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NFL Free Agency: Does it Really Pay Off to Pay Big?

Jess Haynie

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Earl Thomas, Seahawks

Every year around the middle of March, the NFL world goes crazy with the start of free agency. Teams and their fans get caught up in the idea of making those one or two big signings that could change the fortunes of their franchise. But does history show that these high-priced free agent deals really lead to more wins?

This seems especially relevant in the 2019 offseason as it relates to the Dallas Cowboys. Fans are frustrated with the team's lack of spending, seeing this as an opportunity to go "all in" and push toward Super Bowl contention.

But this isn't a new concept; many teams have thought the same through the years and tried to buy a championship. Jerry Jones was as guilty of this as most owners during part of his reign.

So why not now?

To research this, I went back and looked at the last five years of free agent movement. I took the top five deals in terms of average money per year and looked at how those players' new teams fared the year before signing them and the year after.

What's more, I thought it would be good to look at the impact that losing a top free agent had on his former team. How much did it hurt them in the Win-Loss column, if at all?

One note; I decided to take quarterbacks out of this conversation. A change in QB has a far greater impact on a team's performance than any other position, so much that it corrupts the data for the rest.

So, going back to 2014, here were the five most-lucrative contracts signed by players who changed teams each season.

Darrelle Revis, Patriots

CB Darrelle Revis

2014

  • CB Darrelle Revis (TB to NE) -- 1 year, $12 million
  • DE DeMarcus Ware (DAL to DEN) -- 3 years, $30 million
  • CB Aqib Talib (NE to DEN) -- 6 years, $57 million
  • S Jairus Byrd (BUF to NO) -- 6 years, $54 million
  • OT Branden Albert (KC to MIA) -- 5 years, $47 million

The Patriots and Broncos were already good before these acquisitions. They went from 12-4 and 13-3 in 2013, respectively, to still being 12-4 the following season. New England would eventually win the Super Bowl that year, as they tend to do.

Things weren't so good for the Saints or Dolphins. It was a down year for New Orleans, dropping from 11-5 to 7-9, while Miami had the same 8-8 record in 2014 that they'd had the year before.

So despite their big free agent moves, all of these teams actually had the same or worse records than in the previous season.

Interestingly, the teams that lost these top free agents didn't fare too badly. Of course, New England replaced with Talib with Revis. As we'll see elsewhere, the Patriots are an unfair measure because they're the best at dealing with personnel changes.

But even outside of New England, the Cowboys went from 8-8 to 12-4 and the Bills improved to 9-7 from a 6-10 finish the year before. The Chiefs and Bucs each lost two more games than the year before, but overall there was a +4 swing in W/L records for these clubs.

This is just one season, but you start to get the idea. Big free agent additions didn't help the new teams much, and losing those players didn't seem to hurt their old teams either.

Ndamukong Suh, Dolphins

DT Ndamukong Suh

2015

  • DT Ndamukong Suh (DET to MIA) -- 6 years, $114 million
  • CB Darrelle Revis (NE to NYJ) -- 5 years, $70 million
  • DE Greg Hardy (CAR to DAL) -- 1 year, $11 million
  • WR Jeremy Maclin (PHI to KC) -- 5 years, $55 million
  • TE Julius Thomas (DEN to JAC) -- 5 years, $46 million

For one of the biggest deals in NFL history, Suh's move from the Lions to the Dolphins hurt his old team but did nothing for the new one. Detroit dropped from 11-5 to 7-9, but the Dolphins actually won two fewer games in 2015 than the year before.

This illustrates another key point here. Outside of the QB position, it's hard for any one player to change the landscape of a franchise. A middling team like Miami is probably going to keep right on middling, even with a record-breaking deal for a top defensive player.

Elsewhere, Revis went to the Jets and helped spark a major improvement. New York went from 4-12 to 10-6 in 2015 and Darrelle went back to the Pro Bowl. For one year, at least, the big move paid off.

Greg Hardy's one year in Dallas was hardly worth the trouble, even though he was a solid player on the field. The Cowboys dropped to 4-12 because of a Tony Romo injury, but Hardy was reportedly a locker room problem for some of their younger players. Still, Romo's absence skews everything here.

