trade market. My purpose is to re-focus attitudes away from the extreme bias for the draft, homegrown talent and cheap players, and towards the middle way, where all three methods of player acquisition are valued and seen as legitimate tools for building a successful roster.

A short review of cherry-picked HH comments

Let me start by sharing some recent comments about the use of free agency that have appeared on Hogs Haven this off-season:

Let’s do this through the draft this season, and count on our current players we currently have on the roster. I don’t expect us to be any better than 7-9 in 2020 with my eye on 2021 when we start showing signs that we belong in the playoffs. So, why overpay this season for a FA. We are in a rebuild, let’s put most of this rebuild on players that we obtain through the draft.

=================

Teams embarking on a 2-3 year rebuild should not be signing $12m a year linebackers (see my previous comments re $14m strong safeties).

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Build through the draft

We can’t fix everything this year. And if we try to, you then overspend in FA.

=================

NO

Great teams draft and develop great players, bad teams are like scavengers who trail them and hope for some leftovers. I’m sick of the Redskins being the scavengers. Get your own damn players.

When I read these comments, I see them as reflective of the rejection of free agency in favor of the draft that many fans embrace and exhibit.

I think it is unfortunate that this anti-free agency bias exists.

Trying to put some toothpaste back in the tube

Let me tackle the three underlying causes, as I see them, one-by-one; although — as indicated above — the discussion of one factor will likely involve discussing its relationship to the other two.

The focus on thriftiness

Fans often equate lower-priced contracts with better contracts. But, this isn’t quite right.

The focus needs to be on using the available resources to build the strongest roster possible, which is putting a value on efficiency and value rather than thriftiness. Sometimes, spending a lot of money on one or more veteran players is exactly the right roster-building move.

When I go shopping for the groceries (I mean this literally, not in the figurative sense made famous by a former Giants head coach), I have choices when I get to the egg aisle. At the grocery store across the street from my home, packs of ten factory processed eggs displayed on three different shelves are priced at 49 baht, 59 baht, and 69 baht. I can also go to the fresh market about 10 minutes’ walk from my home and get 10 eggs in a clear plastic bag sealed with a rubber band, fresh from the farm, and priced between 25 and 40 baht, depending on size.

My girlfriend, who values thriftiness, will always reject the idea of shopping for the factory processed eggs, preferring the cheaper option at the outdoor market.

I have purchased (and will purchase again in the future) every one of the types of eggs available. The ones from the fresh market are cheap, but they have some issues, one being that the shells of the cheap farmer’s market eggs are noticeably thinner and easier to crack. This doesn’t bother me a lot. What troubles me more is that the eggs from the outdoor market are often dirty; that is, they are dotted with chicken poop. So, while they aren’t expensive, they need to be washed before I want to crack them open, and they need to be handled a bit more carefully since they will crack more easily.

Meanwhile, at my local grocer, the difference between the ฿49 and ฿59 eggs is simply size.

The ฿69 price, however, is the premium price for free-range eggs.

Left to my own devices, I usually buy the most expensive ones - the ฿69 variety. First of all, I prefer larger eggs to smaller ones, as I like to eat more food not less. But I prefer the free range eggs not only because they have thicker shells and sturdier yolks, but because I like the idea of a better lifestyle for the chickens — one in which they don’t spend their lives in a tiny cage that restricts them to doing little more than eating, shitting and laying eggs. I’m willing to pay more to get a better egg and to contribute to a minor improvement in the quality of life of the chickens.

That said, the grocery store near my house is quick to discount food when it is nearing its expiration date, and I am a big fan of buying that discounted food. The shop owners slap a 50% discount sticker on the eggs when they get within a couple of days of the use-by-date, and I’m a sucker for that discount. It doesn’t matter if they’re the ฿49, ฿59, or ฿69 variety, I’ll grab the half-priced factory eggs every time. At half-price, I get better quality eggs at about the same price I would pay for less appealing ones at the fresh food market.

