With the combine past, the start of the NFL free agency signing period is looming, beginning unofficially on March 13 and officially two days later. The New York Giants have a reasonable amount of cap space available this year (pending resolutions of the Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley situations), but not so much that they can go on an extensive shopping spree without restructuring existing contracts and pushing a lot of money into future years.
New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen seems not to prefer that, so the choice may come down to signing one expensive free agent or a few mid-tier free agents (plus some minimum salary players, as he did last year). Which is the better strategy? Nick Falato is profiling a number of possible free agent targets for the Giants. But what does history tell us? In response to a recent Big Blue View post of mine, G-Man-Fan asked about this:
Let’s look at this question from several angles.
Recent Giants free agent signings
Let’s begin with specific names and teams from the past three years. I will define a high-end free agent as one who gets $10M annual average value (AAV) or more from his new team, and a mid-range free agent as one who gets $5-10M AAV. James Bradberry, Blake Martinez, Kenny Golladay, and Adoree’ Jackson were the high-end free agents the Giants signed during that time, while Logan Ryan, Kyle Rudolph, Mark Glowinski, and Tyrod Taylor were their mid-tier acquisitions. (All data are from Spotrac.)
We can probably all agree that Golladay and Rudolph were disasters. Bradberry and Martinez were well worth the money their first seasons in blue but less so after that (due to injury for Martinez). Ryan was a steal his first season as a Giant, but underperformed his next season after being extended to a high-end deal. Glowinski in 2022 was who he always has been, an adequate run blocker but below-average pass blocker (his five sacks surrendered tied his career high but his 37 total pressures were in line with his Indianapolis years). Tyrod Taylor provided little in 2022 but that was the plan - he was signed for insurance, not to play.
That leaves Adoree’ Jackson. Jackson has played well for the Giants, their most reliable cornerback in 2022. Jackson’s 53.7 percent completion rate allowed tied for eighth best in the NFL, and his 55.7 percent in 2021 was almost as good. But he only tied for 37th in forced incompletions (24th in 2021), and he rarely intercepts a pass. Is he worth the $13M AAV of his contract (16th highest among CBs according to Over The Cap)? Probably not if considered a CB1 as he had to be this year with the release of Bradberry. As a CB2? Perhaps.
It’s hard to conclude that any of the Giants’ high-end or mid-range forays into free agency the past few years were great values over the length of their contracts.
Track records of free agents by position
Let’s focus on a few positions of need for the Giants and see what the high-end free agent market has yielded recently using data from Spotrac.
Sanders was a good NFL receiver for 12 years who averaged 822 yards and 4.3 TDs per year. Anderson has averaged 708 yards and 4.1 TDs over seven years.
No more need be said about Golladay. Davis has averaged 674 yards, 3.3 TDs per year. Samuel: 462 yards, 3 TDs per year. Agholor: 559 yards, 3.9 TDs per year. Fuller: 546 yards, 4 TDs per year.
Christian Kirk has averaged 839 yards and 5.4 TDs over his five-year career. That’s a little better than the other free agent WRs who have been available the past few years. If we look closer, though, Kirk had 1,035 yards and 5 TDs in 2021, and then 1,238 yards and 10 TDs in 2022, under two different offensive coordinators and two different quarterbacks. The $18M AAV is steep, but the Jaguars seem to have gotten a difference maker for their money. There are many reasons for the Jags’ improvement this year, but Kirk has to be considered one of them.
As for the others: Robinson (772 yards, 4.9 TDs per year but only 339 yards and 3 TDs in 2022); Valdes-Scantling (624 yards, 3.6 TDs per year); Gage (500 yards, 2.8 TDs per year); Chark (509 yards, 3.6 TDs per year) are all good receivers, but...
Compare all these players to Darius Slayton (661 yards, 3.8 TDs per year). Note also that Isaiah Hodgins accumulated 500 yards and 5 TDs in 10 games this year. Is the difference in results for the free agents worth the $10M+ AAV? Hmmm...
