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Case Study: Are Championship Teams Built in March?

Ruben Teixeira
March 15, 2021

March 17th will mark the start of the new NFL year. With the start of the new NFL year comes one of the most exciting times for NFL fans. With all the franchise tags and most of the player cuts already behind us, March 17th gives every NFL fan a sign of hope. This is the time of the year that you can't take your eyes away from social media or you will miss something big. With a very impressive amount of talent and production in free agency this year, look for some teams to be spending big to ensure that they can take the best player available in the NFL draft come April 29th. At this time of the year, every NFL fan is looking for their team to spend money to improve their roster and bring in some excitement for the fan base. In this case study, we will be taking a deep dive into the numbers to see if the big-time spenders in free agency are also the ones winning the big games during the year. Are championship teams really built in March?

In this case study, we will be looking at the past four years to make our judgment. In the past four years, there has been a TON of huge names getting big money to play for new teams. Some of the most successful free-agent additions in the past four years include Andrew Whitworth (2017), Kyle Fuller (2018), Tyrann Mathieu (2019), and James Bradberry (2020). All of these players provided a well-needed spark to their teams leading to a successful contract. The most impactful of the names presented previously is Tyrann Mathieu. The “honey badger” is well known as a weapon for any defensive coordinator creative enough to find him a productive role. The Kansas City Chiefs benefited tremendously from dishing out some big money for the play-making Mathieu, as it ended up in a championship celebration. This should go as one of the best examples of how a championship window team could very much benefit from spending generously in March.

For every successful free-agent addition, there is bound to be a head-scratching contract given out. More often than not, teams see themselves regretting a big free-agent contract much more than they actually see great value when it's all said and done. Some of the most regretful contract offers include Mike Glennon (2017), Trumaine Johnson (2018), Nick Foles (2019), and Joe Schobert (2020). Some of the worst contracts given out in March are due to QB desperate teams that reach on a player that flashed in a back-up role and think they will produce the same as the starting QB for 16 games the next year. The perfect example is Nick Foles. After doing the unthinkable and beating the best player in the history of the NFL on route to Philadelphia's first Superbowl victory in franchise history, Nick Foles became the next back-up QB to get big-time money. Now with his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars over, it's easy to see how bad of a contract this really was. 

With all of the above said, it should be very easy to see that the big spenders in March are usually the same teams trying to get out of the contract just a year after. Championship teams are not built in March, they are predominantly built in April. The NFL draft offers organizations the chance to get very exciting and productive players on a very cheap contract. The NFL offseason is all about value and spending big on a player past his prime has been time and time again proved to be the wrong decision. The golden rule that I usually go by is if the player is available in free agency, clearly their team didn't see the value of having them back on the team. Free agency is usually made of B or C talented players getting A talent money. Statistics show that if you want to win consistently you must spend as little as possible in free agency.

Image via @Jason_OTC

Looking at the graphic above, there seems to be a very clear answer to the main question of this case study. At the bottom right of the graph belongs to the organizations that have spent the most money in free agency, and end up with the least wins from 2017-2020. The NFL teams with the worst ratio of money spent and wins recorded goes to the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Detroit Lions. You don't have to be an NFL scout to see that the teams in the bottom right corner have been the worst teams in the NFL in the last four years. At the root of all the free-agent spending is bad drafting. Like I stated before, championship teams are built in April. Teams that acquire the most production and value through the NFL draft do not need to make big splashes in free agency because they have their holes filled. The three teams mentioned all have the same thing in common, they need to spend big on free agents to fill their team needs because their draft picks are not producing. NFL teams that spend the most money in free agency are most likely to fall towards the bottom of the league standings.

Image via Tampa Bay Times

When thinking of the most successful teams in the past four years the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, and Baltimore Ravens come to mind. What are the odds that those three teams are exactly the three teams that have spent the least amount of money in free agency and have ended up with the most wins? The top left corner perfectly solidifies my point. The team with the most wins also has the least money spent in free agency. The New England Patriots have always been looked at as such a “boring” team come the offseason for their lack of big moves, but their lack of big moves is exactly what has propelled them for all their success. The most successful teams have a very similar philosophy. You build the core of the team through the NFL draft and save the cap space to make sure you can keep those players on the roster.

The purpose of this case study was to take a well-researched and deep look into the equation of spending money and winning games in the NFL. There have been many positive free-agent additions through the past four years like Tyrann Mathieu, which helped propel his team to a Superbowl championship, but there also have been some awful ones like Nick Foles. The reason why the NFL is so exciting is that you never know what to expect, but one thing has been proven. The teams that spend the least money in free agency will end up at the top of the standings.

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