More interesting is that Hardy's old team, the Panthers, made a huge leap from seven wins in 2014 to an incredible 15-1 season and Super Bowl appearance. Greg had only played 1 game in 2014 because his domestic violence issues, but it still goes to show how teams can quickly recover from even huge personnel changes.

The last two deals were both ripples in the pond. Philly went from 10-6 to 7-9 without Jeremy Maclin and the Chiefs improved from nine wins to 11 with him. Julius Thomas' old team, the Broncos, stayed steady at 12-4 while his new team, Jacksonville, went from 3-13 to just 5-11.

The big takeaway here is Suh, one of the most expensive free agents ever, having zero positive impact on his new team. Miami still had Joe Philbin at coach and Ryan Tannehill at QB, and they were basically the same team as the year before.

Dak Prescott, Olivier Vernon, Giants

LB Olivier Vernon

2016

  • LB Olivier Vernon (MIA to NYG) -- 5 years, $85 million
  • CB Josh Norman (CAR to WAS) -- 5 years, $75 million
  • DT Malik Jackson (DEN to JAC) -- 6 years, $85 million
  • CB Janoris Jenkins (LAR to NYG) -- 5 years, $62 million
  • G Kelechi Osemele (BAL to OAK) -- 5 years, $59 million

Vernon's move helped improve the Giants from 6-10 to 11-5. However, with only 8.5 sacks, you could still argue that New York didn't get what they'd paid for. That is further evidenced by the fact that they just traded him away to Cleveland this offseason.

What's more, the Dolphins weren't hurt by his departure. Miami went from 6-10 to 10-5 that year without Vernon.

How about Josh Norman's move? Washington saw virtually no movement in their record; 9-7 in 2015 and 8-7-1 the next season. However, the Panthers fell from grace without Norman as they dropped from their huge 15-1 season to just 6-10.

Malik Jackson didn't help the Jaguars, either. They were 5-12 the year before and 3-13 after adding him. Even with a change at head coach in 2016, they still had Blake Bortles as the QB. As we've illustrated here several times already, it's hard to make up for that with any other moves.

Janoris Jenkins was also part of that improved Giants team we discussed. His previous team, the Rams also floundered without him. But that had a lot more to do with a QB controversy between Case Keenum and Jared Goff and the increasing ineptitude of Jeff Fisher, who was fired as coach before the end of the year.

Kemechi Osemele was part of the strong Raiders team in 2016 that went 12-4, up five wins from the previous season. But his previous team in Baltimore also improved, going from 5-11 to an 8-8 record.

NFL Free Agency: Does it Really Pay Off to Pay Big?

DE Calais Campbell

2017

  • DE Calais Campbell (ARI to JAC) -- 4 years, $60 million
  • CB A.J. Bouye (HOU to JAC) -- 5 years, $68 million
  • OT Russell Okung (DEN to LAC) -- 4 years, $53 million
  • CB Stephon Gilmore (BUF to NE) -- 5 years, $65 million
  • G Kevin Zeitler (CIN to CLE) -- 5 years, $60 million

The Jaguars definitely went big here, giving out the two largest contracts to acquire new talent. And in this case you can't dispute the results; Jacksonville went from 3-13 to 10-6 and looked like a whole new team.

Everything went right for the Jags that season. Drafting Leonard Fournette boosted the offense and helped stabilize Bortles' performance. The defense was one of the best in the league, with the Campbell (14.5 sacks) and Bouye (6 INTs) additions certainly playing big parts.

As for their old teams, Arizona went fairly unchanged after Campbell's departure. They were 7-8-1 the year before and 8-8 without him. The Texans dropped from 9-7 to 4-12 after losing Bouye, but that had way more to do with QB DeShaun Watson's injury.

The Chargers saw an uptick after adding Okung, winning four more games in 2017. His previous team, Denver, also lost four more games the year after he left.

The Gilmore and Zeitler moves were inconsequential. The Patriots stayed the Patriots, winning 14 games the year before and 13 after adding Gilmore. And the Browns stayed the Browns, going from one win in 2016 to none in 2017.

