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The Case for ... Exercising Caution

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EVERY MARCH, hope is purchased in the National Football League, as the start of free agency gives teams the chance to peddle optimism with the glitter of new acquisitions.

The reality, however, is that free agency, which kicked off last Thursday, is akin to the opening of a mall on Black Friday—a mad rush of people stampeding to check out the wares. But at this mall there's nothing but bargain-bin choices. And in the end, there's a good chance they'll have buyers' remorse.

Free agency is not the game-changer in the NFL that it can be in the NBA or MLB. From 2014 through '16, the three teams that spent the most money—the Jaguars, Raiders and Giants—doled out an average of $429 million yet averaged a combined 18--30 record over those three years. Meanwhile, the three teams that spent the least—the Packers, Panthers and Steelers—paid an average of $69.7 million and averaged a combined 30--18 mark.

With the league instituting a rookie wage scale in 2011—the contracts are now predetermined based on draft position—picks are more valuable than ever. So if a team drafts well, it can have some of its best players making far-below-market salaries for years.

In that same period—since 2011—the salary cap has skyrocketed from $120 million to $167 million, a 39.2% increase, which has made it easier for teams to retain their top talent. Quarterback Andrew Luck, slated to be a free agent this year, instead signed a record six-year, $140 million extension with the Colts last June. The Eagles, with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, and the Vikings, with safety Harrison Smith, also locked up key players last summer. The Panthers didn't even wait that long, giving linebacker Luke Kuechly an extension in September 2015.

Of the players who do play out their contracts, the best are more likely to be slapped with a franchise tag or to sign an extension than they are to hit the open market. Le'Veon Bell would have been the best running back available this year, but the Steelers put a franchise tag on him this winter. Same for quarterback Kirk Cousins (Redskins), defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (Giants) and tackle Kawann Short (Panthers). The Chiefs were able to lock up safety Eric Berry for the long term at the end of February, and the Cardinals soon followed with linebacker Chandler Jones.

As a result, there are plenty of teams with prodigious amounts of money to spend and mostly second-tier players to spend it on. But because there's a salary-cap floor—teams must spend 89% of the total cap over a four-year period—the money has to go somewhere. This is why quarterback Mike Glennon, he of the sub-60% completion rate and 5--13 record, got a $45 million contract from the Bears last Thursday. And it's why a team in the market for a running back will open its checkbook for soon-to-be 32-year-old Adrian Peterson (left), who has played just 20 games over the last three seasons and is coming off a career-worst 1.9-yards-per-carry average in 2016.

Even the league's worst team is avoiding the quick-fix illusion of free agency. The 1--15 Browns entered the market with more than $100 million in cap space but were so unimpressed with the talent available that they chose instead to trade for quarterback Brock Osweiler—and his $16 million contract—with no intention of actually playing him, because the Texans threw in a second-round pick. Cleveland is betting that it will be able to use that pick on someone who will be at least comparable to a free agent and cost much less.

Certainly some high-priced free agents have panned out—think Reggie White in 1993 or Charles Woodson in 2006, both with Green Bay. But the smart franchises know that while hope is easy to sell, in the NFL there are no refunds.

There are plenty of teams with prodigious amounts of money to spend and mostly second-tier players to spend it on.