CPGM Juice’s Free Agency Manifesto – 2017
Football economics has coalesced into the propagation of disproportionate salary distribution among NFL rosters. Far too often leaving crumbs for the most important position group in the today’s NFL. But before we get to that, conventional wisdom suggests that you cannot build a roster capable of sustainable success solely through free agency. This is factually correct. However, free agency can be useful; particularly for teams on the cusp of becoming playoff contenders. Free agency should and must be used to supplement your draft. It should be noted that success in signing free agents doesn’t have to result in a trending story on social media. More important are the things a proven veteran free agent can bring to the table that a rookie cannot; namely experience and NFL game film (to evaluate). Obviously, the free agency period starts well before the actual draft so you have to have a plan. In 2016, the Atlanta Falcons had a plan which did NOT include grabbing headlines.
- Improve the offensive line;
- Improve the pass rush;
- Add weapons for Matt Ryan and take pressure off of Julio Jones; and
- Add speed on the defensive side of the ball.
The Falcons addressed 75% of their perceived “needs” via free agency. Alex Mack, may have been the most valuable free agent signing among all 32 teams during the entire 2016 offseason. He not only solidified the center position which had proved problematic for the Falcons in previous seasons but he became the leader in the OL meeting room and played with an edge on game day. It’s no coincidence that the play of the other starters along the offensive line improved. Atlanta also signed little known DE Derrick Shelby, formerly of the Miami Dolphins to help bolster a listless pass rush. Unfortunately, Shelby was lost to injury for the season before he could make an impact but he is a relatively young player and was a shrewd and inexpensive signing that could still pay dividends. On the other hand, elder statesman Dwight Freeney, another free agent signing, added valuable situational pass rushing skills and more importantly helped 2015 1st round selection Vic Beasley Jr. realize his potential (Beasley led the NFL in sacks in 2016); everywhere Freeney goes the younger pass rushers on the team benefit from picking his brain and watching how he prepares. Finally, the additions of wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel provided added dimensions to the Falcons’ offense that had not existed since the days of Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez in ATL. In fact, the Falcons had one of the best statistical seasons in NFL History on offense in 2016; and the only “splash” signing of this bunch was a center (Can you even call that a splash?). Just keep in mind that without these free agent signings the Falcons aren’t one additional score away from being Super Bowl Champs.
With that being said, there are two sides to every coin. Free agent signings don’t always pan out and can result in a complete waste of guaranteed dollars and cap space (see QB Brock Osweiler). But that is the price of doing business. Free agency is an (slightly more exact) in-exact science not un-like the NFL Draft (although most of us saw the Osweiler debacle coming). Still, the 2016 offseason went a long way to dispelling the notion that spending money in free agency is unequivocally short-sighted. The prevailing thought that teams NEVER let good players walk is a farce. It happens every season for various reasons (poor systemic fits, stupidity, injuries, cap restrictions, etc.). Frankly, I would rather take a calculated risk and spend in free agency rather than let good players walk (Josh Norman) and not address my needs particularly on the offensive line (see the Carolina Panthers) but more on that later.
The New York Giants had a plan as well and they spent big in free agency re-signing DE Jason Pierre-Paul, signing run stopper extraordinaire NT Damon “Snacks” Harrison as well as landing franchise cornerstones in CB Janoris Jenkins and DE Olivier Vernon. The Giants went from missing the playoffs in 2015 due to an abysmal and historically bad defense to defense being the strength of their team, sweeping the NFC’s #1 seed Dallas Cowboys, and earning a playoff birth. Not to mention Harrison, Jenkins and Vernon are all in their respective primes.
So what does that mean with the legal tampering period and the official start of the 2017 New League Year set to start in a few days? Two things: (1) All 32 teams need to have a plan; (2) That plan needs to be steeped in an acute understanding of the landscape of the NFL. Did I bury the lead? Well… no matter.
I cannot… CANNOT! Stress the importance of good offensive line play enough. Yes, quarterback is the single most important position on the football field but in today’s NFL skewed in favor of offenses and their capacity to score points for entertainment purposes there is no position group more important than the offensive line. Let’s take a look at how offensive line play impacted the NFL landscape in 2016 shall we? Afterwards you’ll understand why I believe teams flushed with cap space and struggle to pass protect should attempt to woo 35-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth. You’ll also understand why I couldn’t understand why All-Pro guard (of similar age) Evan Mathis was allowed to bounce around from team-to-team these past couple seasons. I give you Proposition: $$$=OLINE_FA(free agency).
- The Oakland Raiders attempted nearly 600 passes (596) and only surrendered 18 sacks. The Raiders’ staring
center, left guard and left tackle were all acquired via free agency at some point; including their prized 2016 free agent signing Kelechi Osemele. Oakland had their first playoff berth in over a decade.
- The Carolina Panthers failed to make the playoffs after a 15-1 campaign and Super Bowl berth in 2015 in which they couldn’t protect Cam Newton. Their offensive line deficiencies were exacerbated in 2016 as Newton’s completion percentage dropped from 59% to 54% and their rushing offense went from ranked 2nd in the NFL in 2015 to 10th in 2016. Carolina also failed to connect on the big plays last season that carried them in 2015 on an almost routine basis.
- The Dallas Cowboys went 13-3… credit competent quarterback play and a DOMINANT offensive line.
- Nine teams allowed 40+ sacks this past season. Only one of those teams made the playoffs, the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks’ starting left tackle had not started a football game since his Pop Warner days. Of course Russell Wilson took a beating and it was their offensive line that was ultimately responsible for their undoing in the playoffs.
Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill isn’t good. But to be fair he hasn’t had great pass protection during his career. From 2013-2015 Tannehill has been sacked about 50 times a season. Last year the Dolphins allowed only 30 sacks, and paved the way for a 1200 yard season by Jay Ajayi and three separate 200-yard performances. They just happened to earn a Wild Card berth in 2016. The draft selection of Laremy Tunsil certainly played a big role but the free agent acquisition of G/T Jermon Bushrod is the type of move that makes a difference but goes unnoticed by the untrained eye.
- The Denver Broncos failed to reach the playoffs last season after winning Super Bowl 50 two seasons ago. They failed to re-sign or effectively replace 60% of their offensive line from 2015 to 2016.
- How else could Kirk Cousins fool the masses by putting up video game/fantasy worthy passing yard totals if his offensive line wasn’t keeping him clean? (rhetorical)
- Don’t think for one second that Martellus Bennett didn’t improve New England’s ability to run the football and protect Tom Brady in 2016.
- I attribute Aaron Rodgers’ and Ben Reothlisberger’s ability to hang in the pocket for extended periods of time to their respective offensive lines.
- The Minnesota Vikings were a trendy Super Bowl pick heading into the 2016 season… A.P. averaged a whopping 1.6 yards per carry prior to getting injured; Sam Bradford survived despite being under siege snap after snap; the Vikings obviously didn’t reach the Super Bowl… There offensive line has been an issue since the days of Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie.
I say all that to say this. The 2017 NFL Draft Class doesn’t appear to have a Laremy Tunsil, Jack Conklin or Ryan Kelley in it. And the spread offenses in college football aren’t exactly preparing pro prospects for the NFL game so… I believe it is more imperative than ever that teams invest in capable, experienced, veteran offensive linemen via free agency. We’ve seen poor offensive line play ruin young quarterbacks and plague some of the best quarterbacks in the league. We’ve also witnessed sketchy offensive line play make any deficiency at the skill positions even more apparent. It may be boring and uninteresting but contemporary football is about rushing the passer and protecting the passer. And there is no better way to do so (at least in 2017) than to add quality, veteran offensive linemen to your roster assuming you aren’t already set up front.
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