The beginning of free agency is an exciting time for fans and coaches alike. It’s a time to add the one or two players who can make all the difference in your team’s fortunes. This league has been, is now and always will be about finding the appropriate talent. Combined with effective drafting, the free-agent process is an integral part of every team’s approach to acquiring personnel, but each free agent should come with a warning label stamped to his chest.
What should that label say? Buyer beware.
And I am not even talking about the financial cost to the organization, the risks involved with bringing a high-priced personality into your team dynamic, or even the expectations that your fanbase will now have with any celebrated free-agent signing. I’m talking about the underlining reason this type of acquisition is made in the first place: the failed evaluation and procurement of previous talent.
I learned from the best in Baltimore, Ozzie Newsome, whose approach in free agency always stayed consistent, no matter the temptations.
Do what you need to do in free agency so that you are not forced into reaching on a draft choice based on need. Need is a terrible evaluator and/or negotiator. There will be any number of examples in this year’s draft where teams bypass a more highly ranked and skilled player to address a specific need on their team. When you do so, and miss, you put your team on a path that typically has far greater ramifications than just the lack of productivity of one single player.
Take any of the top free-agent signings we will see this week and trace it back to why the club is expending its resources this way, and you will almost always find a trail of mistaken draft choices and underachieving performers that contributed to the organization’s cascading mistakes.
Every team has these types of skeletons in their evaluation “closet." No team is immune to this type of mistake … case in point, one of the most storied franchises in NFL history: the Chicago Bears.
Coming off an 11-5 season in 2010, with an appearance in the NFC Championship Game, Bears fans believed they were on the verge of another run at the Super Bowl in 2011.
After losing Jay Cutler to injury the Bears fell to 8-8 and missed the playoffs. By all accounts, both from within the walls of Halas Hall and outside analysts alike, acquiring a presence at wide receiver, shoring up the offensive line, and obtaining a tight end are among the top three priorities and could get the Bears back on track for another Super Bowl run. With wide receivers like Vincent Jackson and Mike Wallace and interior offensive linemen like Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs available on the free-agent market, they definitely have some attractive options. But it is important to understand why they are in this predicament in the first place.
All you need to do is go back to the Bears’ 2003 NFL Draft in which they had two first-round picks. In what was to be head coach Dick Jauron’s last season, the Bears selected Michael Haynes, a defensive end from Penn State with the 14th overall pick, and then quarterback Rex Grossman with the 22nd. Jauron had to feel like his future was bright, taking an elite edge-rusher and a franchise QB. Unfortunately, after going just 7-9, Jauron was fired and the Bears subsequently hired current head coach Lovie Smith.
Haynes eventually proved to be a total bust, lasting only three years with the Bears before bouncing from the Saints to the Jets and then out of the league altogether by 2008.
Still trying to find the pass-rusher that Haynes never grew to be, the Bears again drafted a defensive end with a late second-round pick in 2007, Dan Bazuin, and then again in 2009 in the early third, Garron Gilbert. Neither is currently on the roster.
After missing the playoffs for three straight years (2007-2009), the Bears signed the No. 1 ranked free agent in 2010 by getting Julius Peppers with a six-year, $91.5 million contract with a reported $42 million in guaranteed money. Peppers proved to be worth every penny as a major factor in the Bears rebounding to an 11-5 season and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game. But as the history shows, it took three draft busts for them to get there, which makes Peppers $42-million even more costly.
Though Rex Grossman did quarterback the Bears (with Kyle Orton) to a 13-3 season and an appearance in the Super Bowl, he too has been by any measurement, a bust.
After average performances by Brian Griese and Kyle Orton in 2007-08, the Bears traded for Jay Cutler from the Denver Broncos. To do so, the Bears gave up their first and third-round picks in 2009 and a first-round pick in 2010. Those selections turned out to be starting defensive end Robert Ayers (18th pick in 2009), who registered three sacks last year; starting interior lineman Anthony Davis (11th pick in 2010 by the 49ers, who acquired the pick from Denver) and, in an ironic twist of fate, wide receiver Mike Wallace (84th pick in the 2009 draft). Although indirectly, exactly what the Bears gave up to acquire Cutler, is exactly what they need this offseason, an interior lineman and a legitimate wide receiver threat.
Imagine what the outlook for the Bears could have been, if instead of Haynes, they selected Troy Polamalu (16th pick in 2003), Dallas Clark instead of Grossman (24th pick in 2003), Robert Ayers, Anthony Davis, Mike Wallace and they still could have thrown in Julius Peppers.
Yes, that still leaves the Bears undeniable void at the quarterback position. So, lets take this totally unfair game of what could have been even one step further. Say they draft Matt Schaub with their fourth-round pick in 2004 (instead of DB Nathan Vasher). Now they have their franchise quarterback, two edge rushers, one of which is arguably the best in the league, and a legitimate wide receiver.
Oh by the way, had they not sold out for Mike Martz’s (no longer with team) scheme, they also would still have a vertical threat in tight end Greg Olsen, whom they traded for a third-round pick just before last season.
The point being, that with every free-agent signing, the excitement of landing that next piece of the puzzle needs to be tempered with the question, “how did we get here?”