Is the perception of free agency changing in the NFL?

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Every NFL fan has his or her own perception of free agency. Some think it’s the greatest thing ever because, for the right price, their team can acquire a much-needed talent. Others do not care for it as much because it allows their team to lose its best players to the highest bidder.

As for the players, it allows them to maximize their earning potential. In theory, if a team has enough cap space, it should be possible to buy some respectability. Depending on how bad a team is, if it signs enough talent, it can go from being a cellar-dweller to one of the league’s better teams.

Due to the league’s hard cap, it is not possible to buy a championship like in the NBA and MLB. But if you sign the right guys, you can at least become more competitive—in theory.

It sounds simple enough, right? If a team has the cap space, then it can afford to sign more free agents than the other teams. Now, there are always going to be a few guys who will take less to play for better teams. But more often than not, whoever offers the most money signs the best players.

While it sounds like it should work, for years the general perception has been that it doesn’t. In this case, the stats do not lie—it hasn’t worked very well for almost anyone (all contract data from Sportrac.com).

The San Francisco 49ers committed $163.8 million to 21 players in free agency last season in an effort not to go 2-14 again (like they did in 2016). Of that money, $44.02 million of it was to be paid out in 2017; that’s more than a quarter of the salary cap ($167 million).

But until they traded for and started Jimmy Garappolo, they were still terrible.

Of course, the Jacksonville Jaguars were the big spenders in free agency in 2017 and they made it to the AFC Championship and nearly won. But if their success is to be attributed to free agency at all, then credit must be given to their haul from 2016 and 2015. They were the big spenders in ’16 ($224.5 million, ten players) and came in second in ’15 ($177.1 million, nine players).

They were 5-11 in 2015 and 3-13 in 2016. So, clearly spending big didn’t help them out much then.

Historically, big spenders in free agency don’t end up doing much better the following season.

There are exceptions to that rule, of course. The New York Giants committed a small fortune primarily to defensive players in 2016 ($210.6 million, 14 players). Their defense was fantastic that season and led them to a playoff berth. But since their offense was terrible, they didn’t make it very far.

But spending big usually doesn’t help that much. Since 2011, the team that spent the most in free agency had a winning record the following season just twice (the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars and 2015 New York Jets). Due to that fact, most teams typically choose not to spend heavily on free agents.

But it appears that trend may be changing.

In 2011, only five teams committed to contracts over $100 million in total value. Five teams did so again in 2012 with only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers repeating ($115 million to five players in 2011; $155 million to 11 players in 2012). Only three teams did so in 2013. But in 2014, when total free agency spending cleared $2 billion among all 32 teams, six teams cleared the $100 million mark.

Over the course of those four seasons, the salary cap didn’t have a significant increase until 2014. From 2011 to 2013 it only increased $3 million (from $120-123 million). But in 2014 it jumped up to $133 million.

The cap jumped another $10 million to $143.28 million in 2015. But only five teams decided to commit to over $100 million in contracts. However, three crossed the $150 million mark for the first time (Dolphins– $153.1 million; Jaguars– $177.1 million; Jets– $182.0 million).

In 2016, only seven teams committed over $100 million. But for the first time, there were two that committed to over $200 million in contracts.

With the salary cap rising at least $10 million with each season, it appears that some teams are warming to the idea of looking for talent in free agency. In 2015, 20 teams still committed less than $60 million to free agents; 16 teams did the same in 2016. But teams often prefer to see someone else go against the grain and try something before they follow suit.

As fans and owners began to demand their team turn it around faster, more teams started to look to free agency for help. Last season, nine teams crossed the $100 million threshold and only 14 spent less than $60 million. Of those nine teams, four made the playoffs and six finished the season with winning records (only the Patriots and Lions made the playoffs the year before).

Of course, just like in the draft, if you commit money to the wrong players, then a team will still be poor (i.e., the Browns, 49ers and Bears). But 2017 showed that a reversal of fortune was possible with help from free agents.

In the case of the Jaguars, it may have taken three years of spending big in free agency, but when combined with some solid draft picks and the right coaches, they became a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Free agency is not over for the 2018 season, but the big deals are done. At this point, the numbers are not going to change much more, but they are already pretty telling. Nearly $2.5 billion was committed to free agents with $1.27 billion of it guaranteed.

Unlike in years past, this year saw many teams get in on the action. Twelve were big spenders and committed over $100 million. Five playoff teams are among the $100 million club (Titans, Jaguars, Bills, Saints and Chiefs). The other seven included the four worst teams in the NFC (Giants, Bears, Buccaneers and 49ers) and three of the four worst in the AFC (Browns, Texans, and Jets).

So—what can be concluded from this?

There is certainly an uptick in spending over the last couple of off-seasons. But it is probably a little too soon to say that the perception of free agent spending has changed. However, if the Giants, Jets, Bears, Browns, and/or 49ers make the playoffs next season…

It would not be shocking to see more teams spend big in free agency next year.