I live alone, I cook for myself, and I live 50 yards from the grocery store, so I shop every day or two and I consume the food pretty quickly. I buy discounted food, eat it while it’s still before its use-by-date, and I’m happy — short term; low price; good quality.

Free agency is kind of like the eggs I buy.

There are times when the right free agent is the cheapest guy available, like those small, dirty farm fresh eggs my girlfriend likes to buy. Maybe he’s just short term depth who is likely to be inactive, or perhaps he is only useful as a special teams guy. Perhaps he’s just a diamond in the rough, like Raheem Mostert, with value that’s been overlooked by everyone.

But if I rely solely on the cheapest talent available, then I will probably find it hard to build a competitive roster. The idea that “you get what you pay for” is not an ironclad truth, as we all know; neither is it totally without merit. Outside of the draft, if you want to sign a quality player to a contract, you usually have to pay premium prices.

But “probably” isn’t “absolutely”. There are times when circumstances can lead to a player being available on a discounted contract, and, as long as the team’s decision-makers know what they’re doing, some deals can be gotten. The Redskins’ best-known recent example of buying low and getting good value is probably Adrian Peterson, who, when the Redskins signed him, was past the magic 30-year old barrier and had had some disappointing results with New Orleans and Arizona. He was seen by most NFL execs as too old and washed up, but Doug Williams and Jay Gruden saw value when they worked him out following Guice’s rookie year pre-season injury. The Redskins, of course, have gotten two very good seasons out of Peterson - the first at a steeply discounted price.

It’s easy to forget, but Vernon Davis’ first season with the Redskins was similar. It appears as if the 2019 low cost veteran free agent success story is Ereck Flowers.

But the Redskins haven’t only had success signing players to cheap free agent contracts; the team has also had success bringing in free agents who were paid competitive contract amounts, and who performed at a high level. Two notable examples are Pierre Garcon and Desean Jackson, neither of whom was signed cheaply, and both of whom, by the time they left, were viewed by most Redskins fans as “our guys”.

Free agents are key components of every NFL roster

A look around the league will provide examples of players on full market value free agent contracts that contribute to their teams’ success every year. Looking at the super bowl champion Chiefs’ roster, I see Frank Clark, who isn’t a true free agent, having been tagged & traded, but who is an expensive veteran acquired from another team. I also see Sammy Watkins, Tyrann Mathieu, Anthony Hitchens and Mitchell Schwartz near the top of the salary cap list, not to mention guys like Austin Reiter a bit lower down.

Successful roster building not only can include signing full-value veteran free agents from other teams, it is almost a requirement.

In fact, building a team with nothing but the current roster plus 7 draft picks, cheap free agent options and a handful of UDFAs per year simply isn’t realistic.

A key reason why it isn’t realistic is, ironically, the salary cap.

How the salary cap makes genuine thriftiness an impossibility in the NFL

The salary cap doesn’t just place an upper limit on how much a team is allowed to spend to build its roster; it also sets a floor — a lower limit that must be spent in cash.

NFL teams are required under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to spend the bulk of the salary cap on players. In effect, the amount of money is fixed and known, and it is “pre-spent”, if you will, without ever really belonging to the owners; signing contracts is simply the process of allocating the money to specific players.

Think of it like a $1,000 gift certificate to your local department store, with a 12-month expiry, given to you for your birthday. Someone loved you enough to give you the certificate, but you have to spend it or it’s worthless. It’s up to you to choose what you will spend it on.

The key is not to save money — it has to be spent. The key is to get good value.

The CBA allocates the salary cap (the gift certificate) to each team, then tells each franchise to go out and buy at least 53 presents for themselves (63 when you add in the practice squad). The team that uses the money most effectively puts itself in the best position to win a championship.

It certainly is important not to overspend on any given player — but it’s not a matter of saving money for the sake of thriftiness. The money has to be spent on players. The only real purpose to be served by spending less on one player is so you can give more to another player.

