Now that the biggest waves of NFL free agency have come and gone, it’s time to look at the various strategies teams have used to build a champion and if it was the right plan. Some teams opted to go all in, others chose to take a step back and then there are teams that have no discernible plan whatsoever. There are different ways to implement these strategies and they demonstrate how every team sees itself.
1. Go big or go home
The Seattle Seahawks created the newest strategy towards building a contender earlier this decade. They revealed the biggest market efficiency which is having a star quarterback on a rookie contract. This allowed them to make big-time moves with payers like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to help bolster their trenches. Now, what Seattle did can’t be entirely replicated given how many young players they had on other parts of the defense. However, the Eagles took this strategy and applied a different approach. Howie Roseman decided to not only build an offense around Carson Wentz but use trades to fill out the rest of the roster. His core (minus Wentz) is locked up for the long term and now he added depth to his already deep defensive line. He traded a sandwich for Michael Bennett and signed Haloti Ngata. All it cost them was letting Vinny Curry go.
The Rams saw this strategy and decided to do their own version of it. They recognize that the bills on Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald are coming due. Jared Goff proved capable in Sean McVay’s offense so now Les Snead could go all in while he still can. They essentially turned Trumaine Johnson into both Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib while franchising safety Lamarcus Joyner. With those three and second-year safety John Johnson, the Rams suddenly have one of the best secondaries in the league. Not only that but it’s all for less than what the Jets have guaranteed Trumaine Johnson.
Tennessee is all in on Marcus Mariota. They’ve added running back Dion Lewis on offense and have young receivers in place. Defensively they’ve gone all in by adding Malcolm Butler to go along with the other former Patriot, Logan Ryan in the secondary. They are coupled with young defensive backs Kevin Byard and Adoree’ Jackson. Aside from that, their biggest obstacle is now rebuilding their culture after adding head coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur.
The Bears are in the position the Rams were in last year. They’ve brought in offensive coach Matt Nagy and are building an offense around Mitch Trubisky. They’ve signed Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel to team with running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. They’ve gone all in on Trubisky and if he works out, The Bears will likely continue to emulate the Rams path.
The Giants seemed like a rebuilding candidate. Eli Manning was expected to be released and the team was going to work towards a new era. They decided not to do that and opted for one last run led by Manning. They decided instead to sign running back Jonathan Stewart and offensive tackle Nate Solder, who is now the highest paid player at the position. They are expected to extend Odell Beckham Jr. as well. Their defense still has a lot of high-priced guys who are not playing up to their level so this strategy can go sideways and the Giants are a prime candidate to be the exemplar of this.
The Vikings have done a different version of this. They have a young offensive corps in Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. On defense, they have an equally young corps. Instead of adding multiple players they gave $84 million to quarterback Kirk Cousins. This is the most old-school example of going all in
2. Rebuild but stay competitive
This strategy is primarily used by teams that are pressed up against the cap, perhaps most noticeably the Denver Broncos. The Broncos have been stuck in quarterback purgatory since Peyton Manning retired. They have Von Miller on defense and not much wiggle room to do much else. That being said, the Broncos were able to be in the playoff picture until the last few weeks last season. Their bet is that having Case Keenum provide stability at quarterback will be the lifeboat for the team. They can then use their draft capital to fill in the gaps on a dime.
The Patriots rarely go all in with NFL free agency. They’ve lost a lot of pieces in the aforementioned losses of Butler and Solder along with receiver Danny Amendola. They’re content to scour the league for veterans they can sign on cheap contracts and hit on draft picks. They still have Tom Brady and while the future is murkier than ever, that’s usually enough for the rest to fall into place.
Seattle is conducting a longer version of this strategy. They have a franchise cornerstone in quarterback Russell Wilson and assume they can use the draft and whatever cap space they have to build around him. They’re in the position where they also need to rebuild their defense. They’ve let Bennett and Richard Sherman go and are willing to listen to offers for safety Earl Thomas.
The Chiefs traded quarterback Alex Smith and signaled they are all in on Patrick Mahomes. They signed the speedy receiver Sammy Watkins for a ton of money. They had to clear out a lot of space on defense and will presumably rebuild it with draft picks and veteran contracts.
3. Stock up via the draft and top it with moves in NFL free agency
There are different levels of this strategy but the main idea is to have a lot of cap room and draft picks in order to make big moves later. The 49ers are the best example of this. They have a boatload of draft picks and once they acquired Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback they could start using their cap room. That trade altered the course of their rebuild. Kyle Shanahan found a quality quarterback to run his offense and now they can use the draft and cap room to build around him. They signed Richard Sherman to bolster their young defense. On offense, they broke the bank for running back Jerrick McKinnon and center Weston Richburg. They will also look to use their draft picks to add as many young assets as possible.
The Buffalo Bills have done something similar. They have signed veterans like defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. They traded out players and now have two first-round picks. They used one of those picks to trade up to the 12th pick. This indicates that they’re looking to aggressively move up in the draft to get their quarterback of the future. They found a bridge quarterback in A.J. McCarron at a cheap price and that should help while they develop whomever they pick.
Browns general manager John Dorsey decided to begin cashing in all of the assets that his predecessor Sashi Brown had acquired. They still have the first and the fourth overall picks in this year’s and will presumably use one of those on their 4,000th quarterback of the future. For the time being, they traded for Tyrod Taylor to run the offense while their future quarterback develops. In terms of NFL free agency, their big pick up was running back Carlos Hyde. They then found their replacement for the retired Joe Thomas and signed T.J. Carrie and Chris Hubbard to bolster a young defense. Furthermore, they traded the much-maligned DeShone Kizer for corner Damarious Randall. They still have a ton of cap space and draft picks to build a new foundation.
Of the above strategies, this one takes the longest but can often yield long-term success.
4. Make the most of a bad situation
Some teams are in a spot where they are limited by both cap space and draft resources. This is where creativity comes in and this is often the most desperate of NFL free agency strategies.
Jacksonville wanted to move on from quarterback Blake Bortles. They couldn’t however because he opted for wrist surgery guaranteeing that he’d fail his physical and the Jags were stuck paying his $19.1 million fifth-year option. They decided to give him a three-year extension that essentially spread that out. Their defense is championship-ready but their offense needs work. They nabbed guard Andrew Norwell from the Panthers in one of the biggest gets of the NFL free agency season. Instead of re-signing Allen Robinson they extended Marqise Lee to a large but reasonable deal. Now their offense is essentially doubling down on being a run-oriented team while they wait out Bortles.
The Steelers are in an even worse cap bind and opted to let a few defensive starters go. It is presumed that their plan will be to use the picks they have to fill in the gaps. They have made some underrated moves in NFL free agency exemplified by their acquisition of safety Morgan Burnett.
Baltimore is in a Joe Flacco shaped prison of Ozzie Newsome‘s own design. They’re stuck with him until 2020 at least and so they’re in a position where they have to sign veterans via NFL free agency and draft receivers in order to build around him. They did sign Michael Crabtree and John Brown so that’s something.
The Colts are potentially the best case scenario for this strategy. They made a big trade with the Jets and moved down from the third overall pick to the sixth. In doing so they acquired multiple second-round picks simply for moving down three spots. If Andrew Luck can actually play football then the idea is to replenish as many areas on the team as possible. They signed receiver Ryan Grant and tight end Eric Ebron in NFL free agency to give Luck some veteran targets to go along with T.Y. Hilton. They couldn’t get any marquee players so they opted to just pick up veterans and hope their draft bounty pays off.
This strategy doesn’t always yield results and mostly serves to put teams on a treadmill. But it is a plan.
5. Seemingly no plan whatsoever
While the above teams at least have a strategy, the following teams are examples of what happens when you don’t have a plan.
The Miami Dolphins appeared headed for a culture change. They let Ndamukong Suh go and Lawrence Timmons in an effort to both clean up their locker room and their cap sheet. The problem is they opted to use that money on pieces that don’t solve any of their problems. They aren’t doubling down on quarterback Ryan Tannehill so why spend big money on a receiver duo like Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola?
The Jets struck out on Kirk Cousins and felt their hard earned cap money would burn a hole in their pocket so they signed corner Trumaine Johnson to a huge deal as their first big move in this season’s NFL free agency. They then signed both Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown to large deals despite trading up for the third overall pick to seemingly take their quarterback of the future. If that happens as expected then it’s clear they don’t have a plan.
The Raiders look like they’re going all in on Derek Carr. They spent $100 million on coach Jon Gruden in hopes that he can help their quarterback progress to the next level. The Raiders haven’t been big players in NFL free agency but they’ve been players. They signed receiver Jordy Nelson and running back Doug Martin and are one of the teams in the running for Suh. That said, it isn’t clear just what type of team they are building. They are like Miami and New York in that they’re just throwing around money and hoping for the best.
Dallas is interesting. They don’t have cap money to sign any free agents in NFL free agency. They also didn’t make much of an effort to create cap space. Once-dependable receiver Dez Bryant was looked at as a prime candidate to get cut but they haven’t done that yet. They have a reasonable amount of draft picks but there were moves to make that could’ve either gotten them a player or more picks. It seems as if they’re content to just run it back and chalk up last year to a cavalcade of injuries on the offensive line and defense. Also, they had all the drama surrounding controversial running back Ezekiel Elliott. The problem with that strategy is that it acts as though the rest of the teams in their division and conference stayed the same.
The NFC is going to be a gauntlet next year and Dallas is behind the curve. The team that went 13-3 two years ago had a lot of holes and they haven’t done anything to patch those holes. They have quarterback Dak Prescott on a super friendly deal for only three more years and they are actively squandering it. They’re holding themselves hostage by not clearing out players that aren’t pulling their weight and they refuse to acknowledge that Jason Garrett isn’t the coach that will lead them to glory. Unless they have some ace up their sleeve (i.e. a trade for Earl Thomas), they appear to be acting without a plan.
The Cowboys and Raiders are teams that could and should be implementing any of the above strategies. The fact they aren’t should be concerning. Granted using any of these strategies isn’t a guarantee for success at least it’s forging a path.
Time will tell if any of these strategies pay off but for now, it seems that most of the league has some sort of strategy for getting closer to winning a Super Bowl.