2012 NFL Free Agency: A Cautionary Tale About High Expectations

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 20: Matt Forte #22 of the Chicago Bears runs past Antwan Barnes #98 of the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on November 20, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Chargers 31-20. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When the NFL season comes to a conclusion every year, teams begin devising plans to acquire new talent. The NFL Draft is your primary conduit, where tomorrow's superstars are introduced into the NFL. But free agency is always the quick and dirty solution to every team's problems.

At least that's the hope.

Realistically free agency tends to be an over-hyped party machine for the league's richest owners because most players are either past their prime, asking for more money than what they're worth and if they were still that good, their original teams wouldn't let them leave so freely.

Take last year for example. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha agreed to a five-year deal worth $60 million with the Philadelphia Eagles. Asomugha allowed four touchdowns in 2011, a 61.7 completion rate and an opposing quarterback rating of 88.6. Wide receiver Sidney Rice signed a five-year deal worth $61 million with the Seattle Seahawks. He only played nine games and registered 32 receptions for 484 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Ray Edwards, who left Minnesota for Atlanta on a five-year deal worth $30 million, registering only 3.5 quarterback sacks.

Does that mean it doesn't always help? No. Cullen Jenkins signed a five-year deal worth $25 million with the Eagles, generating 25 quarterback pressures and 5.5 quarterback sacks. You know the story of Johnathan Joseph.

Yet when most players hit the free agency market, it's either because their past their prime or out of the former team's price range (and by extension beyond Cincinnati's price range). Look at 2010's free agent list. Of the top 20 players Scout.com rated as the top free agents, Julius Peppers ($91 million), Karlos Dansby ($43 million) and Terrell Owens were the only one's to change teams through free agency.

But you have ask yourself, do you really expect that the Ravens, Bears or Seahawks will let Ray Rice, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch will hit free agency respectively? What about Carlos Rogers, Cortland Finnegan or Brent Grimes? Did LaRon Landry play himself out of Cincinnati's price range, provided the Redskins decide not to franchise him?

Where free agency truly generates effective (and reasonable) meaning isn't so much the coveted superstar player that often underperforms compared to their ridiculous salary. Even though you're still able to pluck starters, it's where a team's depth comes into play, typically acquired several days after the initial Christmas line rush after the free agency dinner bell rings. That's where guys like Bruce Gradkowski, Donald Lee, Thomas Howard, Manny Lawson and Nate Clements are found.

So we offer this caution. Though people complain mightily about Cincinnati's inaction during the early morning hours when free agency kicks off, it's usually because the players that are available are valued far too high than their worth due to the overall shortage of elite talent or that the talent just isn't there. The key point to remember for free agency this year isn't so much finding great talent, it's backing up the great talent that's already on Cincinnati's roster.

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