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Free Agency, and the Most Improved Teams

There are a lot of articles out there that suggests free agency is over-rated (as usual, Neil Paine has one of the better ones). But today I want to look at the question from a different perspective: instead of looking at how teams who are active in free agency have fared, what is we look at what free agent veterans were added by the teams that improved the most?

Last Wednesday, I looked at regression to the mean and team wins. I looked at the team that improved the most in each of the last 10 years, and then examined which free agents they added in that off-season. The results:

2014 Cowboys (12 Actual Wins; 8.0 Expected Wins, +4.0): DE Jeremy Mincey (Denver/Jacksonville), LB Rolando McClain (Baltimore), and DT Henry Melton (Chicago) were the only veteran additions of note.

2013 Chiefs (11; 6.1; +4.9): QB Alex Smith (San Francisco), WR Donnie Avery (Indianapolis), DE Mike DeVito (Jets), CB Sean Smith (Miami), LB Akeem Jordan (Philadelphia), G Geoff Schwartz (Minnesota), S Quintin Demps (Houston), LB Frank Zombo (Green Bay), FB Anthony Sherman (Arizona), and TE Anthony Fasano (Miami) were the major veterans of note. Kansas City retooled its roster after the 2012 season, and while Smith was acquired via trade, the Chiefs certainly get put down in the category of teams that made big veteran acquisitions and improved significantly.

2012 Broncos (13; 8; +5.0): QB Peyton Manning (Indianapolis), NT Justin Bannan (St. Louis), LB Keith Brooking (Dallas), C Dan Koppen (New England), S Mike Adams (Cleveland), TE Jacob Tamme (Indianapolis), and WR Brandon Stokley (Giants) were the big additions. I think it’s safe to say that move from Tim Tebow to Manning was a pretty significant one; the value of the other moves could probably be debated.

2011 Packers (15; 8.6; +6.4): None. That’s right: the only players on the 2011 Packers that weren’t also on the 2010 Packers were not playing in the NFL in 2010.

2010 Patriots (14; 8.6; +5.4): RB Danny Woodhead (who actually joined New England in week 1, after starting the season with the Jets), WR Deion Branch (who also joined New England via Seattle in mid-season), NT Gerard Warren (Raiders). Not much here for the Patriots, although all three players provided some contributions.

2009 Saints/Chargers (13; 8; +5.0): The Saints and Chargers were tied for the most improved team of 2009.  Of the two, New Orleans was the more active team in the prior free agency.  The big move was adding S Darren Sharper, one of the more impactful veteran additions ever added by a Super Bowl champion before we discovered that he was a reprehensible felon. New Orleans also added DT Anthony Hargrove (suspended in ’08), TE David Thomas (Patriots), and CB Jabari Greer (Bills). Of course, the Saints could not have won the title without adding FB Heath Evans (Patriots – did you know?), too.

San Diego’s jump from 8 to 13 wins was not bolstered much by veteran additions: only 11 2009 starts came from players on other NFL rosters in ’08: seven by LB Kevin Burnett (Dallas) and four by DT Alfonso Boone (Kansas City).

2008 Dolphins (11; 5.8; +5.2): When the Jets traded for Brett Favre, New York released QB Chad Pennington; on August 8th, he signed with Miami. He was one of several veterans who helped dramatically improve the team’s fortunes:1 LB Akin Ayodele (Dallas), NT Jason Ferguson (Dallas), G Justin Smiley (San Francisco), DT Randy Starks (Tennessee), and TE Anthony Fasano (Dallas) all helped rebuild what had been the worst team in the NFL in 2007. Fasano has switched teams three times in his career: he joined the ’08 Dolphins, and turned them from 1-15 to 11-5; he joined the ’13 Chiefs, and turned them from 2-14 to 11-5; and he now is a member of the Titans, who went 2-14 last year. All hail #TEWinz.

2007 Patriots (16; 9.2; +6.8): WR Randy Moss (Oakland), WR Wes Welker (Miami), WR Donte Stallworth (Philadelphia), LB Adalius Thomas (Baltimore), and RB Sammy Morris (Miami) all came to New England during the 2007 offseason. That worked out pretty well for the team.

2006 Chargers (14; 8.3; +5.7): S Marlon McCree (Carolina) was the team’s only notable veteran addition, and I bet Chargers fans wished it never happened.

2005 Colts (14; 9.2; +4.8): Like the modern Packers, the old Polian Colts were not big players in the free agent market. The only notable addition here was Corey Simon, who started 13 games at defensive tackle after an up-and-down career with the Eagles.


Adding a Manning or a Pennington or even a Smith can obviously help. What does that mean for say, the other AFC East teams that added LeSean McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, and Darrelle Revis? Well, players like Moss, Welker, and Sharper provided a big help to their teams. On the other hand, certainly a number of teams made no or only minimal changes and still made big strides.

Going big in free agency isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it may be a bit like capitalism: if you’re a bad team, overpaying for free agents may be a bad idea, but it may still be better than everything else.

  1. Excluding G Ikechuku Ndukwe was technically signed at the very end of the ’07 season off of the Baltimore practice squad. []
  • Richie

    “2011 Packers (15; 8.6; +6.4): None. That’s right: the
    only players on the 2011 Packers that weren’t also on the 2010 Packers
    were not playing in the NFL in 2010.”

    The Packers and Steelers are pretty famous for generally not pursuing expensive free agents. Also, they have been two of the more successful teams of the past decade. I think a big chunk of that success is due to the strength of their QB position. But I also think that teams that build through the draft and avoid spending a lot of money on outsiders are just in a better position year after year.

    Why don’t more teams follow this example? Who are the teams that have not invested much in free agent talent over the last decade or so?

    • bobrulz

      There’s a difference though. They also happen to draft good players. If you draft bad players, building through the draft doesn’t help much does it?

      You definitely build dynasties through the draft, but I would also argue that the Packers and Steelers both could’ve been even more successful if they went outside of their comfort zone a little bit more often and signed good value free agents at positions of need, or for depth. The Patriots are an excellent example of a team that builds primarily through the draft, but is also very smart with their free agent and trade acquisitions (usually).

  • I apparently am too tired to read this. I started and saw “the usually over-rated Neil Paine” and was aghast for a good ten seconds before I realized I was garbling that sentence beyond recognition.


    No team that just won’t