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NFL free agency inspires caution among league's winning teams

If the NFL truly is a copycat league, then maybe we have our explanation as to why the free agency market seems to have gotten less splashy of late.

"This is Year 3 of the new CBA climate, and we're all more familiar with the rules," one veteran AFC pro director said. "Teams are trying to achieve success in a cap era where spending smart is vital, and the ability to consistently retain cap flexibility is equally important. Culturally, there's an emphasis on drafting your own and developing your own."

Winning teams have proven adept at doing just that: out-drafting and out-developing the competition.

Conversely, they generally aren't winning much on days like this Tuesday, when the 2014 free agency period begins. And so, as we all ring the bell in anticipation for the grand opening of the market, the most instructive practice might be to watch the movements of the clubs avoiding the early action.

A study of the 12 playoff teams from last season revealed that the league's elite use free agency to augment rather than overhaul. Among the five highest-paid players on each playoff participant in 2013 -- a pool of 60 players total -- 42 represented home-grown talent while eight were acquired via trade. Just 10 were free-agent additions.

That list of 10 does include the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, who were both coming off injuries that prompted their drafting clubs (the Colts and Chargers, respectively) to move on. After that, there were three offensive linemen (Gosder Cherilus with the Colts, Louis Vasquez with the Broncos and Ben Grubbs with the Saints), three defensive backs (Carlos Rogers with the 49ers, Derek Cox with the Chargers and LaRon Landry with the Colts) and two receivers (Wes Welker with the Broncos and Sidney Rice with the Seahawks).

Add it up, and you can see why general managers might have a hard time getting excited for a shopping spree.

"Established teams usually aren't involved," an AFC personnel exec said. "It's the teams struggling to make it to the next step. There's a sense of desperation there to throw money at the top guys. They don't think it'll hurt them, but then the guy doesn't produce. The Redskins, Buffalo, the Dolphins, the Browns -- teams that historically come out strong and pay, they usually haven't drafted well, so there's not as much continuity. And it's no coincidence there's been a lot of turnover in those organizations."

There is a right way to do it, of course. A team might even hit on a big-ticket item. But discipline, the smart ones say, is the key.

So in advance of the market opening, we talked to a handful of decision-makers to compile the following list of guiding principles to which teams try to hold fast as the dollars start flying:

» Ask the most important question. That means finding out why a free agent is free in the first place. In most cases, guys who make it to free agency are, by definition, not core players. The trouble is that, in the first couple days of the league year, they wind up getting paid like they are.

"Teams covet their own, protect their own -- why is this guy free?" an NFC general manager said. "In some cases, it might be the team's third-best player, and he may be the best player on another team, and their own club just can't afford him. There are other cases where the team is making legitimate attempts and can't come to a deal. Or maybe the guy doesn't like the city or the stability of the club."

Generally, the franchise tag is an option, a piece of negotiating leverage that can help a club hang on to its own. But sometimes, even with that considered, things just don't work out. Mario Williams' case is a good example. The final year of his rookie deal with the Houston Texans carried an astronomical cap number that made using the tag a non-starter, and now he's with the Buffalo Bills. In other cases, as with Mike Wallace and the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, a team's wider cap problems can force a tough decision; Wallace ended up with the Miami Dolphins.

But the bottom line is this: If it's a player you have to have, you find a way to keep him in-house.

» Limit how much you project. In one sense, this principle is about projecting a player from one system to the next. But even more pronounced is the problem of projecting a role player into a more prominent spot.

"One that stands out is signing someone else's No. 2 receiver to be your No. 1. That's where the biggest mistakes are; those almost always fail," one NFC club executive said. "You can go through the list; that, to me, is always the cautionary tale. True No. 1 receivers usually don't become free agents. Same goes for pass rushers who have another really good rusher (to play) with, and get sacks, but their play doesn't match their sack total. It's players on good teams who have better stats because of cumulative team effect."

The exec pointed to Alvin Harper (Dallas to Tampa Bay), Peerless Price (Buffalo to Atlanta) and David Givens (New England to Tennessee) as examples of receivers who fall into that category. Paul Kruger and Adalius Thomas -- who bolted Baltimore for Cleveland and New England, respectively -- fit that bill as pass rushers. And expected early signee Eric Decker is a guy in this year's class who could fall along those lines.

» Watch your draft haul. The idea of hoarding compensatory picks might sound trivial, but some of the best (New England, Baltimore) don't view it like that. And sometimes, how a player got free or when he's available can push the pendulum one way or the other.

In other words, if you lose four and sign two, you'll get picks. If it's even or going the other way, you won't. But there's room to maneuver.

If a player is cut, he doesn't count toward the compensatory-pick equation, which explains why the Patriots moved quickly on Cardinals cast-off Adrian Wilson last year. And the same is true of players brought in after June 1, as was the case with the Ravens' signing of Daryl Smith last summer.

» Weigh the devil you know vs. the devil you don't. Some were surprised that Sam Shields received a four-year deal at $9.75 million per year from the Packers over the weekend, but whatever one might think of the contract, it's hard to argue that it represented a shot in the dark for Green Bay, which has had the 26-year-old cornerback in-house for four years. If the Packers had chosen instead to acquire someone from the outside, they would've been bringing in an athlete that they inherently would have had less information about.

"You're probably gonna overpay somewhere, and if you overpay for Peyton Manning or DeMarcus Ware or Richard Sherman, the elite players, that's OK," the AFC personnel exec said. "Where you really get in trouble is when you overpay for Paul Kruger. You set yourself back, because now that guy is making $8 million a year, and he's probably a $4 million-a-year player. ... You have to be strong with your evaluation of the player and avoid getting caught up in need."

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Part of the evaluation is, again, figuring out who a guy is and why he's free, whether it's because of financial reasons or something rooted in performance or character. If you're going to shake up your salary structure on anyone, in-house or not -- and other guys on the team will notice -- you have to try to know what you're buying and what message it will send, something that's much easier to do with a player who has been around your block.

And all of this said, it's not like there's any one way to do it.

The two outliers among the 12 teams studied above happened to be the two that made it to the Super Bowl. Seattle traded for Marshawn Lynch, Percy Harvin and Chris Clemons and signed Rice (who has since been released), leaving Russell Okung as the only home-grown player in its top five last year. Denver counted Manning, Welker and Vasquez as free-agent additions and traded for Champ Bailey (who was also recently released) way back when, making Ryan Clady the lone lifetime Bronco in the high-rent district of the payroll for 2013.

But even with regard to those teams, the situation will correct itself when guys like Sherman, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Von Miller get paid. In fact, the very reason those teams could be so aggressive with other clubs' players was because they had a solid core in place, with players still playing on rookie deals.

There are outside factors that could drive the market again. There are fewer locales where coaches and GMs are on the hot seat -- owners are quicker to fire these days, meaning some of the would-be "win or else" situations have been eliminated -- but those decision-makers still facing such scenarios might yet spread some money around. Also, the minimum spending threshold could pressure clubs like Oakland, Jacksonville and Cleveland to start playing catch-up soon.

For the most part, though, the teams around the league have become wise to the fallacies of free agency. More than two decades in, the moves clubs make are generally more methodical and -- even more so -- marked by the mistakes others have made in the past.

As the NFC exec says, "Free agents are free for a reason."

So the race might be on when Tuesday comes. But if you want to find the winners, you might want to look for the guys who are waiting to leave the starting blocks.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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