The lesson: Don’t sign high-priced free agent wide receivers (mostly). Occasionally there have been mid-tier or lower free agent wide receivers who have performed well, e.g., JuJu Smith-Schuster ($3.6M) gave Kansas City 933 yards and 3 TDs this season while Zay Jones ($8M) put up 823 yards and 5 TDs for Jacksonville. Coincidentally, both players signed with teams who have good quarterbacks and innovative offensive coaches. If Schoen thinks he’s identified a player like these two who can be had for under $10M, it might be worth taking the plunge. Otherwise (or in addition to), he should be shopping in the wide receiver aisle in the draft.
Waynes missed his first season with a pectoral injury, played only five games in his second season due to other injuries, was released, and then retired. Fuller has been a good signing for the Commanders, comparable to Adoree’ Jackson in quality but a bit more of a ball hawk for several $M less. Byron Jones (not listed above because he is no longer playing) signed with Miami for $16.5M AAV.He was a good but not great CB, similar in profile to Adoree’ Jackson, but had to retire last month due to injuries that took a considerable toll.
Jackson had a so-so first year with Washington but was a liability in 2022, allowing an 84.2 percent completion rate. Griffin has had two average seasons with Jacksonville, with zero interceptions. Darby has had an injury-plagued two seasons since signing with Denver.
Among mid-level free agents, Chidobe Awuzie ($7.25M AAV) had an excellent 2021 for Cincinnati but tore an ACL in 2022, ending his season. Patrick Peterson ($8M) had a middling 2021 but bounced back in 2022 (at half the price, $4M); he is no longer the elite CB he once was, though.
You will notice that the luxury section of the cornerback free agent market, like that of the WR market, seems to be growing in inventory year by year. J.C. Jackson suffered a kneecap dislocation and patellar tendon rupture midway through his first season as a Charger.He had been playing very poorly up to that point. His injury is the same one that compromised Victor Cruz’ career.
It’s not always like that with free agent cornerbacks. Ward had the best season of his career as a Chief, with an 81.0 PFF grade, 11 pass breakups, and a 58.5 percent completion rate against. Reed, an under-the-radar good cornerback his entire career, benefited by backfield mate Sauce Gardner drawing opponents’ CB1 each week but continued his good play. Williams, a pretty good CB, had a 54.4 percent completion rate against and 15 pass breakups in his first season as a Jag. Gilmore is no longer the elite player of his Patriot days but still played well for the Colts. On the flip side, Donte Jackson, a middling cornerback, re-signed with Carolina and had the worst season of his career.
The lesson: The occasional high-priced gem at cornerback can be found in free agency, but overall the cost-benefit ratio is very high for the group. It can be said of many GMs who have gone this way, “He chose...poorly.”
Schobert had a couple of good early years with Cleveland and has parlayed that into big free agent contracts even though he hasn’t played well in quite some time and is terrible in coverage. Van Noy is somewhat better but his best ball has been when he was in New England. Littleton played well as a Ram, then played poorly for two years after signing with the Raiders, then went to Carolina and played well again.
2021 and 2022
The NFL seems to have gotten the message that it’s not worth paying free agent off-ball linebackers, because none signed for as much as $10M in 2021 and only Bobby Wagner got a $10M AAV contract (from the Rams) in 2022. The Rams released Wagner after one year though because their salary cap situation is a mess and Wagner wants another shot at a Super Bowl. He is still an elite player at age 32 and is well worth the $10M AAV he signed with the Rams for.
The lesson: The market for off-ball linebackers has come down because it is no longer seen as a high-value position and because many linebackers are good vs. run or in coverage but not both. Wagner would be a great addition if the Giants were closer to contending for a Super Bowl, as would Lavonte David, who may hit free agency. Given where they are now, though, a younger less costly LB would seem to make more sense. Tremaine Edmunds is too rich for my blood given how poor he is in coverage. Players like T.J. Edwards, Anthony Walker, and David Long should be more reasonably priced if they hit the market and are more complete linebackers.
