Free Agency Day 2: Catch Me If You Can

Laurent RobinsonWhen teams overpay to acquire marginal talent in free agency and the decision takes some criticism, that team’s fans usually respond with a fair-but-flawed argument: “We sucked at that position last year and we desperately need to improve there, so if we overpaid, that’s life.” It’s what plenty of Redskins fans said Tuesday afternoon about Pierre Garcon, and it’s what plenty of Jaguars fans said Wednesday about Laurent Robinson. So let’s explain why that mode of thinking is troublesome, and how teams can use that desperation to their advantage as opposed to forcing themselves into bad decisions.

First, as you might suspect, most teams don’t spend a significant amount of money to acquire a new free agent at a given position unless they were specifically subpar last season in that area. You might get the occasional exception, but the Bills aren’t targeting Mario Williams because they have a dominant pass rush, and nobody with a franchise quarterback is going after Peyton Manning. The only situation in which it really makes sense to acquire a veteran player in the hyperinflated world of free agency is when you’re desperate. So that argument seems superfluous.

The bigger problem is the idea that upgrading at that position, or in that facet of the game, requires a team to throw money at acquiring a talented player, even if it means that the team overspends in the process. Teams approach the problem of having below-average output at a position by saying, “We need to upgrade to something better here, even if it costs us too much.” Instead, they should approach it from the equally compelling, alternative viewpoint of, “We’re already so bad here that we can’t be much worse next season, so upgrading to a superior player is incredibly easy!” Rather than seeing the free-agent pool as being full of players who would provide superior production to the guys on your roster, bad organizations insist on picking one player from that pool and spending more money than they should to obtain an upgrade they can get from just about anyone.

Jacksonville’s signing of Robinson to a five-year, $32.5 million deal on Wednesday is a perfect example of this sort of dysfunctional thinking. It’s important to take a look back at Robinson’s career to put the logic related to signing him into its proper context and understand why this is a foolish move. Before the lockout, Robinson had basically been a middling receiver for the Falcons and Rams, while struggling to stay healthy; nothing about his performance record suggested that he was about to have a breakout season, which is why the Rams chose not to re-sign him heading into the lockout. After he sat on the sidelines for a week, San Diego nabbed him on a one-year deal for close to the veteran’s minimum, $685,000, but he failed to make the roster and the Chargers cut him on September 3. Again, he returned to the waiver wire and sat there for days without any nibbles. A wideout-needy team like the Jaguars could have brought him in for a tryout, but they weren’t interested enough to do so. Four days later, he signed with the Cowboys, who released him after a week. Again, the Jags could have trusted their eyes and brought him in. They chose not to. Dallas brought him back onto the roster a week later when Miles Austin injured his hamstring, and Robinson responded with 11 receiving touchdowns in 14 games.

Now, the Jaguars had heard of Laurent Robinson before he had his big season with the Cowboys. They had a scouting report on him coming out of college, played a game against him in 2007, and probably had a pro scout watch some tape to assign Robinson a grade before free agency. They had multiple chances to sign Robinson for essentially nothing and decided against it. How can a player whose skills were not worth the minimum salary to a team in September somehow be worth $14 million in guaranteed money to that same team in March?

Because the Jaguars got fooled by Robinson’s 2011 season, that’s why. They saw a player who is yet to complete a single healthy season put up excellent numbers as a second or third wideout within a great offense and mistook it for skills that they somehow didn’t notice six months earlier. The Jaguars talked themselves into thinking that Robinson is a burgeoning talent with huge upside, capable of dominating teams in the red zone and downfield for long touchdowns, and they fell for that simplest of statistical quirks: the small-sample-size fluke.

Robinson had 54 catches for 858 yards last year. Those aren’t incredible numbers — roughly similar to the production of Jerricho Cotchery (57-821) or Terrell Owens (55-829) in 2009, and neither of those guys got big-money deals in free agency.

