NFL 2014: Free Agency: Spend Big or Be Cautious?

By Jeff Kane

Special to Pro Football Guru

The silly season is about to begin in the NFL.

Free agency starts on Tuesday at 4:00 pm ET. Every year football fans from Maine to Hawaii have visions of Super Bowls dancing in their head, praying that their team will sign that free agent to put them over the top.

 While some teams throw caution and the salary cap to the wind in order to sign that big-time player, other teams are more conservative. What is the better way?

Conventional wisdom among NFL fans is that the big ticket man is all that is needed to win in the NFL. However, the winners of March hardly ever win the final game in February.

Here we will take a look at some of the polar opposites in the NFL in order to draw a conclusion. The Washington Redskins are traditionally one of the big spenders in the offseason. The Skins have not won a Super Bowl, let alone reached one since the 1991 season, this despite throwing some huge money at free agents throughout the years. What does the team have to show for it? Three winning seasons since Dan Snyder took ownership of the team before the 1999 season.

Snyder has thrown big money at big stars such as Deion Sanders, Jeff George, Bruce Smith and Albert Haynesworth and has little to show for his fiscal irresponsibility. The Redskins now find themselves in another rebuilding process that Snyder will try to buy his way out of. His fix-it-at-all costs mentality has not worked. The question is, will it ever?

A year after Snyder took over the Redskins the New England Patriots hired Bill Belichick to be head coach and de facto general manager. Instead of throwing big money at the “star,” the Patriots have gone a different route.

When Belichick took over the team before the 2000 season, the Patriots were in cap purgatory. The team had to cut former stars such as Bruce Armstrong and Ben Coates. Belichick signed many mid-tier free agents often paying three role players what he would have paid one big-time free agent.

The next fourteen years have seen the Patriots build their team through the draft. They have selected impact players such as Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Matt Light, Asante Samuel, and Jerod Mayo.

Drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round in 2000 was also a nice stroke of luck.

Along with those picks the Patriots brought in solid players such as Rodney Harrison, Rosevelt Colvin, Mike Vrabel, Wes Welker, and Randy Moss--the latter two by trade. All the Patriots have done is put together 13 straight winning seasons while reaching five Super Bowls (winning three) since 2001.

Let’s take a look at two other teams that have built their teams in similar fashions to Washington and New England, respectively. In 2010, the Seattle Seahawks and Miami Dolphins both finished with 7-9 records. Seattle did make the playoffs that year in a down NFC West. Seattle, of course, raised the Lombardi Trophy this past year while Miami hasn’t finished with a winning record since.

Both teams were considered big players in last offseason but for different reasons. Miami spent a boat load of money on players such as Mike Wallace, Brent Grimes, and Dannell Ellerbe. They improved by one game in the standings despite the big money signings.

On the contrary, the Seahawks got aggressive by trading for Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin and then signing defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to cap-friendly deals. The difference between the two teams is the drafting and development.

The Seahawks have drafted great the last few years with players such as Russell Okung, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman leading the way. At the same time, the Dolphins drafted quarterback Ryan Tannehill (who did not take the second-year leap that Wilson did) and trading up for defensive end Dion Jordan, who hardly played in 2013.

They have not developed the younger players like Seattle has. In the last three drafts the Dolphins have landed two impact players in Mike Pouncey and Olivier Vernon. Meanwhile, Seattle’s roster is littered with fine young players. As we can see the Seahawks are taking a route similar to the Patriots with the Dolphins trying to throw money at the problem like Washington.

The NFL is not the NBA where one or two free agents can lift you over the hump. It takes patience with young prospects which can develop and play well on rookie contracts and then supplementing those players through free agents.

The silly season is set to begin…and it is still buyer beware.  

Jeff Kane is a 30-year fan of the NFL and the New England Patriots. Jeff can be heard on his podcast Patriots Beat on www.clnsradio.com. He also serves as Patriots Beat Manager for the site.  You can follow on Twitter at @bostonfatguy.