As the adage goes, you build NFL teams through the draft, and you plug holes through free agency. If you’re a team on the verge, but you just need one or two new assets, free agency can mean the difference between a losing season and a playoff run. But, the same team can turn a handful of free agent busts into a bottom-tier losing streak. You only have so much cap room, and you can only stretch your scheme so much to accommodate that incoming superstar.
These concerns grow even further when you come up on a light or slim year for available talents, and some analysts are already saying 2017 is likely to be one of those years.
There was some early hope for a big splash on the free agent market, then the Steelers locked up Le’Veon Bell. The incredible ball carrier wowed fans and frustrated AFC opponents throughout the 2016 season. The rumor that Pittsburgh might not re-sign him has sports talkers blowing up the airwaves. But the Steelers got their man.
Kansas City safety Eric Berry sweated nearly a month before accepting an offer that will keep him a Chief for the next several years.
Another big name on the list was Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Arguably the most important single position on the field outside of quarterback, the aging tackle still has a lot of “go” in his tank, so many teams were licking their chops at the chance of landing the big guy. But Cincy says they can get him signed, taking the wind out of a lot of sails outside Ohio.
From a public relations perspective, free agent signings are huge. Teams need offseason media bumps. They need content and headlines to keep the fans interested, and to get them buying or renewing season tickets. Free agency is a great tool to pull that lever. If you can grab a hot name, the buzz comes easy. But, if you can get a sleeper, that buzz can last longer, because analysts dig deeper and argue more. That generates similar conversations among the fans, which keeps them engaged through the lean summer season.
This leads us to a couple of very interesting names that could test the free agent market. Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles are huge names that have delivered year in and year out for their teams. But they’re getting up there in age, and will likely demand large contracts to sign anywhere. Peterson, especially, could be worth it. Even over 30, no one is willing to say he’s lost much of a step, and he could be a prime fit for a team looking for a game changer.
One of the biggest questions this time of year is who will be the big winners in free agency. This generally comes down to who has the most opportunity and the most money to spend. The Browns, the 49ers, and the Jaguars all have plenty of cap space. They also have perennially bad teams, who will have plenty of opportunity in the 2017 draft. This could provide some leverage for them in negotiating with blue chip free agents. It’s also a tremendous opportunity for their respective general managers to make some noise and energize the fans.
A great draft and some noise during free agency could bring any of those teams from the cellar into contention for a playoff spot, if not this year than the next … if they make the right decisions.