The big difference between Robinson and his peers is that 11 of his 54 catches resulted in touchdowns. That’s a touchdown rate of 20.3 percent. It’s totally unsustainable. Since 1990, there have been 20 other wideouts who caught 30 passes in each of two consecutive seasons and had a touchdown rate of 20 percent or greater in year one. Not even one of them improved their touchdown rate in the second year. During their second seasons, those guys caught touchdowns on 10.1 percent of their receptions. Robinson’s touchdown rate is going to plummet next year, and it’s not going to be because he’s playing poorly. It will be because the Jaguars were expecting him to repeat something that isn’t repeatable.

Teams make mistakes like this all the time, but the Jaguars were fooled by the same statistical quirk less than 12 months ago! Back then, general manager Gene Smith felt a desperate need to lock up a talented young target for his quarterback of the future and signed Marcedes Lewis to a mammoth contract extension while giving him $18 million in guaranteed money. Lewis was coming off a 58-catch, 10-touchdown season that, we noted at the time, was totally unsustainable. Lewis had scored either one or two touchdowns in every single season of his career up to that point, but the Jaguars paid him like a red zone threat after just a single season of production there. The bumbling tight end responded with a number of key drops in the end zone during a miserable 2011, as he failed to catch even a single touchdown pass. Lewis’s touchdown rate did not regress toward the mean. It regressed all the way past it to zero.

If that were the only problem facing the Robinson contract, it would be an ill-advised decision. If you throw in the fact that Robinson qualifies as one of the Free Agents You Meet in Hell and has an incredibly checkered injury history, it’s unbelievable. Instead of paying Robinson millions of dollars based on one fluke season in a great offense, the Jags should have saved their money and gone into the market to try and find the next Laurent Robinson. Maybe that’s somebody like Donnie Avery or Chaz Schilens, players with brief spurts of performance who have seen their games stifled by injury. There’s every chance those guys will be as good in 2012 as Laurent Robinson will be, and they’re almost guaranteed to be better than Chastin West or Taylor Price. Even more importantly, they would save the team $10 million that could have gone to someone like Mario Williams or Vincent Jackson, the sorts of excellent players who you can’t find for free on the waiver wire.

Why do teams refuse to approach the holes on their roster this way? The biggest reason is their incredible aversion to risk. There’s a chance that Avery and Schilens won’t play great or get injured. If so, the organization will look bad in the media and it will seem like they didn’t make a serious investment to try and improve on their weak points. It’s easier to just throw $14 million at the problem and silence that argument in advance, even if the money finds a player who is no more likely to actually solve the problem. As we noted in Grantland noted last week, NFL teams are afraid of the dark. They’re so afraid, in fact, that they’re willing to light money on fire to avoid it.

Green for Green

If you want an example of how a good organization manages risk and procures talent, look at the Eagles and what they did over the past 12 months with DeSean Jackson. When the team neglected to sign Jackson to a long-term deal before the 2011 season, he held out for a week before returning to training camp. He reportedly wanted a deal that was comparable to or in excess of Santonio Holmes’s five-year, $45 million contract that allowed for $24 million in guaranteed money. The Eagles were all-in for a 2012 title and could have used a respite from any contractual distractions, but they weren’t willing to break the bank and buy high on Jackson because they had both perspective and leverage.

Before last season, we wrote about Jackson’s subpar catch rate and why it drained some of the value out of his big-play ability. We also should have noted how unsustainable Jackson’s yardage was, as the speed demon averaged an incredible 22.5 yards per catch in 2010 after averaging 16.6 yards per grab during 2008 and 2009. There’s virtually no precedent for a player averaging those sorts of yards per catch in consecutive years, and Jackson was extremely unlikely to be the exception. Furthermore, the Eagles held all the leverage by virtue of the franchise tag, which seemed destined for Jackson after Philly locked up virtually every other big-name free agent they had pending. They could have caved, but they were a disciplined organization and chose to wait.

Jackson’s contract year was far from monstrous. His catch rate failed to improve to league average, and his yards per catch dropped off to the exact same 16.6 figure he averaged during the first two years of his career. Jackson was dismal on punt returns, disappointing when his team needed him, and with just four touchdowns, he looked like a shell of the player who terrified teams next to Mike Vick just a year earlier.

