6 min read

What Makes An Efficient Free Agent Signing?

What Makes An Efficient Free Agent Signing?

Free agency is the time of the year where teams explore the open market and find veteran players who can make an impact. The goal of this part of the offseason is to sign free agents to fill holes on the depth chart and acquire top talent that other teams could not afford to pay. This period can solidify a roster and give teams flexibility to draft the best player available instead of for need. Some teams break the bank when signing top talent on the free agent market and others are more conservative in their approach.

Typically, the best signings are the ones where teams get the most efficiency out of their cap dollars when signing players. In this article, we will take a hindsight look at some of the best free agent signings in recent years where teams did not reset the market and still found important playmakers for their team. 

2021 Free Agency: 

When talking about the 2021 free agent period it's hard to not bring up the Bengals signing defensive end Trey Hendrickson. The Bengals signed him to a 4-year, $60 million deal after he posted 13.5 sacks for the Saints the previous season. In 2022, Hendrickson increased his sack total to 14.5 and had the 6th-highest pressure percentage rate in the entire league. His 2022 cap hit is ranked 19th out of all current edge rusher contracts before this year's free agency. This is a great example of the Bengals finding the right player who fits their 4-3 defensive scheme and signing him to a fair deal that ultimately becomes team friendly with his outstanding play. 

The Falcons hit on a big signing last year with versatile weapon Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson signed a 1-year deal for a total of $3 million in April of last year. What made him such an efficient signing was his ability to line up in the backfield as a running back and out wide like a receiver. He went on to have over 1,100 yards from scrimmage, 6 rushing touchdowns, 5 receiving touchdowns and 52 receptions in 16 games. For the price they got him at, the Falcons got a major bargain for the productivity he brought to their offense. Atlanta’s ability to project what an athlete like Patterson can do when given the right opportunities is a big reason they got such a good deal. The Falcons recognized that, when channeled correctly, Patterson could become an impact player on their offense. 

2020 Free Agency: 

The Buffalo Bills hit an efficient free agent signing in 2020 when they welcomed Daryl Williams to their team. Williams signed a 1-year, $2.25 million contract that ended up with him being extended the following year. While on that contract, Williams started every game for the Bills at right tackle and allowed just 30 pressures in 19 combined games that season. Before this signing, Williams had been shuffled around the line from tackle to guard in his time with the Panthers. His value as a guard is what made him such a cheaper contract that offseason. The Bills recognized his strengths and then put him into a position to perform well, which is what made this deal such an efficient free agent signing.

Xavier Rhodes was a good signing by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2020 offseason. Rhodes signed a 1-year deal worth $3.75 million in the middle of free agency. This made him the 29th-highest paid corner that year.  He outperformed his contract by allowing the 13th least amount of receptions by a cornerback that season which tied him with J.C.Jackson, Byron Jones and Jalen Ramsey in that category. Rhodes also had a 49.4 competition percentage when targeted which was a career high. This was an extremely efficient free agent signing by the Colts because they got great production from a player they paid little in comparison to his performance. 

2019 Free Agency: 

The signing of John Brown by the Buffalo Bills in the 2019 free agency period was one of the most valuable signings of that year. Brown signed a 3-year, $27 million contract that year and went on to be a good two year starter for the team. In 2019, Brown had 72 receptions for over 1,000 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. He played a big part in the development of Josh Allen by being one of the best separators in the league. His 2019 cap hit was the 21st-highest in the league at that time which is great value considering his impact on the field. The Bills were able to scheme to Brown’s strengths and help the development of their high powered offense which we see today. 

The New York Giants’ signing of Markus Golden in the 2019 free agency period was one of the best in that year's class. Golden played for the Cardinals beforehand and mustered 19 sacks throughout his rookie deal. He ended up signing a 1-year, $4.5 million contract with the Giants that made him the 50th-highest paid edge defender in the league in 2019. Golden finished that year with 10 sacks while tying Chris Jones and Justin Houston with 69 total pressures that season. The productivity the Giants got out of the signing completely outweighed what they paid for that year. Pass rusher is a premier position in the league and being able to get this type of sack and pressure production on a low price tag is what makes this such a valuable signing. 

In looking at these deals, and other under-market deals such as De'Vondre Campbell's contract with the Green Bay Packers in 2021, there are two themes that appear. The first is that taking a low-cost, one-year flier on a player you have a specific role in mind for can create signifiant surplus value for a team. Another way that value can be found is in signing a player such as Hendrickson in 2021 or Brown in 2019 — players signed to a mid-tier contract (around 20th in cap hit at the position) that allows them to potentially exceed the dollar value.

Who Could Be This Year's Most Efficient Signing?

It is impossible to tell who will be the most efficient signing of a free agent class without seeing how it plays out. Based on past play and the current contract they signed, we can make inferences on the current value of this year’s signings. 

One that stands out the most thus far is the 49ers signing of cornerback Charvarius Ward. Ward signed a 3-year, $40 million contract with an AAV of 13.3m. In 2021, he allowed the 3rd lowest completion percentage by a cornerback with at least 400 coverage snaps. He was also a top 20 corner in receiving yards allowed last season. His contract numbers aren’t fully clear yet, but if his 2022 cap hit is similar to his AAV, Ward will be around the 15th to 20th-highest paid corner in the league. This signing is great value when you look at his production, the scheme he is coming from and the money paid by the 49ers. Kansas City played a similar 4-3 scheme that the 49ers will be using him in, so the learning curve will not be significant. Overall, this signing has the potential to be one of the most efficient uses of cap space this offseason due to Ward’s performance in a similar scheme at a premier position and him being only 25 years old.