Colts Among Teams Focusing on Re-Signing Own Players
INDIANAPOLIS - The NFL's free-agency period begins Friday at 12:01 a.m.
Don't expect Colts President Bill Polian to be among those making early-morning phone calls to agents representing a free-agent class many NFL officials consider relatively slim compared to seasons past.
Because as far as Polian is concerned, free agency is pretty much over.
The reason is not talent level, but a philosophical approach.
"This year, I'm approaching it by studying college film," Polian said with a laugh when asked at the recent NFL Scouting Combine how he was approaching free agency.
"I think we had a hell of a free-agency period. We got (tight end) Dallas Clark. We got (guard) Ryan Lilja. We got (safety) Bob Sanders.
"That's a pretty good free-agency crop by any measure."
Polian's words, referencing the three players re-signed by the Colts in recent weeks, were more than a statement about one team's free-agency philosophy. Polian long has held the view that free agency is a risky proposition, with high-profile failures and long-term ramifications.
And to hear executives and coaches at the combine tell it, that belief is shared by many teams around the league to the extent that many now share the approach the Colts have taken since Polian's 1998 arrival:
• Build through the draft.
• Mostly eschew free agents from other teams.
• Re-sign core players, preferably players they drafted.
Fewer and fewer high-profile players making it to free agency.
"Free agency has changed so much over the years, because teams are doing a better job of keeping their own talent to long-term deals," Pittsburgh Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert said during the combine. "That takes so many players off the market to begin with. It's better because teams are doing a better job of keeping their own players.
"If you're looking to secure more talent in free agency, which we're not a big part of anyway, it's probably not good."
Not only did many teams re-sign potential free agents before the beginning of free agency, 12 teams used franchise/transition labels to keep players off the open market.
The Colts put the franchise tag on Clark early last week, then reached an agreement on a contract the following day. The team re-signed Sanders late in the season, and re-signed Lilja last week.
Of the four starters from last season whose contracts expired after last season, only offensive guard Jake Scott remains unsigned. Polian said during the combine although Scott would be welcome back to the Colts with "open arms," he said he expects Scott to test free agency.
Other Colts players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents include defensive end Josh Thomas, defensive tackle Dan Klecko, wide receiver Aaron Moorehead and linebacker Rocky Boiman.
Restricted free agents include safety Matt Giordano, tight ends Bryan Fletcher and Ben Utecht, defensive end Darrell Reid and offensive guard Dylan Gandy.
And while Polian last week said he very much wished the team could sign Scott, he expressed no such regrets about not being active regarding other team's free agents. The risk involved in free agency, Polian said, makes it an unattractive means by which to acquire players.
"I'm not a gambler," Polian said. "I don't even like to play bingo. I'd rather put my money in the envelope on Sunday. It's just a much bigger gamble in free agency."
Polian added, "The penalty for missing in free agency, because of the cost of the player, is greater than in any personnel-acquisition situation."
As an example, Polian pointed to the situations of defensive tackles Corey Simon and Anthony "Booger" McFarland. The Colts signed Simon as a free agent shortly before the 2005 season. He played 13 regular-season games that season for the Colts, did not play in 2006 and the Colts released him shortly before last season. The Colts traded a 2007 second-round draft selection for McFarland in 2006. He played 11 regular-season games, did not play last season because of an injury, and was released by the Colts Wednesday.
"If you give up a second for Booger McFarland and unfortunately, he gets hurt and it causes you to lose him for a long period of time, I don't view that as a price nearly as high as paying what we paid for Corey Simon and not having him," Polian said. "The cost of missing is just greater."
The result of the Colts' approach is they are one of the most home-grown teams in the NFL. Of the Colts' starters in the playoffs last season, none ever had played for another NFL team.
Such a roster is becoming more of the NFL ideal, executives said last week.
"I think what teams are trying to do is hang onto their good players," Houston Texans General Manager Rick Smith said. "As you look across the league and you look at free agency, I think more and more teams are going to try to keep their good players. In today's world with the salary cap, I think it is imant that you draft well.
"I stood up here (at the combine) last year and said we are going to try to build through the draft. What does that mean? To me that means is you do a good job in your draft, you select players that are a good fit for your system and then you recognize that and get those guys under contract for the long term. And you continue to build that way.
"You supplement through free agency, and maybe add a player here and a player there, but by and large you build with good young players through the draft and get those guys under contract. That is the trend."
And as a result, teams building contenders through free agency have become rarer by the season, executives said.
"Teams are signing their players earlier in their contracts," Tennessee Titans Executive Vice President/General Manager Mike Reinfeldt said. "I think you are seeing fewer and fewer Pro Bowl-caliber players in the prime of their career really reach free agency. So that behooves you even more to build through the draft.
"I don't think there are any quick fixes in the NFL anymore. I think there were some periods in the 90s and the early 2000s where you could go in and get better pretty quickly."
The other result? A very marketable situation for the rare elite-level player – such as New England cornerback Asante Samuel, or Pittsburgh guard Alan Faneca – to reach the end of a contract and not be designated a franchise or transition player.
"There's going to be a small amount of players who are going to get ridiculous money and people are going to say, 'You've got to be kidding me,''' St. Louis Rams Executive Vice President of Player Personnel Billy Devaney said.
Cleveland Browns Head Coach Romeo Crennel said the franchise and transition tags used last week removed some otherwise attractive players from the market.
"There are some guys we felt like might have been able to help us," Crennel said. "But when they get tagged, they get tagged. There's nothing we can do about that because the system has been in place for a little while. You have to work around it and go to the next guy on your list and make a determination how much he can help you and what kind of money you want to spend on that guy."
Said Reinfeldt, "We're 14-15 years into a salary-cap era. I think teams have figured out how to keep room under the cap, so a lot of teams are able to lock up their own players, and if they're not able to lock them up to actual contracts, then they use the tag to maintain them for one more year. Some teams now have four or five people that are devoted to that part of the organization.
"So there are a lot of smart people in the league that know how to work it. It makes for less players getting to the market in free agency for sure."
Which Polian said for the Colts means a relatively low-key, low-profile next fe