NFL Free Agency: Does it Really Pay Off to Pay Big? 1

WR Sammy Watkins

2018

  • WR Sammy Watkins (LAR to KC) -- 3 years, $48 million
  • OT Nate Solder (NE to NYG) -- 4 years, $62 million
  • CB Trumaine Johnson (LAR to NYJ) -- 5 years, $73 million
  • WR Allen Robinson (JAC to CHI) -- 3 years, $42 million
  • DT Ndamukong Suh (MIA to LAR) -- 1 year, $14 million

Last season saw Sammy Watkins get a big deal, $16 million per year, to join the Chiefs. And even though Kansas City had a great season, Watkins missed time and only produced 519 yards and three touchdowns. He was barely a factor.

What's more, the Rams certainly didn't miss him. LA went from 11-5 to 13-3 as Sean McVay proved how a great system can override talent. On paper, Robert Woods should never be a more productive player than Sammy Watkins.

Nate Solder went to join the Giants on their misguided Eli Manning retirement tour and they kept right on losing at 5-11. Same for Trumaine Johnson, who went to the Jets only to help them go 4-12. Bad teams stayed bad.

Allen Robinson didn't put up huge numbers but was a solid participant in the resurrection of the Chicago Bears. They jumped from 5-11 to 12-4, with a change in head coach and offensive coordinator having a lot do with it. The trade for Khalil Mack didn't hurt, either.

Just halfway into his historic deal with Miami, Ndamukong Suh got cut and jumped on the Rams bandwagon. He was an effective wingman for Aaron Donald and helped get them to the Super Bowl last year.

~ ~ ~

So what are the major takeaways from all of this?

The biggest, to me, is the reality that big money spent on anyone who doesn't play quarterback doesn't seem to be worth it. We saw numerous instances where bad teams stayed bad and good teams stayed good, and the swing in Win-Loss records compared to money spent just doesn't add up.

Over five years, these teams who spent big in free agency won a net total of 24.5 more games than they had the year before. Adjusting for duplicates, that averages out to just around one win per team per season.

Tens of millions of dollars spent, and salary cap space used, all for one extra win. How do you like that math?

Again, some of this evidence is skewed by other factors. Greg Hardy might've been a big addition in Dallas if they hadn't lost Tony Romo the same year. Perhaps Sammy Watkins would've had a much bigger year with the Chiefs if he hadn't been hurt, but even his per-game stats weren't great.

But the net results here are not kind for the notion that free agency is where teams are built and improved. Perhaps even more damning is how the team who lost these marquee players went fairly unchanged, or even improved at times, without them.

DeMarcus Lawrence

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

Consider the dilemma that the Dallas Cowboys face with DeMarcus Lawrence. He wants to be paid like a Khalil Mack or Von Miller, and he has a good case for it with the last two seasons of work. But will allowing Tank to consume that much of the salary cap really help Dallas win?

Many are scared by the idea of losing Lawrence because we've seen, very recently, what this defense looks like without a pass rush. But what else could the Cowboys do with $20 million this year?

Getting 10-15 sacks from a couple of guys is as good as getting them from one. Dallas could sign two solid players at DE and DT for what they'll pay to keep DeMarcus, plus maybe have some leftover for other uses.

That speaks to what we've seen through out study here. Team who didn't pay to keep expensive free agents likely had the resources to make other moves. That's what New England's done for nearly two decades now; let someone else reward their stars with lucrative deals and just keep on replacing them with cheaper options.

Of course, not everyone can follow the Patriot Way. That's because only one team has Belichick and Brady, and they help to mitigate the risk at every other spot on the roster.

We've already seen Dallas allow their most-talked about free agent target, safety Earl Thomas, sign somewhere else. They weren't willing to pay what he wanted because they don't think any safety is worth that much.

The market dictates price, and usually at least one team is willing to pay it. Baltimore clearly decided that Thomas was worth that contract even if Dallas didn't.

Will market price, which now has DeMarcus Lawrence looking for around $20 million a year, lead to the end of his Cowboys career?

It could, and perhaps we'll look back on this offseason with a lot of regret. But history says that paying the big money doesn't lead to big results.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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BREAKING: Ezekiel Elliott Handcuffed After Incident with Security Guard

Jess Haynie

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No Preseason Work Hurt Ezekiel Elliott's Early Season Production?

TMZ has released footage of Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott being handcuffed and escorted by police after an altercation with security at a Las Vegas music festival over the weekend.

Elliott was not arrested and no charges have been filed.

