Hardly guaranteed: Why NFL free agency signings rarely succeed

03/09/15 by Rennie Detore

The NFL free agency spending frenzy begins tomorrow, and the 32 teams within the league are already positioning themselves to accumulate talent and fill holes on their roster with the proverbial "splash" signings that every fan dreams of as it relates to how their team operates in the off season.
Sadly, however, those supposed "splash" signings typically end up sounding more like a thud. NFL free agency for general managers, owners and coaches is just about as tricky and unpredictable as the NFL Draft.
The draft, which is only a few months away, is hardly an exact science. You can look at stats, speed, character and everything that happens at the NFL combine, along with film of the player in college, and feel as though you're making more than just an educated guess. That certainty often plays out in the favor of the scout who has done the adequate research but often times that same player can be paid millions and last only a few snaps in the NFL.

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At the root of it, free agency is similar in that NFL teams are paying substantial amounts of cash to players from other teams in the hopes they can bring the same production and fire power to theirs. The one prevailing theme in free agency that leaves fans and general mangers alike feeling a little gun shy about pulling the trigger on signings and trades is the letdown after a player signs a big deal.
Case in point, a few years ago the Washington Redskins signed DT Albert Haynesworth to a monster deal, luring him away from the Tennessee Titans. Haynesworth was the premiere defensive tackle in the league, but his time in Washington hardly came close to that potential, thus leaving the Redskins to pay off a hundred million dollar contract to a player that essentially signed his big deal, showed up in Washington but didn't bring any of the heart, desire and determination with him that led to teams clamoring for his services.
And that's the real question moving forward with free agency: once a player earns sizable contract and huge payday, does their incentive to work hard go away? Looking at the bulk of free agents in the past 10 years, you'd think the answer to that question would be a resounding "yes." Look at a guy like Larry Johnson, former running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. He had a two year stretch for the team when he was nearly unstoppable and actually made oft injured running back and Chiefs great Priest Holmes expendable.
Johnson held out for a contract, got it and never was the same player again. Injuries played a role, but his production slipping may have directly been related to getting a guaranteed pay day.
You'd like to think that these example (Johnson, Haynesworth) are the exception, but as years pass they seem more like the rule. That's what makes free agency so difficult as far as general managers resisting the urge to sign players as though they're completing a fantasy football draft, knowing what big names they want but questioning if the heart and hustle still exists.
One comment that has been made countless times regarding NFL contracts and free agency truly epitomizes how the league and insiders feel about spending a ton on free agents during the signing period: "You give me 11 guys in the last year of their contract, and I'll give you a championship."
That suggests what is believed to be the norm: you play hard until that first big check gets cashed.

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