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Free Agency Reality Check

Posted Mar 9, 2010

SI.com's Peter King reminds us that NFL free agency is over-hyped and overrated

Peter King churned out his Monday Morning Quarterback column yesterday on SI.com (a weekly must-read for all football fans in and out of season). In short, King provided opening stats, tables and commentary to drive home one single point…

“Free Agency is vastly overrated.”

WHOA! Hang on Peter, this isn’t what the national media is supposed to say, is it? Hours and hours of round-the-clock free agency coverage, tweets galore and message boards fired up at every fan blog and team website across the country would say otherwise. There’s some serious air-time to be filled, columns to be generated and juicy rumors to be dissected. All of this is overblown?

He’s right.

King’s reminder goes against the grain of many in his industry, but his column drives home an obvious and seemingly forgotten truth (at least forgotten until free agency production is reviewed at season’s end). We all get suckered in to the first 72 hours of free agency and sit in agony when one of the sexy names doesn’t land in our town, especially when reports surface that a fantasized name is actually indeed tied to our beloved Chiefs.

A kcchiefs.com commenter by the name of “Dusty Stevens” pointed out something this past weekend, found in our comments section in the “Day in the Life” feature with Scott Pioli at the NFL Combine. Dusty posted the following…

“does anyone not realize that free agents are let go from teams. Mainly because the money doesn't add up to their ability. Add in the factor that free agents usually get paid more than their former contracts leaves free agency wide open for a lot of busts. That is why you build through the draft...and be very very very select with who you take in free agency.”

(congrats Dusty, you’re the first fan comment to get re-published outside of “Gabe from Wichita” and his Brad Cottam jingle – “The touch the feel of Cottam…the tight end of our lives.”)

A hole or two can be argued against Dusty’s take, but for the most part Dusty is right. The good teams in this league know which players to keep, and when to keep them. As King points out in his column, none of the four Super Bowl participants from the past two years (Arizona, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and New Orleans) signed players from other teams in the first two days of free agency during the signing period PRECEDING their Super Bowl seasons.

Despite an incredibly shrunken free agent pool, filled mostly with veterans aged 30 and up, signings falling within the first weekend of free agency are numerically on par with previous seasons. The “bust list,” which is already lengthy when it comes to free agency, is likely to see an increase in 2010 as a result.

All that is fine and dandy, but the Chiefs are in a different situation you say? A dire situation in need of urgent care? Fair enough.

Coming off a third-straight season of four wins or less, Kansas City has to make significant progress in free agency this offseason. There are some solid young players on this team, but there isn’t enough big-play charge across the roster. It’s a heck of a predicament to be in given the climate of this offseason, but those are the cards we’re holding. It’s also what has Chiefs fans restless.

For the Chiefs, free agency isn’t a sprint. The process of building for 2010 and beyond will continue up until the opening of training camp and then all the way through the end of the season. Last year is a perfect example as 13 players who made the trip to the season finale in Denver did not begin the training camp with the Chiefs. The impact made by mid-season pickups like WR Chris Chambers, T Ryan O’Callaghan and TE Leonard Pope only further that thought.

But the intense focus and coverage of NFL free agency never changes this time of year. There’s simply too much hype and emotion revolving around the opening of free agency to sit back and take a realistic and rational look at different ways to approach the free-for-all.

Below are pieces of feedback I received from fans within the first 24 hours of free agency…

“But the Chiefs need to act now!”

“There are holes that we need to fill immediately or we’re doomed!”

“Why haven’t we signed anybody new yet?”

“What are we waiting for?”

“Wake up!”

“Season’s in the tank! Pack it up.”

Deep breaths…one…two…three…serenity now…serenity now. Hey, if it’s tough for George Costanza, it’s tough for all of us. Being successful in free agency is incredibly important for the Chiefs this offseason, but the panic button shouldn’t be pressed just yet.

Maybe yesterday’s re-signing of Chris Chambers puts the mind at ease, at least temporarily.

When it comes to unrestricted free agents, nothing is more impactful than the stat book. Everyone who follows the NFL knows that long-term success is built through successful draft after successful draft. It’s also built by keeping those draft picks in their respective uniforms as they ascend into their next contract.

If a team is shelling out big bucks for a free agent, the impact had better be impressive and it had better happen quickly. More than often, unfortunately, that isn’t the case when it comes to players switching teams.

Take this past season for example. When looking at five of the most coveted statistical categories – passing leaders, rushing leaders, receiving leaders, sack leaders and interception leaders – the UFA class of 2009 hardly registered.

Let’s pluck out the top 10 performers from each of those five statistical categories. That gives us a sample size of 50 top players from around the league, regardless of position. Of those 50 players making up the list, only two members switched teams prior to the 2009 season via NFL free agency. Those two players were the immortal Brett Favre (2nd in passing leaders with a 104.4 rating) and Darren Sharper (tied for 1st in interceptions with nine).

To take that list and study it even further, only 11 of those top 50 players are playing for a team that doesn’t represent their first NFL home. Those players are as follows.

OFFENSE (8)

Quarterbacks (4)

Drew Brees, New Orleans (1st in QB rating – 109.6)

Brett Favre, Minnesota (2nd in QB rating – 107.2)

Matt Schaub, Houston (7th in QB rating – 98.6)

Kurt Warner, Arizona (10th in QB rating – 93.2)

Running Backs (3)

Thomas Jones, N.Y. Jets (3rd in rushing yards – 1,402)

Cedric Benson, Cincinnati (8th in rushing yards – 1,251)

Ricky Williams, Miami (10th in rushing yards – 1,120)

Wide Receivers (1)

Wes Welker, New England (1st in receptions – 123)

DEFENSE (3)

Defensive Backs (1)

Darren Sharper, New Orleans (1st in INTs – 9)

Defensive Ends (2)

Jared Allen, Minnesota (2nd in sacks – 14.5)

Andre Carter, Washington (7th in sacks – 11.0)

These results further emphasize the over-emphasis on free agency and the importance of keeping in-house talent, in-house.

The greatest gains for next season will come from the marked improvement of young players whom the Chiefs already own the rights to. Forward progress by players like Brandon Flowers, Matt Cassel, Tamba Hali, Tyson Jackson and Jamaal Charles will lead to big on-field improvements for next year.

For the Chiefs, the key is finding the proper help to get that done. Could the right running back help protect and make Charles more efficient? Sure. Was the re-signing of Chris Chambers vital to the Chiefs on a number of fronts? No doubt.

There’s a sense of urgency in Kansas City’s approach to free agency, but there certainly won’t be any panic-driven, emotional purchases.

Impulse buys often find themselves in the trash shortly afterwards.

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