On the Redskins, Player Development, and the Free Agency Problem

There is an inverse correlation between spending on free agents and winning in the NFL.  This seems like the time of year where everyone forgets this.

It would make sense, given the fact above, that I would advocate the Washington Redskins to sit out the early part of free agency, since the money spent will not provide the most return on the players.  I am not advocating that, at least not here, not today.  The stresses on coaches like Jay Gruden and veteran players like Robert Griffin, Alfred Morris, Trent Williams, and other team leaders to pretend the Redskins will reach all of their goals without bringing in help from outside the organization.

How can both of these things be the case?  In what world can free agency be both a bad investment, and a recommended option for a team to improve it's roster.  The key is to understand how the Redskins got here in the first place.

Participating in free agency is costly, inefficient, and oftentimes prolematic as far as fielding the best 53 man roster, but the vast majority of teams that sign free agents do get better because of their acquisitions.  There are many exceptions to that rule as well.  Sometimes, you get a player like Nnamdi Asomugha going to the Eagles at the peak of his career value, having just turned 30 and signing with you on a hall-of-fame path.  Maybe you displace a quality starter to sign Asomugha because he came available, and chances to improve your team with top-flight players don't come around very often.  

No one predicted that Asomugha would make the Eagles worse.  It was an easy prediction to say he wouldn't be worth the big contract, because few are.  But the Eagles didn't match Jim Zorn's career head coaching record over the 2011 and 2012 seasons simply because Asomugha was overpaid.  They struggled in part because he ended up declining very sharply and being a downgrade at corner.  An expensive downgrade that offenses could exploit, and attacked the Eagles' secondary depth at it's very core.

The Redskins went through something similar with Albert Haynesworth in 2009 and 2010, although Haynesworth performed perfectly fine when he was on the field.  The issue with Haynesworth from a football standpoint was the wear and tear and decline in the snaps he could contribute were very real, and his personality (read: fame) clash with Mike Shanahan created a gaping hole on the roster that the Redskins were going to struggle to fill as long as he was taking up a roster spot and a significant part of the team salary.

The tricky thing is, independant of the other players on the roster, the Redskins were better with Albert Haynesworth on the field than with him off it.  He wasn't dependable within the scheme: London Fletcher had to cover for him being out of position all the time.  But he was an effective player who improved the Redskins by disrupting whatever the offense was trying to accomplish.  And yet, if the Redskins had it to do all over again, there's no way they touch him.  Given an amnesty clause with that money, they would have spent it differently.  Even, perhaps, not at all.

The inefficency of free agency is two fold: the market value of the players is set at the top by the players who are experiencing peaks in performance leading up to free agency.  In effect, you sign players and pay them for their age 27-32 seasons as if you were receiving their age 24-27 seasons.  Because of the market restrictions on players with less NFL service time, NFL players make the majority of their career earning after the age of 27, but aging curves are very clear in showing that the pre-free agent seasons are almost always better (quarterbacks, specialists, and to some extent defensive tackles are exceptions to the rule).  In the case of running backs, the market has overcorrected, but every other position on the field still features an inefficent salary structure.

The other inefficiency in the free agent market is an economic principle known as the Winner's Curse.  When agents exchange numbers with NFL teams, the teams with the most realistic pricing models get priced out of the market by the teams willing to go above and beyond a player's value to sign that player.  In effect, the "Winners" in free agency are cursed by the fact that they had to overpay by the largest margin in order to win a contract with the player.  The teams that had the most realistic salary limitations on their offers are not winners.  They do not improve for their realistic contract offer.  They just lose out.  In free agency, there are no winners.  There are March losers, and March winners who become September losers.

So why not avoid free agency altogether if it's such a bad option for teams in a capped system?  The answer is pretty simple: the teams that can afford to avoid free agency already are doing so.  Teams with great player development systems like the Packers, Bengals, and Ravens are already avoiding free agency for the most part.  Teams that lack great player development like the Cowboys, Redskins, and Lions end up being major players in the free agent market every year.

And they should be.

Even after the acknoledgement that free agency is a very inefficient way of building a roster, it's still far more efficient than not acquiring veterans and getting in an endless cycle of drafting, not developing talent, and letting players walk.  Think about where the Raiders and Bills are right now or where the Saints and Chargers were a decade ago.  Those franchises weren't using free agency to improve, they were just in endless cycles of losing, lacking any semblance of player development, and were letting the players they did develop walk in free agency because the asking prices were very high.  And some of those players were becoming free agent bargains even in a system that should prevent the existance of such assets.

Winning via free agency is ineffcient and unsustainable.  But it's not particularly difficult if your team's salary structure is healthy.  The Patriots, Giants, Eagles, and Bucs have all recently built veteran laden rosters that did a lot of winning.  Aggressive free agency spending can actually make the winning come a lot sooner than it otherwise would.  It doesn't replace player development, and bad declsions can be very costly in free agency (in a way they aren't in the draft), but adding good football players is the easiest way to win games in the short term.

The free agent market doesn't produce a lot of good football players, but the players it does produce come in a lot of flavors, and if you can find and sign the right ones, you will get a lot better very fast and the salary structure of the team stays healthy.  Sure, you're spending more to sign these players than they are worth, but it is never to late to start developing your young, team controlled talent to supplement these signings.  Even the worst rosters, if free agency is used properly, can pair overpaid, competent veteran leaders with young, talented, underpaid rookies and change the direction of the franchise.

The two rules of free agency: make SURE you improve, and don't use it as a crutch to keep young talent out of the lineup.  The Redskins should be really aggressive in free agency.  If they can get CB Aqib Talib come to Washington, they should.  But if David Amerson is ready to start, then he needs to start.  No questions asked.  As long as young players are the priority, free agency can work for the Redskins.

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