Since the salaries for drafted rookies and UDFAs are tightly defined by the CBA, the reality is that paying $1m less to one veteran free agent means that, sooner or later, the team has to pay that million bucks to a different veteran free agent player.

To repeat, then: the key to success isn’t being thrifty, but distributing the money wisely. Paying more money to one player isn’t really an issue of profit, but of opportunity cost. Every dollar of cap space devoted to one player is cap space that you could have used on a different veteran player.

The key to success is to allocate the salary cap to put together — not the cheapest — but the most productive (ie. winningest) roster possible.

The habit of saving money and thriftiness is seen as a virtue

We get used to seeing value as a function of price, and many of us spend our lives being raised with the idea that paying less is a virtue. I certainly was raised that way. Thriftiness is, after all, the opposite of wastefulness.

NFL teams have to look at free agent spending differently. NFL teams have to spend the money...the only decision to be made is how much to give to each player. One or more veteran free agents are going to get paid. There is no true salary cap savings to be had.

Perversity, irony, whatever

In fact, in a rather perverse outcome, the more a team builds through the draft (adding young players on low-priced rookie contracts to the roster), and the more successful those teams are at retaining those players for the full four years of those players’ rookie deals, the more money that team will be forced to pay to the smaller number of veteran free agents on the roster.

Let that sink in.

The more successfully an NFL team acquires players via the draft and keeps them to the end of their initial 4-year contract, the more money they have to give to a limited number of (almost by definition) high-dollar free agents.

There’s one pie of a fixed size. If we have more drafted players on rookie contracts getting smaller slices, we have fewer vested veterans who get bigger pieces of the pie. And there’s no choice about it. The entire pie has to be eaten.

What I’m saying is that building through the draft is the surest way a team has of creating demand on the roster for high-priced free agents, who are needed to insure that the minimum spending limits are reached.

Yet, the fans who preach ‘building through the draft’ are typically the first to object that the front office shouldn’t spend money on high-priced free agents, not really recognizing that, under the 2011 CBA, it is the focus on building through the draft that creates the need to sign those high priced veterans.

If the Redskins commit to building the roster primarily through the draft, the CBA forces them to make high-dollar commitments to free agents, whether those players are signed from other teams or re-signed as they finish their rookie contacts with the ‘Skins.

It’s just math.

The focus on building through the draft

Go back and look at those comments from recent articles that I copied and pasted near the top of the article.

Let’s do this through the draft this season

Let’s put most of this rebuild on players that we obtain through the draft.

Build through the draft

Great teams draft and develop great players.... I’m sick of the Redskins being the scavengers. Get your own damn players.

Let me practice sounding pretentious. The idea of building through the draft is talked about so much as the right thing to do that it seems to be accepted as prima facie dogma under the concept of res ipsa loquitur (the thing speaks for itself). In the well-known words credited to Thomas Jefferson (I paraphrase), we hold this truth to be self-evident; we must build through the draft.

Although it might seem otherwise, I am not here to undermine the value of this philosophy. Building through the draft gives a team greater control over its roster for a longer period of time, and, under the current CBA, offers teams a foundation of low-cost players upon which to build the roster.

But that simply brings us back to the initial point.

Why are we so pleased to have a foundation of low-cost players except that it frees up cap space to sign veteran free agents?

Repeating the strange paradox, the more a team relies on building through the draft, the more the CBA forces that team to pay more of its cap space to veteran free agents, whether they are home-grown or signed from other teams.

The key point is that building through the draft isn’t an alternative or replacement for veteran free agency, it is a complementary strategy.

Building through the draft is a strategy that goes hand in hand with spending more money in veteran free agency.

It’s math.

The focus on retaining “home grown talent”

Washington fans often value veteran free agents from the Redskins roster more highly than those available from other teams. While there may be some rational reasons for preferring to re-sign players from the team’s existing roster, those reasons are not compelling enough to make it a matter of unshakable principle that our own players should always be preferred.