ProFootballTalk on Twitter

Ezekiel Elliott handcuffed but not charged after incident at Las Vegas music festival https://t.co/NJQ6csGgnv

The video shows Zeke engaged in what appears to be an argument with a female companion. Elliott is seen following her through the crowd, and then security starts to get involved after Zeke moves his body to block her from walking away.

One of the security guards says something that attracts Elliott's attention, causing him to move in closer. The guard falls backward from minimal contact. It as soon after that police get involved.

There isn't much here that would cause trouble for the average player, but that's hardly Elliott's situation. He's one of the most prolific stars in the NFL and already has history with the league for domestic violence and personal conduct issues.

Remember, no charges were filed when the NFL gave Elliott a six-game suspension in 2017 after accusations from an ex-girlfriend of domestic violence.

We will have to wait and see how Roger Goodell chooses to treat this latest issue.



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Ezekiel Elliott ‘Excited’ About Dallas Cowboys ‘Promise’ in 2019

John Williams

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Dallas Cowboys Still Plagued by Red Zone Struggles

There's a lot to look forward to as the team gears up for offseason training activities and minicamp. The 2019 Dallas Cowboys look like a potential contender in the NFC after making it to the divisional round of the playoffs before falling to the NFC representative Los Angeles Rams by a score.

The offseason additions the team has made in addition to the draft have many in Cowboys Nation excited about the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2019 season. That includes Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.

Jon Machota on Twitter

Ezekiel Elliott: "I'm just excited about the group of guys we have. I'm excited about the talent we have on this team. I'm excited about the leadership group we have. I think we have a lot of the right pieces. I think we have a lot of promise for this season.

I think the Cowboys are right to be optimistic about their team heading into the season. They had one of the top 10 defenses in the NFL and an offense that was trending in the right direction over the last half of 2018.

On both the offensive and defensive side of the football the Dallas Cowboys have gotten better as a team.

The offense sees the return of Travis Frederick to the middle of the offensive line and though Joe Looney was good, he's no Travis Frederick. Frederick's return will improve communication along the offensive line and improve their run blocking up the middle; an area where the Cowboys struggled with consistency in 2018.

Another veteran returning to the Cowboys for 2019 is Tight End Jason Witten. Though he's slowed down some at 38 years old, having his leadership and veteran presence on a team attempting to make a deep playoff run is very important. Witten's as steady a player as has been in the NFL and should still be able to make plays in the run and pass game.

The additions of Randall Cobb and Tony Pollard give the Dallas Cowboys a more versatile group of players for new Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore to toy with. This versatility will allow them to keep teams off balance. With Randall Cobb, the Cowboys will be able to move Amari Cooper around the formation in order to find favorable matchups in the passing game. Tony Pollard gives the Cowboys a durable gadget option and big-play threat in the run and pass game. Pollard's ability as a returner could help the Cowboys get more favorable field position in 2019.

Ezekiel Elliott himself stands to benefit a great deal from the additions and changes the Cowboys made to the offense. Pollard is an upgrade as a running back to Rod Smith, so the Cowboys can cut Ezekiel Elliott's workload a little and keep him fresh by expanding on the two series a game the coaching staff used to give Smith.

On defense, they added Robert Quinn to a defensive line that already boasts one All-Pro pass rusher in DeMarcus Lawrence. Christian Covington, Kerry Hyder, and Trysten Hill provide depth to an interior that struggled against the Rams in the playoffs and the Indianapolis Colts during the regular season. The defensive line.

In addition to all that, the Cowboys will get to see what kind of progress their 2018 rookie standouts make in year two.

Leighton Vander Esch was a second-team All-Pro in 2018 and should have won defensive rookie of the year with his play. Connor Williams looks to have gained the necessary size and strength to play left guard in the NFL. A second offseason at guard should help him to improve at his new position. Michael Gallup was a revelation in the third round of the draft last year. After slowly being worked into the lineup over the first half of the season, he emerged as the Dallas Cowboys second wide receiver.

The NFC East and the NFC is a tough place to play. Every year, it's an uphill climb to win enough games to win the division or make the playoffs, but the Cowboys have put themselves in a fantastic position to do just that. Though no team has been a repeat winner of the NFC East since the early 2000s, the Dallas Cowboys have built a team that will be able to compete with any team in the NFL.

