Analysis: Buyer Beware When Shopping In Free Agency

Too many times in the past four seasons, the Colts have come up empty when spending millions on free agents in the offseason.

The Indianapolis Colts’ recent record in free-agent signings is a reminder of the old adage “buyer beware.”

That’s why I’m not going to get too excited about who the Colts might add in March when they look to bolster the roster. Too many guys haven’t panned out in the past, which reminds of another popular statement a former colleague always said, “There’s a reason these guys are available.”

Fans are looking for the team to make a splash, but it’s fair to say general manager Ryan Grigson hasn’t added enough building blocks in three seasons. It’s not necessarily a knock on just him — every team seemingly swings and misses to a certain number on free agents.

Another reality is that if any player is considered of value, teams must overpay on the market to acquire them. And overpaying for guys means raised expectations that too often aren’t met.

In looking at the last four years, and narrowing the list to guys who started or played or were paid like starters, the Colts have added 10 free agents that could be credited with making worthwhile contributions. 

That short list is defensive end Cory Redding, running back Ahmad Bradshaw (although he was hurt too much), cornerback Darius Butler, outside linebacker Erik Walden, safety Mike Adams, inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (five wins in 2015), running back Frank Gore, defensive end Kendall Langford and safety Dwight Lowery.

Those 11 are taken from a list of 37 guys deemed as having some free-agent value, either based on how much they played, the fact they started elsewhere before coming to Indianapolis or the fact they were paid well. If a guy only played for a short time and was a disappointment beyond that or got hurt or was released early from his contract, they weren’t deemed worthy. That list jumps out.

Offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus was overpaid in 2013, the highest-paid right tackle, and he gave the Colts one OK season and then was an injury mess in 2014. The Colts cut their losses with him in preseason.

Defensive tackle Arthur Jones is still on the roster, but he’s made just three regular-season starts in two seasons due to ankle injuries. That’s not enough production for a guy given a five-year, $33-million contract. The Colts thought they were adding a key cog to the defense. Sure, injuries happen, but missing on these kind of investments sets a team back.

Safety LaRon Landry wasn’t the Pro Bowl defender expected. He lasted just two seasons and was cut ahead of time. A four-game suspension for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing drugs made it worse. After being waived, he was suspended 10 games and is now suspended indefinitely.

It’s fair to say wide receiver Andre Johnson and outside linebacker Trent Cole were the biggest free-agent disappointments from this past season. It’s doubtful the Colts stick it out for another year with either player.

So based on the recent signings, don’t get too worked up about free agency fixing everything that ails a team. The percentages suggest about one out of three players added will deliver. 

Sure, we’ll give the free-agent list a long look in the next month or so and make suggestions on who could help, but here’s hoping Grigson is a smarter shopper.

In his defense, he was probably wary of older free agents not panning out this past year in front-loading deals on Johnson and Cole. Cutting the losses after one year means a minimal dead money hit to the salary cap.

Hopefully the Colts do the same thing if they turn to any more older players, or even guys with some experience but not worthy of expensive multi-year deals. The problem is other teams won’t play along and will undoubtedly over-pay a lot of the guys the Colts would like to sign.

But instead of being that team on the hook for the next misstep that costs millions, the smarter plan would be to build this team through the draft and stop missing on guys in the early rounds. The Colts must have a solid draft coming up. It’s imperative. Because it’s doubtful, if they re-sign quarterback Andrew Luck to a long-term deal before the end of preseason, this team will have a lot of millions to throw around in free agency.

So spend wisely. We’ve seen enough guys come through town who didn’t live up to their contracts. Find enough guys who will, and preferably guys at the right price who make sense at obvious need positions.

Easy to say, sure. But that’s the nature of the NFL. Regardless of the fact Grigson had his contract extended three years a day after this past 8-8 season ended, missing more often than not in free agency and the draft will continually set this team back and call into further question who’s making the decisions and jeopardize the Colts getting back to the playoffs in 2016 and beyond.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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