First, let me acknowledge some of the reasons why preferring to re-sign existing players is, indeed, a rational strategy.

Objective reasons
The most objective reason to value home-grown players is that re-signing players from your own current roster never eliminates a potential opportunity to gain a compensatory draft pick, which may be a downside of signing a veteran free agent from another team (such as the signing of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in 2019, which probably cost the Redskins a 2020 7th-round comp pick they might have otherwise been awarded for losing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix).

Subjective reasons
Other, less concrete reasons for re-signing players from the existing roster might include:

  • familiarity with the team, its coaches, culture and system
  • showing that the team will reward excellent on-field performance with a free agent contract, which should motivate other players
  • maintaining consistency in the lives of players
  • retaining leadership inside the locker room
  • valuing loyalty above its alternatives and building a reputation for ‘family’

But the fact is, for each of these less concrete reasons, there is a corollary argument in favor of signing players from other teams:

  • Any player worth a good free agent paycheck has been playing football since he hit puberty and is capable of learning any system or adapting to any professionally run organization. Of course, coaches change all the time, both for good reasons (promotions, either internal or to another team) or bad reasons (fired, quit). Players can become ‘stale’ or stagnant, and the messages from coaches can lose effectiveness over time if their is no turnover. Hence, changing the makeup of the team can be advantageous, helping to keep messages fresh and motivation high.
  • Showing that excellent performance will be rewarded doesn’t begin and end with the players currently on the roster. The key is that every player sees that excellent performance results in big money contracts, here or somewhere else. Every player should be motivated to perform at the highest level, knowing that, if they’re good enough now, for us, then they’ll get their bag of gold...somewhere. Importantly, players want to win championships, so knowing that the front office and owner are willing to go out and get the players needed to reach the playoffs and compete for division, conference and league titles is motivating for players on the roster who see the commitment to win from the owner, front office and coaches as a positive. Standing pat on a roster without attempting to improve it is actually a surefire way to demoralize a team.
  • While it’s nice for a player’s kids to stay in the same school and for wives to be able to raise a family in one home without having to be uprooted, moving is part of professional sports. That big, multi-million dollar contract that comes with the relocation goes a long way towards making it all worthwhile, and if a player really wants to stay — well, that’s what “hometown discounts” are for.
  • Leadership is important, but sports teams are re-made every year, and often re-cast in-season as well. Coaches around the league can be (and are) replaced regularly; the same is true of locker-room leaders. There’s even a good chance that the leadership in the locker room can be upgraded through free agency. Listen to players’ comments about a guy like Adrian Peterson for a case study in how a guy can come from the outside and positively impact the culture.
  • ‘Loyalty’ and ‘family’ are like motherhood and apple pie — it’s really hard to say that they’re not good things. But the goal in NFL roster-construction isn’t really to build a lifelong family, but to build strong bonds that last for several months and lead to championships. An effective coach can accomplish in the off-season something similar to what drill sergeants or other NCOs do; that is, to build bonds of trust and mutual reliance in military fighting units in a few weeks. These groups are typified by loyalty and have the feel of family, but the reality is that they are in constant flux.

It simply doesn’t make sense to limit a team’s free agent strategy to only those players currently on the team. An unconditional commitment to prioritizing the retention of home-grown players is effectively saying that the team is committed to a draft-day decision for the player’s entire career unless he plays badly enough to get cut or leaves voluntarily. Mistakes are made in the draft; a player may not be a good fit in a specific environment; team needs may change. Teams should look at the rosters of other teams with the same critical eye as they look at their own players as they search for opportunities to improve. The point is to put together a winning unit for this season, and to have a plan for how that can be done again next year and in subsequent seasons.

In short, aside from the consideration of comp picks, I see as many reasons to sign players from other teams as I do to sign players from the existing roster. It’s just a matter of perspective.

