Draft Metrics: Examining Free Agency
By: Tony Villiotti
August 23, 2011
The free agency period under the Collective Bargaining Agreement will come to an end on September 3rd, wrapping up the second consecutive oddball
year of free agency. The 2010 free agent market produced the lowest number of signings since the advent of free agency in 1993. This was due to the lack of a salary cap, the uncertainty over outcome of CBA negotiations and the reduction in the number of players eligible for free agency due to restrictions triggered by the final year of the CBA.
The 2011 market is on pace to produce the highest number of signings since 1995 and ends only five days before the start of the regular season. According to the NFL there were 160 signings as of August 17 with nearly three weeks remaining in the signing period. The previous all-time high was 178 signings in 1995. The number of signings in 1995 was somewhat inflated due to it being the first year of play for the Jaguars and the Panthers. New teams typically have a higher number of free agent signings because they have a clean slate as far as the salary cap and a need to fill out its roster.
Draft Metrics thought it would be timely to review the importance of free agency in the NFL and how individual teams have fared. There are a few different types of free agency in the NFL:
• Free agency under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which sets up various classes of free agency for players whose contract
has expired, depending on the longevity of service and designations (e.g., franchise, transition, etc.) elected by NFL teams
• Free agency resulting from contract termination (e.g., a player is cut in the midst of his contract)
• Undrafted free agents
This article will cover only the first type of free agency, or what will be referred to as CBA free agency. The CBA free agency structure was established in 1993 and has continued in pretty much the same form every since. This includes unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, transition players and franchise players.
A total of 2148 players changed teams from 1993 through 2010, or an average of 119 per year. Excluding 2010, which was had a low number of signings for the reasons cited above, the fewest number of signings was 89 in 1997.
How important is the CBA free agency process? 18.5 percent of games started in the NFL from 1993 through 2010 were by players acquired through that process. One-third of the players signed in CBA free agency account for the vast majority of the starts:
• 1/3 of free agents never started a game for their new team
• 1/3 of free agents started 16 games or less for their new team and account for 16 percent of all starts
• 1/3 of free agents started 17 or more games for their new team and account for 84 percent of all starts
There are fairly significant variations by team when looking at starts by players signed under CBA free agency. The teams that relied most heavily on such starters (as measured by percentage of games started), excluding expansion teams, were:
• Saints: 25.7 percent
• Falcons: 24.8 percent
• Redskins: 24.0 percent
• Broncos: 23.8 percent
• Seahawks: 22.4 percent
The teams with the lowest level of reliance in terms of games started were:
• Colts: 9.4 percent
• Ravens: 10.1 percent
• Packers: 10.2 percent
• Cowboys: 12.8 percent
• Patriots: 14.0 percent
• Titans: 14.0 percent
A listing of all NFL teams and various data for each regarding CBA free agency signings is included in the appendix to this article.
Unlike the draft, where a team's performance is more easily judged because it takes place in a structured context, it is difficult to objectively assess a team's free agent market performance. There is no practical way to "slot" free agents into anything like draft positions, so a team's use of free agency must be viewed from a broader perspective. It is logical to expect that team's that sign more players should reap a greater reward, but in many cases a team is looking to fill a specific need in terms of depth or the kicking game and doesn't sign a player with the expectation of his becoming a fixture in the starting lineup.
Draft Metrics also looked at the individual free agent signing "classes" and offers its opinion on the top five signing classes since 1993.
2005 New York Giants:
• Signed WR Plaxico Burress, OT Kareem McKenzie, LB Antonio Pierce, DT Kendrick Clancy and K Jay Feely
• McKenzie has started for six seasons; Pierce was a five-year starter; Burress was a four-year starter; all three were Super Bowl starters
• Feely kicked for the Giants for two seasons and Clancy started 15 games for the Giants in 2005
1997 Atlanta Falcons:
• Signed DBs Ray Buchanan, Ronnie Bradford and William White along with RB Bob Christian
• The three DBs started a total of 201 games for the Falcons and made up 3/4 of the Falcons' starting defensive backfield for two seasons
• Christian started at FB for most of six seasons and had three seasons where he had more than 40 receptions
2006 New Orleans Saints:
• Signed QB Drew Brees, LB Scott Fujita and G Jonathan Goodwin
• The signing of Brees was a franchise-altering event both on and off the field
• All three players were Super Bowl starters
• Fujita and Goodwin have since moved on
1998 New York Jets:
• Signed RB Curtis Martin, C Kevin Mawae, G Todd Burger and RB Keith Byars
• Martin and Mawae were long-time starters for the Jets, starting 118 games each and Martin seems a sure-fire Hall of Famer
• Burger started the entire 1998 season for the Jets, his last in the NFL
• Byars finished out his career with the Jets in 1998 and started about half the games
2000 New Orleans Saints:
• Signed eight position players (WR Joe Horn, CB Fred Thomas, LB Charlie Clemons, DT Norman Hand, WR Willie Jackson, WR Albert Connell, S Chris Oldham
and CB Steve Israel) and P Toby Gowin
• All position players started at least one game for the Saints and Gowin punted for the Saints for three seasons
• Joe Horn started for 6+ seasons and Fred Thomas was a five-year starter
• Norman Hand and Charlie Clemons were also multi-year starters
Appendix: CBA Free Agency Data by Team -- (click here)
Note: This article was originally published on Tony Villiotti's website, DraftMetrics.com and is being reprinted here with the permission of the author. Draft Metrics was established in 2010 but its roots were planted long before. Villiotti's obsession with the NFL Draft began in 1969. Over the years, his interest shifted from predicting draft choices to trying to better understand the draft's importance by examining its eventual outcomes.
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