The Eagles chose this, the low point in terms of Jackson’s leverage and value, to pounce on locking him up. After franchising him, the Eagles dangled the carrot of a long-term deal in front of Jackson and got him to agree to a contract for far below his market value. While Jackson’s deal sounds big — five years, $51 million — it contains just $15 million in guaranteed money. That’s $10 million less than what the Jets guaranteed Santonio Holmes, and it’s virtually identical to what the Jaguars just gave Laurent Robinson. Hell, it’s only about $6 million more than what the Eagles had already guaranteed Jackson for one season as part of the franchise tag process.

That’s an unfathomably good deal, and because they saved $15 million or so by waiting on Jackson as opposed to paying him for his outlier season (as the Jaguars likely would have done), Philly was also able to re-sign star pass-rusher Trent Cole and able run-stuffer Antonio Dixon on Wednesday. Some of the money saved will also go to a new deal for LeSean McCoy. Although the Eagles are one of the NFL’s more analytics-friendly organizations, this sort of forward thinking doesn’t take some crazy advanced math. It just takes a bit of common sense and financial planning.

Where Does the Facility End?

[Ed. note: Mario Williams to Buffalo looks to be done deal, but read on to gain insight into the peculiarities of this particular signing.]

While we criticized the Bills for letting Mario Williams leave their facility in yesterday’s column, we finished by noting that Williams might be compelled to stay in Buffalo after a good night’s sleep. That’s exactly what happened, and after going to the airport to pick up his fiancée, he spent a second day and night in Buffalo. He’s expected to return to Buffalo’s facility on Thursday for a third day of negotiations.

It’s important to note the difference between a facility and a city in terms of whether the Bills were remiss to let Williams leave, but if the Bills knew that Williams was going to return in the morning, it’s basically the same thing. That these negotiations are now entering a third day, though, is very weird. It says both good and bad things for Buffalo’s chances of acquiring Williams. On the positive side, Williams wouldn’t be sticking around for three days if the Bills weren’t serious contenders for his services. Every hour he spends in town makes it more likely that the Bills are Williams’s top suitors, and less likely that he’s using their deal as a posturing technique, which we suggested he might be doing yesterday.

On the other hand, if this deal were such a great fit, why wouldn’t Williams be signed by now? Williams took a physical on Wednesday, but the results would have already been in and the team would have happily announced his signing shortly thereafter. Contracts don’t take this long to negotiate, so it’s clear that there’s some sort of impasse preventing the deal from being signed. It still seems like the Bills are the favorites to lock up free agency’s best player, but it’s unclear how close they are to actually sealing the deal.

Top of the Market

Ideally, teams should be equally comfortable playing premiums for top-tier talent while they scout their way through the flotsam of undrafted free agents and late-round picks into valuable properties. The Buccaneers have understood this over the first two days of free agency and targeted two of the market’s best players, locking them both up with enormous contracts. On Tuesday, it was Vincent Jackson; on Wednesday, the team turned their attention to the offensive line and signed former Saints guard Carl Nicks, who got a five-year, $47 million deal with $31 million guaranteed that will make him the highest-paid guard in league history. He’ll play left guard, while Bucs right guard Davin Joseph is one year into a seven-year, $53 million deal. Some teams don’t have $100 million in contract totals for their entire offensive lines, let alone two guards. If it works, the Bucs could have the best offensive line in football next year, especially as run blockers.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys used their limited resources to go after a star on the other side of the ball. Despite the financial limitations placed on them by the league, Dallas gave Brandon Carr a five-year deal worth $50,100,000 on Wednesday. No word yet on guaranteed money, but we can guarantee that Carr only got $50.1 million to get more than Cortland Finnegan, who had signed a five-year deal for $50.0 million the previous day. We just wish our pissing contests earned us an extra $100K. No word yet on what the guaranteed money is, so we’ll look closer at that deal once the guarantee comes out.

Filed Under: Buffalo Bills, NFL, Philadelphia Eagles

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell