Free Agency: Five important rules to follow

Pete Carroll and John Schneider have a big draft head to bring the Seahawks back on the right track.

We’re in the final week of February, which means one thing: Free agency is around the corner.

This year is going to be an extremely unique free agent period. Because of lost revenue resulting from the pandemic, the salary cap will be dropping – potentially anywhere from $10-18 million. As a result, more recognizable and big names will hit the market than ever before. Expect a flurry of cap cuts once they settle on the salary cap number for the 2021 season.

We have began discussing potential free agent fits for the Seahawks on Real Hawk Talk podcasts, and we will have two more preview episodes (focused on defense) before the league year begins on March 17.

If you want to learn about the salary cap, Hawkblogger contributor Evan Hill is a fantastic resource. We have Deryck and Nathan to provide analytical analysis while my background is a bit unique compared to the rest of our crew. Similar to Dayna, I spent close to eight years in the media as a sports writer in Toronto, but the one area I fell in love when I became a huge football fan in the early 2000s, and that continued when I began writing about football, was team building.

I was always fascinated by the all the roster decisions teams made on a yearly basis, which is why I think the NFL offseason is so intriguing, and because of that, I got to know personnel people when I covered the NFL, and learned how a lot of them think.

With that in mind, I wanted to share five important rules I learned while studying the NFL. John Schneider and his pro personnel staff have huge decisions coming up, so they should remind themselves of some of these as well:

Rule 1: Don’t get emotional: On almost a yearly basis, teams have to move on from very popular players — both with the fan base and inside the locker room — in order to get younger, better, or create salary cap flexibility. It is the toughest part — from the standpoint of the human element — of being a general manager.

So it is incredibly important for GMs not to let their emotions get the best of them when making critical offseason decisions and make shortsighted decisions because of how much you like a player or how well he fits in the organization. It is a cold-hearted job.

The Patriots became infamous for getting rid of popular players such as Lawyer Milloy and Richard Seymour a “year too early, rather than a year too late”, and the Seahawks have a very challenging decision coming up in this regard on K.J. Wright. He had two very good years in a row. He is beloved by fans, teammates and coaches, but if his market value gets too high, the Seahawks will have to walk away. This won’t be easy for some fans to accept, but it is a crucial part of the free agent process.

Rule 2: Don’t pay for past production: This is the defining rule of NFL free agency, and the majority of why teams make poor decisions in free agency. Some teams tend to pay for what a player has done, not what they are going to do next. This is a big difference. And this is where the Seahawks decision with Wright gets tricky.

To build off this, there is a popular saying that gets thrown around in personnel departments: Games not names. This indicates that you need to focus on what a player has left, not their name recognition. It is an important thing to remember every time a team signs a player or every time someone hits the free agent market.

I saw many violating this rule the other day when DeSean Jackson got released by the Philadelphia Eagles. Everyone remembers D-Jax stretching the field for Washington, Tampa Bay, or the Eagles in his prime, but now he’s a 33-year-old WR that played just eight games total the last few years. He’s just a guy at this point, not someone worth clamoring for. Age is a huge factor in all free agent decisions.

Hell, teams make this mistake all the time. The Seahawks violated Rule No. 2 with Greg Olsen’s contract last year, and we saw how well that turned out.

Rule 3: Remember, you are making a future projection– I see this mistake ALL the time on football Twitter. Write this rule down: Just because a player performed well in 2020 does not mean they will perform well in 2021. Performance is not linear in this sport. When the body breaks down, it can happen really fast. Declines can happen out of nowhere, and players can spike at weird points in their career. This is why it is critical to be aware of outliers in performance (see Reed, Jarran).

There are always a number of factors at play in these projections (age, scheme change, coaching change, health, etc), and too often at this time of year, people get caught up in the previous season’s performance – citing analytics, grading websites, or the eye test, and make improper evaluations in future performance.

A great example of this is Brandon Shell. You probably couldn’t have found many metrics that would’ve estimated a spike in performance for the right tackle, based on his 2019 season (or even 2018), and the Seahawks made a savvy evaluation based on his scheme fit and previous film.

On the other end of the spectrum, consider the case of Quinton Dunbar. He was one of PFF’s best graded cornerbacks in 2019, and among Seahawk fans, he was considered their prized offseason acquisition as a result. And that turned out to be completely false. In 2020, he battled injuries, switched schemes, and dealt with some pretty wild off-the-field issues, and did not come close to meeting expectations.

Rule 4: Positional value matters – We’ve all heard the don’t pay running backs argument by now, and it is impossible to ignore when discussing this rule, based on how poorly the majority of big running back contracts have worked out around the league (see Gurley, Todd).

This fits into a bigger discussion where teams have to prioritize the high impact positions (cornerback, pass rusher, quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive line). Back to RBs for a second: A ton of data over the years has suggested (and correctly) that running backs are a product of their environment, which is why teams have gotten better and begun to focus their resources to offensive linemen instead. If the Rams let Gurley walk and retained Rodger Saffold for example, the team would have been way better off — now and in the future.

In the context of the Seahawks, this means that Chris Carson should not be a priority, as good and as likable as his playing style is. Instead, they would be better off with a lesser talent at running back and the money to sign him would be allocated to a left guard or center.  The same can be said for an off-ball-linebacker.

Rule 5: Don’t pay for average: It is not only critical to pay the premium, positions, but an even more important rule is avoiding handing out big deals to a middle-class player. Those players can typically be replaced in the draft or for at a much lower cost. Those are the decisions that kill teams in a salary cap sport. Consider how much money Seattle paid Olsen, Bruce Irvin, Reed (over $20 million combined) when that salary cap space could’ve been allocated to a blue-chip talent.

What kills teams in salary cap sports is giving big money to non impact players. Consider the case of Shaquill Griffin, who has been an above average starter at cornerback in four seasons for Seattle. He is a player that has been up and down with one Pro Bowl season and is hitting the market at a good age.

From a personnel standpoint, Seattle must decide if he is a difference maker. If not, he is not worth the contract he will get on the market which could be over $12 million per year. Signing a player of that nature to the wrong deal can hamstring your team in a bad way. That is how you lose as a personnel department.

One last thing to remember: There are 31 other teams: This is something that always irritates me. Any time a notable transaction is made, I am asked — or I see fans complaining on social media — why “insert my favourite team” didn’t sign this player or make this same trade. And I get that fans don’t get consumed with other teams, but we all need to realize there’s more than one team that matters.

This will be especially important this year when there’s gonna be a ton of under market-value deals for big name players. Seahawk fans have to understand that they will not have the option to win all these deals. Even the dirt cheap ones.

0Some players won’t want to move their families across the country. Some might not want to play for their coach. Some trades will happen where they were not given a chance to match or beat it. It is something to always keep in the back of your minds.

All of these rules aren’t to tell you how to be a fan, but they are worth considering as we enter one of the craziest free agent periods in league history.