It’s true that the issue of comp picks can’t be overlooked, but it also shouldn’t be over-valued in making team-building decisions.

Additional draft picks create, as mentioned above, more pressure to spend big money on a smaller number of veteran free agents.

Of course, if a team wants to prioritize comp picks, that team can utilize complementary strategies, like prioritizing the signing of players who were cut by other teams and therefore won’t count against the formula.

The most important thing, though, is that the effect on comp picks should be considered as part of the potential cost of a free agent signing; acquiring comp picks should not be the only priority or be seen as an end in itself.

Exemplifying

Let me share my contrasting feelings about two of last year’s veteran free agency decisions by way of example.

I liked the signing of Landon Collins to replace Ha Ha Clinton-Dix despite the fact that it offset the potential 3rd round comp pick (for Preston Smith) the ‘Skins would likely have qualified for because I felt the Redskins had to take an action that would offer more than another band-aid solution to the safety position. I believed then (and still believe) that signing Collins was worth losing the possible 3rd round pick. At just 25 years of age when the Redskins signed him to a 6-year deal, Collins will be able to contribute to the team as a cornerstone of the defense for the next half a decade. In my mind, that justified the loss of the projected comp pick.

Conversely, I hated the signing of DRC at the cornerback position, despite the fact that it was a low-cost contract. I never believed he would see the field much, play well or avoid injury. While I didn’t mind bringing him to training camp, I was hugely disappointed that the team kept him on the opening day roster, and I’m still dirty about the fact that the ‘Skins probably surrendered a 7th round pick (for HHCD) in order to pay the veteran over a million dollars to play 65 snaps in 2019.

So, yes, comp picks should be considered as a factor when deciding to sign a free agent from another team or re-sign our home grown talent, but it is merely one of many factors to be considered, and cannot be enough of a factor to avoid signing veteran free agents from other teams at all costs.

A romantic idea

The idea of “keeping our own” — of prioritizing contract extensions for home grown talent — is largely a matter of romanticism.

A pragmatic concept

The front office of every team needs to do what it can to optimize the talent on the field within the roster size and salary cap constraints, and that includes utilizing the strategy or tactic of signing veteran free agents who no longer fit with other teams. While they are not all free agents, think of guys like the Vikings’ Stephon Diggs, the BrownsDavid Njoku or the LionsGraham Glasgow, each of whom doesn’t feel like a comfortable fit with his team at the moment. Should the Redskins ignore the opportunity to acquire any one of those players now just because he wasn’t originally drafted by the Redskins? Should the team pass up the opportunity to upgrade the roster because it would involve paying a high-dollar contract to a player from another team and possibly letting one of our own walk?

At the moment, I personally would prioritize signing Austin Hooper over retaining Jordan Reed even though Reed is a home-grown talent and signing Hooper would count against the Redskinsin any comp pick calculation. It’s not thrifty — Hooper will be an expensive free agent. It flies in the face of building through the draft and retaining home grown talent, but the team has cap space and a roster hole at tight end.

The most important things to consider are a player’s overall cost (including opportunities lost), his expected production, and his fit with the team. I’d rather import a player who will contribute more and be a better fit than to retain a guy just because we happened to draft him four or more years ago.

Conclusion

It’s a bit silly to say that an article that presents ideas using more than 6,000 words isn’t comprehensive, but that’s the case here. I could write an entire book on team building strategies, and most long-tenured coaches or front office professionals couldn’t find enough time in a year to explain everything they believe in.

I tried to focus on just a few key ideas here, but, as usual, I am not economical with my words.

Tidying up loose ends

I feel as though I left a few ideas hanging out there, and there’s one, specifically, that I’d like to deal with before I stop typing and hit the ‘publish’ button. It’s the concept that so many people bring up of not signing players in free agency because the team won’t contend this year anyway, or because “we aren’t one player away”.

This idea stupefies me — at least when it is presented as a general philosophy, and not specifically applied to a particular situation.

I saw people make this argument last year when Landon Collins was signed: Don’t spend the money on him because we’re not one player away from the super bowl.

But, having signed him, for the next few years we are one player closer to having a complete roster. While draft picks are, of course, cheaper, free agents don’t just expire at the end of the season, and even older players who may only have a year or two left in them can be useful bridges to the future.

No old guys

A current free agent connected to the Redskins is Greg Olsen (He was still negotiating at the time of writing; a decision may be made before this article is published).

Lots of people poo-poo the desirability of signing Olsen based on this concept that the team isn’t ready to compete, so they ask why the Skins would bring in a player like Olsen, who only has a season or two left in him. They would rather, many fans say, devote the roster spot to a player who is younger and can develop into the future.

But each free agency decision needs to be taken on its merits. First of all, Olsen is a talented player, albeit at the end of his playing career. From 2008 to 2016 he went nine seasons without missing a single game. In 2017 he broke his foot; he re-injured that foot in 2018. Those are the only games he ever missed due to injury in his career.

In 2019, he missed two games. Why? Because Redskins linebacker Ryan Anderson illegally hit him in the side of the helmet, knocking him unconscious and putting him into the concussion protocol. Olsen, however, came back and finished the season with the Panthers.

Those who suggest that he is injury prone or somehow ‘broken down’ seem to me to be buying a narrative unsupported by the facts.

Olsen can still play; he averaged 3.5 rec and 42 yards per game last year in a Carolina offense being run by Kyle Allen and Will Grier. Imagine what he can offer the Redskins in terms of a receiving target on the field and a leader off of it.

Does it make sense to reject the idea of signing a guy like Olsen because the team has terrible odds of winning a super bowl this season? Isn’t he likely to help develop Dwayne Haskins by being on the field with him? Isn’t he likely to help develop the young tight ends in the position room with him? Isn’t he, due to his familiarity with Ron Rivera, likely to offer a great communication opportunity between the coach and the players? Isn’t he likely to be able to help players better understand the offensive schemes of Scott Turner?

Maybe Olsen isn’t the right fit. Maybe there are other, better options out there. In fact, I’ve already stated my personal preference for Austin Hooper if we can get him.

But I don’t believe that the front office and coaching staff should simply forgo signing veteran free agents just because the Redskins aren’t expected to compete for a super bowl this year. Every year is important; every year is part of the building process. Every current and potential player needs to be assessed based on his cost and what he can contribute to the team and the creation of a long-term winning culture.

tl;dr

Personally, I get the sense that, for a variety of reasons, but specifically due to focusing on thriftiness with salary cap, and overvaluing the concepts of building through the draft & retaining home-gown talent, a large number of fans have an irrational avoidance of signing veteran free agents from other teams.

I certainly am not promoting the abandonment of the draft or the use of veteran free agency to try to build a “dream team”, but what I am suggesting is that veteran free agents from other teams are a valuable resource available to front offices, and they should be seriously considered as part of any successful roster-building strategy. In fact, they must be. Thriftiness does not argue against paying veteran free agents, as salary cap dollars must be paid out under the provisions of the CBA.

Focusing on the draft does not prevent teams from paying veteran free agents. In fact, as discussed, the more successfully teams draft and retain players through the four years of their rookie contracts, the more money those teams will need to spend on veteran free agents to remain salary cap compliant under the CBA.

And while there is a certain romantic appeal to the idea of retaining home-grown talent, there are as many arguments in favor of bringing in the best talent possible from other teams as there are for prioritizing the re-signing of players on the current roster.

Even the argument that free agency should be avoided because “its not our year” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, whether we’re talking about foundational free agents like Landon Collins or Austin Hooper, or older short term free agents still capable of staying healthy and performing on the field, like Adrian Peterson and Greg Olsen.

In short, veteran free agency is not something to be avoided; rather, it is an integral part of roster-building that should be embraced and utilized intelligently.