From the roster to the coaching staff, the Dallas Cowboys have built a squad that should get anyone excited. Are there questions as the team heads to training camp? Of course. But every team has questions at one position or another. The Cowboys have done an excellent job to minimize those questions through free agency and the draft and have one of the best teams in the NFL on paper.

The excitement that Ezekiel Elliott feels is warranted. The Dallas Cowboys do have a lot of promise as we look ahead. Now as they get ready to start ramping up practices, it's time for Elliott and the rest of the team to go prove it.

And I have a feeling they'll live up to that "promise."



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DT Leonard Williams May be Available, Should the Cowboys Explore a Trade?

John Williams

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DT Leonard Williams May be Available, Should the Cowboys Explore a Trade?

Per a report by Rich Cimini of ESPN, the New York Jets may be exploring a trade for their star defensive lineman Leonard Williams. With Williams set to hit free agency in 2020, the theory is the Jets may not be interested in locking up Williams long-term after just drafting Quinnen Williams with their top five selection in 2019.

Here's what Cimini had to say in his report:

"There's already talk in league circles that Gase could be looking to move on from Williams, who will be a free agent after the season. He's due to make a guaranteed $14.2 million in the final year of his contract. Gase hasn't said anything about Williams that would spark speculation, but it's not hard to connect the dots when examining the defensive line situation."

Rich Cimini - ESPN.com

Williams has been a really good player for the New York Jets who has played 3-4 defensive end and some defensive tackle for the Jets in his four-year career. A former sixth overall pick has had as many as seven sacks and as few as two sacks a season, but he's played in all 64 games in his career, starting 63. He's stayed healthy and been productive on a Jets defense that hasn't been very good over the last few years.

Defense & Fumbles Table
Game Def Def Def Def Def Fumb Fumb Fumb Tack Tack Tack Tack Tack
Year Tm GS Int Yds TD Lng PD FF Fmb FR Sk Comb Solo Ast TFL QBHits
2015 NYJ 15 3.0 63 29 34 7 21
2016* NYJ 16 2 0 0 7.0 68 36 32 11 19
2017 NYJ 16 1 6 0 6 1 2.0 47 22 25 3 25
2018 NYJ 16 0 0 0 0 2 5.0 42 27 15 11 20
Care 63 1 6 0 6 3 2 0 0 17.0 220 114 106 32 85
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2019.

For the Cowboys defense, he would project as a 3-technique with the ability to be the Cowboys 1-technique in passing situations. Among interior defensive lineman, Leonard Williams finished 21st in run stops per Pro Football Focus and sixth in total pressures with 53. Williams was third among interior players in QB hits with 16 ahead of Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Lineman Chris Jones and Seattle Seahawks Defensive Tackle Jarran Reed. For reference, DeMarcus Lawrence had 63 total pressures and 11 QB hits in 2018, while Tyrone Crawford had only 37 total pressures.

The Dallas Cowboys have been working to reinforce their defensive line this offseason after struggling in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams when the Cowboys gave up over 200 yards rushing. Though they like Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins, they obviously weren't satisfied with the going into 2019 with just those two in the Dallas interior.

In free agency, the Cowboys added Christian Covington and Kerry Hyder and then drafted Trysten Hill with their second-round pick. They also added Daniel Wise, a player that was seen as a fourth or fifth rounder in most people's minds as an undrafted free agent and will compete for a roster spot.

As intriguing as Covington, Hyder, Hill, and Wise are in addition to Maliek Collins and Woods, Williams would be an immediate upgrade at 3-tech and the Dallas Cowboys should explore it, even if they don't plan on resigning him beyond 2019.

The Cowboys could swap expiring contracts by sending Maliek Collins to New York and a draft pick. Collins is unlikely to be resigned by the team in the 2020 offseason as they have plans for Hill as their 3-tech of the future.

The Dallas Cowboys showed with the trade for Robert Quinn that they're alright going after the one-year rental player. Leonard Williams would make their defense better for 2019 and while they have high hopes for Trysten Hill, Williams is a known asset right now and wouldn't prevent you from giving Hill snaps at 3-tech.

For a team hoping to make a Super Bowl run, adding a player like Leonard Williams makes a lot of sense. He's another disruptive player that would immediately improve your pass rush and also helps your run defense. The Dallas Cowboys have a team ready to win now, so now's the time to go get players that help you do so.



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