Interior defensive line has become another de-valued position in the NFL in recent years, even though it shouldn’t be. The Giants have an in-between situation at IDL: Two of the best in the league starting for them and getting, or about to get, big salaries. But IDLs can’t play every down, so depth is needed. Nick Williams played well in that role early in 2022, but once he was injured, the cupboard was bare behind him and the Giants’ run defense suffered.
Good IDLs can be found in free agency. All the high-end free agents listed above except D.J. Jones have been plus players for their teams. But they all cost, and with Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams getting most of the snaps, the Giants will probably looking in the mid-tier or bargain bin for IDL depth.
The lesson: Re-signing Nick Williams would make sense. Bringing back Dalvin Tomlinson would too at the right price; Spotrac estimates his market value at $8.5M. For less money there may be capable “run-stuffers” such as Shy Tuttle and Chris Wormley available. But if the Giants want to emulate the Eagles’ waves of pass-rushing defensive linemen from inside as well as outside, they will probably have to draft one on Day 1 or 2.
Other than Corey Linsley, the NFL’s best pass-blocking center who signed with the Chargers for 5 years and $62.5M in 2021, there have been no other high-end free agent centers signed in the pas three years. If the Giants want to move on from one or both of Jon Feliciano and Nick Gates as the starter at that position, free agency may be a good way to do it if Schoen prefers not to use a draft pick on the position.
For example, Ethan Pocic, PFF’s third-ranked center in 2022 and above-average in both pass- and run-blocking, is estimated by Spotrac to have a market value of $7.2M. He has improved steadily over the past four years. Contrast that with the Jets’ Connor McGovern, PFF’s 11th ranked center, who got three years and $27M from the Jets in 2020 and will command a high-end new contract according to Spotrac’s estimate ($11M). McGovern has been good, but why pay a premium for this position?
Value Above Market Price
In 2015, Steven Ruiz, then of USA Today’s For The Win, created a metric called Value Above Market Price (VAMP). He multiplied each player’s PFF score (at a specific position) by the number of snaps played to get a “production score.” Summing the cap hits of all players at the position and dividing by the sum of their production points gave him a “market price” for the position. Multiplying a specific player’s production score by the market price gave him a “real market value,” which when compared with the player’s cap hit, defined his VAMP.
Doing this for all free agents with cap hits of at least $3.5M - the more desirable players who tend to sign with their original team or move to another team during the feeding frenzy of the March free agent period, he obtained two surprising results, summarized here:
Free agents on average tend to be poor values (negative VAMP)...but not as bad a value as extending or re-signing your own draftees to second contracts. With some thought, negative VAMP for second contracts makes perfect sense. Consider the extreme case of Jalen Hurts. Playing on a Round 2 rookie contract that had a $1.64M cap hit in 2022, he almost led the Eagles to a Super Bowl victory. Now it is expected that he will be extended on a contract that will average near $50M per year. Of course the cost-benefit ratio has to increase.
The interesting thing, though, is that the lost value is greater for a team’s home-grown players than for external free agents they bring in. This suggests that teams tend to over-value or become sentimentally attached to their own players. Taken to the limit, it suggests that teams should completely recycle their rosters on 4-5 year time scales, mostly via the draft. (Cue the Daniel Jones/Saquon Barkley comments.)
Does free agent spending lead to success?
Stephen Dranoff and Charlie Parkinson of The 33rd Team looked into this question in a pair of articles last year. They simply asked whether spending a lot on free agency leads to more wins, and if so, was the success sustainable?
For the period 2012-2020, they found that 70 percent of big free agency spenders increased their win total that year. But fewer than half improved enough to have a winning record. In the longer term, the early success didn’t hold up. Here are four examples, including one that is painful to Giants fans:
There were eight exceptions to this rule, mostly teams that had good quarterbacks. Just one of these eight teams signed a player to a contract that exceeded $66M in value (Denver to Peyton Manning). It’s a small sample but it might suggest that spreading free agent money over a few players is often more efficient than focusing it all on one player.