The Importance of Free Agency

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When NFL free agency began yesterday at 4 PM and throughout the last several days, twitter timelines flooded with many of the same comments. I’ve heard several times that a team cannot be built through free agency and that free agency should only serve as a compliment to quality drafting. I’ve also seen a plethora of Eagles fans who are extremely weary of free agency since the debacle of 2011 and the “dream team.”

The above tweet, written by @bountybowl (who writes for Igglesblog.com, also a good follow on twitter), included a touch of sarcasm. Unfortunately, though, this is a common feeling for many Eagles fans entering this free agent signing period. It is obvious, however, that a team cannot be built only through the draft, so how should the Eagles approach free agency? And what is the right balance between acquiring players through free agency versus the draft? These are the questions I hope to answer in the following paragraphs.

Balance of Acquisition
The first thing I wanted to tackle was the balance of acquisition. As I mentioned above, I have heard many times that a team cannot be built through free agency. Rather than simply accepting this as fact as I have for years, my skeptical side pushed me to investigate just how true this was. I began looking at the two deep depth chart for every 2012 playoff team to determine what percentage of those players were added to their 2012 team through the draft. This would give me a rough idea of how successful teams have been built and would also identify the beginnings of any correlation that exists between the balance of free agent/draft acquisitions and success in the NFL. Before I show the results, though, I want to explain my thought process:

  • I used the two deep depth charts for each team as I wanted to include as many players as possible that could have an impact on the game from both sides of the ball.
  •  For consistency purposes, I obtained all depth charts through ESPN.com (their accuracy can be debated but I found them most user friendly).
  • For simplicity, I determined that all players drafted or signed as a Undrafted Free Agent by a certain team were, for all intents and purposes, obtained through the draft.
  • All players who were not drafted by their 2012 team were considered free agent acquisitions. (Note: Players drafted by one team that left the team only to return through free agency in later years were counted as free agent signees).

Finally, below are the results of the research I performed:
Draft
Unfortunately, my research showed almost no pure correlation between success and team balance. The teams are listed above in rough order of how they finished in the playoffs and as you can see there is not an optimal percentage of players drafted that correlates to success. While the 49ers and Ravens rosters are made up of over 70% of drafted players, the Patriots, who have been consistently successful have a much lower percentage of players drafted. The Packers, have an extremely high percentage of players drafted and got manhandled in the playoffs by 49ers and the Colts made the playoffs with an extremely low number of players drafted. In case you are wondering, the Eagles came in at roughly 60% overall.

I was originally going to perform the same analysis on all 32 teams to look for a correlation between playoff and non-playoff teams but I didn’t have to because I had already defined the point I was hoping to make. My point was that, despite the immeasurable importance of the draft, free agency is also extremely important as approximately 30%-40% of players on average for each playoff team were acquired through free agency. The only point I am trying make here is that, although a team cannot be built through free agency, it also cannot be built without it.

Approach
Now that we have established the importance of free agency, we must determine the correct approach. By approach, I am not talking about specific player types or positions of need but an overall philosophy. Each team will have a different approach to free agency. In addition, each team’s approach can change drastically from year to year. Some would argue that the approach depends largely on the performance of the previous year’s team, however, I would argue that it has more to do with the current coach and their plan than anything else.

The Eagles must focus on turning over much of their roster during this offseason. While they must build the future core of their team through the draft, free agency provides the opportunity for some patchwork. I don’t need to go into much detail about the current roster, but after the release of Nnamdi Asomugha, much of the pure dead weight has been cut. Anything left, is either a financial bargain or at least has some mild potential to fit into Chip Kelly’s plans. Although the Eagles now have many holes to fill, they cannot simply go out and just buy the best players on the market.
Eagles Kearse Football
Back in the 2004, when the Eagles acquired Jevon Kearse and Terrell Owens, they had an established core group of players who believed in a system and their coach. This core had the capacity to support big ego’s and slowly mold them into the type of player the Eagles needed them to be. In the book, “War Room”, a novel about Bill Belichick and the Patriots dynasty that he developed (a great read for any football fan that can stomach reading about Belichick), the author, Michael Holley, discusses the arrival of Rodney Harrison to the team. He mentioned how Harrison, a perennial pro bowler with San Diego, initially created a rift in the locker room when he was first acquired. He was used to being the star player and being treated as such in San Diego. Well Harrison was quickly put in his place by other veterans like Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Teddy Bruschi and was taught how to behave in the “Patriot way” as it was called.

The problem with the “dream team” of 2011, was that it lacked that core identity that the Patriots and Eagles had in the early 2000′s. It was still in the midst of transition from the Brian Dawkins and Donovan McNabb era to the Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy era. It was loaded with young talent and void of any leadership. The players respected Andy Reid but had nobody in the locker room to look to when things were going wrong.

Flash forward to the present and we are back to asking ourselves what is the right approach to free agency for the Eagles this year? The Eagles must find a way to build around their core talent with quality character players who believe in Chip Kelly and his system. In addition, they must fit the mold of what Kelly wants to do. The Eagles cannot afford any more high priced ego’s or players that put themselves above the rest of the team. Last year, the Colts hit free agency hard and brought in several players who were either previous backups or players looking for a fresh start and all at a good price. Those players came from all over but had one thing in common, they all believed in Chuck Pagano and they were all willing to lay their heart and body on the line to accomplish the team’s goals. That is what you get out of those “mid-level” type players, desire. A desire to prove that they can take that next step or a desire to prove that they are not too old. Even if they turn out to not be the perfect player for the system, they can serve as a bridge to build on in the future. These are the types of players the Eagles need to rebuild with. Some of these players may even be on the roster already, just waiting for their chance to show it.

The one problem with this approach, though, is that the team will most likely be outmatched by and less talented than many other teams, at least initially. Some players may surprise and provide more than originally hoped for while others will disappoint. But what the team may lack in talent, it can almost make up for with hard work, desire and teamwork. After all, that is what Philadelphia really wants isn’t it? I know we want to win, but deep down don’t we really just want a hard working team? A team with a burning desire to win? A team with an identity? We don’t really need talent, we have had plenty of that, we need an identity. And talent does not create an identity. But, as the Colts proved this year, an identity can create talent. Keep this is mind as we progress through free agency. We all have that hunger for something big but, as we know first hand, the flashiest names may not really satisfy our appetite, especially when those flashy names eat lunch by themselves, in their car.

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