Thursday, August 11, 2011

Free Agency vs. The Draft [Mondays with Gus on Thursday, because I screwed up]

I'm one of the few people that believe the Cleveland Browns have had a great off season. Many people say that the Browns should have done more to bring in free agents rather than build primarily through the draft. There is a lot of information out there about how talented some of the free agents are, and I'm here to explain some of the things that don't get discussed.

For starters, free agents that leave their team rarely get paid to play to less than their potential. Or, put in a different way they're usually overpaid. There's a reason these guys didn't get re-signed in the first place, and that reason is rarely that the original team didn't have the money. If the player were worth the money, the team will usually make room. In the case of the Browns, they certainly have the money available. Why not go after free agents? It's not just that they're usually overpaid. Often times, free agents just don't have motivation to play like younger players do. Think about it. You've just cashed in tens of millions of dollars, and you now have enough to retire comfortably when you leave the game. You could keep working your butt off, but why? You've already been given the big prize. Also, since rookie contracts usually take you to at or near your prime, you're very likely to be well beyond your prime when your new big contract is up, so you have no big money to play for anymore (other than to not get cut and lose a lot of your money). Furthermore, nobody wants to move their family, pick a new place to live, and get used to a new culture and climate (usually). But, free agents have to do that every time they sign a new deal. It disrupts their family life, and that usually translates on the field. Draftees have it different.

Draftees are looking forward to that fat contract. They know if they play really well, they're going to end up getting paid somewhere. Not only that, they hit the big time thanks to the team that drafted them! Do you think a veteran that strikes it rich (usually for the second time) is going to love the team he plays for as much a guy who just had that team help him accomplish his life goal of playing in the NFL? Motivation is a huge factor in drafting well, because most players want to be loyal to their team.

Not only that, now with a rookie wage scale, it only makes sense to pile up draft picks and try to get as many rookies on the team as possible. It makes the team's salary structure much more predictable (and low). Also, if a team can get a few good draft classes together than the core of the team is in the same age range (3 draft classes worth of players will be only two years apart). This makes it easier to establish a specific window of success because the most important players are reaching their primes at about the same time. With free agents and rookies together, teams will end up having some players reaching their primes while other have to wait. Once the younger players catch up, the expensive free agents are usually at the tail end of their careers.

It's a lot more complicated than just buying a player that has a lot of talent. It takes a lot to convince 53 players and a dozen or more coaches to work together. There's a reason people like Tom Brady have never been free agents, while it happened to Jeff Garcia all the time. Don't take my word for it, just ask the Oakland Raiders and the Washington Redskins if you can build through free agency.

-Gus Rafeedie

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