Opening day in the NFL may be months off, but the current scramble to sign big-name free agents makes it feel like midseason. Stakes seem particularly high here in Boston, as news of Darrelle Revis’s lucrative return to the New York Jets has stoked the fires of rivalry between those two old cities.
But does it pay off, this expensive off-season competition for free agents? Will the teams that sign big names end up winning big games? The short answer is no, or at least not often. Despite some notable exceptions (think Peyton Manning or Drew Brees), the teams that land top free agents don’t gain much in the standings.
And yet, teams that lose free agents really do seem to suffer for it. That’s because they had been getting a great deal, paying a star performer something less than top dollar. Once the player hits the free-agent market, his value goes down because his salary goes up, which limits his new team’s ability to attract other solid players.
Do NFL teams improve after signing top free agents?
Not as much as fans might hope. Looking across all the teams that picked up a top-five free agent over the last decade, it turns out that those teams didn’t get any better. On average, they ended up winning almost exactly the same number of games.
If you include all top-ten free agents, there’s a little upward blip, amounting to something like .1 additional wins, but again that is basically nothing. Even if you look across two years, on the assumption that perhaps it takes some time for new players to have their biggest impact, there are no real gains.
To calculate these figures, I used ESPN’s free agent tracker, which grades every free agent back to 2005. So the players we’re talking about aren’t the highest-paid — who might well be overvalued — but in fact the ones with the top scouting reports. Even these most well-regarded players don’t seem to make a big difference.
Why don’t teams get better?
NFL success depends on all manner of things, including coaching, team cohesion, schedule, refereeing, luck, and a great deal besides. Given all that, it would be quite remarkable if lone players could mean the difference between winning five games and 10.
If you’re looking for a more concrete explanation, though, it might have to do with salary. Top free agents fetch a premium price, which crowds out spending on other, less glamorous but sometimes equally important personnel. So teams gain a star, but lose too many workhorses.
Are there any exceptions?
Absolutely. After acquiring Peyton Manning, the Broncos went from 8-8 to 13-3. And one reason the 2010 Bears reached the conference championship was because they had picked up Julius Peppers.
Having said that, there are also some striking counter-examples. In 2013, the Texans signed Ed Reed to a three-year, $15 million contract, after which they only won two games. Now of course, their collapse was hardly Reed’s fault (he was let go midway through the season), but it speaks to the broader issue: the impact of a free agent is easily swamped by other factors.
What happens to the teams that lose free agents?
Perhaps surprisingly, while signing a top free agent doesn’t make a consistent difference, losing one does.
On average, teams that watched top-ten free agents stride off for new pastures dropped an additional half-game the following year. That’s quite high, given that those very same players seem to have a much smaller impact on their new teams.
As an example, when the Ravens lost Adalius Thomas in 2007 to the Patriots, they fell from 13-3 to 5-11 (Jamal Lewis’s departure didn’t help.) Similarly, when Julius Peppers was helping turn around the Chicago Bears, he wasn’t helping his old Carolina Panthers, who dropped six additional games that season.
One possible explanation is that the free agents really were more valuable to the teams they left behind. That’s because they were getting paid less. Often, the teams that lose top free agents have been underpaying them, but getting their full talent — and value like that is hard to come by.
Teams that sign free agents have no such advantage. If anything, they end up overpaying as a result of high-stakes bidding wars and the winner’s curse.
What does this mean for the Patriots?
It’s true that the Patriots just lost a top free agent in Darrelle Revis, and that in general teams don’t bounce back so well from such departures. But the Patriots weren’t really underpaying Revis, so they’ll have some money they can use to shore the team up in other ways.
Ultimately, though, their success will be determined by a host of other, less-predictable factors, whether it’s injuries, scandals, unfathomable last-second calls, or of course, Tom Brady’s age.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz