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Free agency not the only key to success in the NFL

By Ian O'Brien,

March 11 was the first day of the free agency period for the National Football League. This is when NFL teams are free to sign their targeted players to new contracts.

The first day of free agency has created an arms race like every year. Teams often scramble to sign the top free agent available no matter the cost, and they often receive the biggest headlines from ESPN for their signings. This cost can be detrimental to teams if they don't consider certain factors though.

For instance, a player may have had a breakout season in the final year of their contract before they hit free agency. The perfect example of this is defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

According to free agency rankings provided by Scout, Haynesworth was rated the top free agent in the 2009 NFL offseason. He achieved Pro Bowl berths in his final two seasons with the Tennessee Titans. He was also known as an elite defensive tackle throughout the league. This caused teams to line up to sign him to a hefty contract.

The Redskins ultimately signed him to a seven-year contract worth $100 million. This deal became a flop from the start when Haynesworth took plays off and complained about the Redskins' scheme being 3-4. He was eventually released for his attitude and showing up to camp overweight. After being given second chances by the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he was out of the league before his contract would be set to expire.

Other notable free agent busts over the past five seasons include Nnamdi Asomugha, Matt Cassel, Carl Nicks and Greg Jennings. All of these players were ranked in the top five of their free agent classes. They also each received contracts worth at least $47.5 million.

Asomugha was part of the Philadelphia Eagles' 2011 "dream team" that emerged as an overwhelming Super Bowl favorite. However, the Eagles missed the playoffs that season despite giving Asomugha a $60 million contract. He was released after the 2012 season by the Eagles.

Cassel filled in for Tom Brady as the Patriots' starting quarterback in the 2008 season after Brady went down with a torn ACL. He filled in admirably, throwing 21 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions and leading the Patriots to an 11-5 record. After his breakout season, Cassel was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs then signed him to a six-year contract worth $62.7 million. With the exception of his 2010 season, Cassel never panned out as the franchise quarterback that the Chiefs were hoping for. They eventually released him in 2013, and he is now competing for the starting job with the Minnesota Vikings.

Nicks never panned out with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite making two Pro Bowls with the New Orleans Saints. He was placed on injured reserve in 2012 and was underwhelming in 2013. This is likely due to being exposed without having Drew Brees as his quarterback. He is under contract for five years with $47.5 million though.

Jennings disappointed in his first season with the Minnesota Vikings after being expected to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver that would boost the Vikings' passing game. However, he only gad 804 receiving yards and four touchdown catches. His big numbers became an afterthought due to not having Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers to throw to him. He was signed for $47.5 million though after leaving the Green Bay Packers.

Although there have been successful free-agent acquisitions such as Julius Peppers for the Chicago Bears in 2010, signing coveted free agents to a large contract will rarely bring teams the success they expect from giving them that amount of money.

Although free agency often causes gut reactions that hurt teams in the long run, the draft has proven to be a more useful tool for developing championship teams.

Teams that are notable for following the draft and develop philosophy are the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts.

All of these teams have won a Super Bowl in the past 10 years except the 49ers according to the list of Super Bowl champions provided by ESPN, but they made a Super Bowl trip in the 2012 season and are built to make a run in the near future with players such as quarterback Colin Kaepernick, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, running back Frank Gore, inside linebacker Patrick Willis and outside linebacker Aldon Smith.

The only team that has won a Super Bowl with significant help in free agency is the New Orleans Saints and arguably the Seahawks. Signing safety Darren Sharper in the 2009 offseason gave them a boost in their defense, and signing Brees a couple of years prior helped them greatly too. The Saints had draft picks that played significant roles in their run too though. The Seahawks were helped by signing defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, and trading for running back Marshawn Lynch and wide receiver Percy Harvin boosted their offense too.

The NFL draft has produced some of the NFL's best quarterbacks though. Tom Brady(Patriots), Peyton Manning(Colts), Aaron Rodgers(Packers), Ben Roethlisberger(Steelers), Russell Wilson(Seahawks), Eli Manning(Giants) and Joe Flacco(Ravens) were all drafted by the teams that they led to Super Bowl victories.

Here are some more draft picks for each past Super Bowl champion that have affected their runs in addition to their quarterbacks:

Seahawks: CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas, S Kam Chancellor, LB Bobby Wagner, LB Bruce Irvin, LB Malcolm Smith, WR Golden Tate, T Russell Okung

Ravens: RB Ray Rice, WR Torrey Smith, TE Dennis Pitta, G Marshal Yanda, DE Arthur Jones, NT Haloti Ngata, LB Ray Lewis, LB Paul Kruger, LB Terrell Suggs, S Ed Reed

Giants: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, RB Brandon Jacobs, WR Hakeem Nicks, WR Amani Toomer, WR Mario Manningham, TE Jeremy Shockey, G Chris Snee, T David Diehl, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, DE Michael Strahan, DE Justin Tuck, DE Osi Umenyiora, CB Corey Webster

Packers: RB James Starks, WR Greg Jennings, WR Jordy Nelson, WR Donald Driver, WR James Jones, T Chad Clifton, T Bryan Bulaga, G Josh Sitton, NT B.J. Raji, LB Clay Matthews, LB Desmond Bishop, LB A.J. Hawk, S Nick Collins, K Mason Crosby

Saints: RB Reggie Bush, WR Marques Colston, WR Robert Meachem, G Carl Nicks, G Jahri Evans, DE Will Smith, CB Tracy Porter, K Garrett Hartley

Steelers: WR Santonio Holmes, WR Hines Ward, TE Heath Miller, G Alan Faneca, NT Casey Hampton, DE Brett Keisel, DE Aaron Smith, LB Larry Foote, LB Lawrence Timmons, LB LaMarr Woodley, CB Ike Taylor, S Troy Polamalu

Colts: RB Joseph Addai, WR Reggie Wayne, WR Marvin Harrison, TE Dallas Clark, DE Dwight Freeney, DE Robert Mathis, S Bob Sanders, S Antoine Bethea, CB Kelvin Hayden

Patriots: WR Troy Brown, WR Deion Branch, C Dan Koppen, DE Richard Seymour, DE Ty Warren, NT Vince Wilfork, LB Tedy Bruschi, CB Ty Law, CB Asante Samuel

Although free agency can be a useful tool to fill holes, teams should not place too much emphasis on it and should look to the draft first and foremost to build a championship team.

image: By Matthew Straubmuller (Flickr: Eagles vs Redskins 10.16.11) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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