Which NFL Teams Have Been the Best in the Free Agent Market?

The New England Patriots are notorious spendthrifts in NFL free agency, but they are still able to purchase value.

Before I met my fiancée, I didn’t really know what a five-year plan was. She is the organized one in our relationship; I’ve always kind of gone with the flow. I had barely ever made a budget before, let alone planned my time and finances for the years to come. But now I have an idea of how much I need to save to put a down payment on a house, buy a car, and it’s pretty wild.

I may not know what I’m eating for lunch tomorrow, but I have set in place goals for the next half-decade already.

This is the challenge NFL teams face in signing free agents: they are hoping to find players to help them compete now but on deals that won’t destroy their salary cap room down the road. NFL teams have to maximize their budgets just the same as we common folk do. So, whether it’s deciding to not eat out a few extra times a month or asking your franchise left tackle to take a pay cut so you can re-sign your quarterback, we all have to worry about our wallets.

So, when it comes to navigating the perils of paying free agents, which team has been able to get the most value?

Pinching Pennies

No matter how we measure it, success in the NFL all comes back to whether or not a player contributed to his team’s betterment. We can look at numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to help us measure that.

NEP takes the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If a player gains five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

For our purposes, we are going to look at the total value a player created for his team: Total NEP, which meshes Passing NEP, Rushing NEP, and Reception NEP. Now, be aware that Rushing NEP is inherently negative, due to rushing the ball’s statistical inefficiency compared to passing. Running backs, therefore, are going to have significantly lower Total NEP than any other position. This relative positional value is something we have to take into consideration when comparing values in this study.

So, which teams are the best at scouring the sales rack and which acquire marked-up messes?

One-Stop Thrift Shop: Total NEP

The first thing we want to know is how much value teams were able to acquire from the free agent market. Even if an asset costs you pennies on the dollar, if it didn’t give you any actual value, it doesn’t really matter. In short: to get values, we need to find value.

The table below, therefore, shows the top-10 NFL franchises in Total NEP from offensive free agents since 2011. What do we find?

Team Total NEP Count
Denver 456.08 9
New England 399.12 16
San Diego 270.42 18
Baltimore 251.99 15
Indianapolis 251.17 13
Buffalo 241.17 14
Houston 228.95 11
Washington 217.58 14
New York Giants 204.57 14
Atlanta 202.59 10

Unsurprisingly, the most valuable free agent classes of the past five years in offensive skill position players belong to the Denver Broncos. Quarterback Peyton Manning heads their list of free agent acquisitions -- and the all-time list of best free agent signings, to boot, having earned 577.48 Total NEP over the life of his contract.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, too, picked up 221.10 Total NEP so far in his two years with the team, and those numbers buoyed this franchise to top of the heap, despite just nine total offensive skill position signings in the past five years.

Every other franchise on the top-10 list signed at least 10 free agents, and seven of them had 13 or more acquisitions, which may indicate that -- for some of these leaders, the total is skewed by volume. So, when we average the franchises’ Total NEP by players signed, who leads in average quality of free agent signing?

Team Avg. Total NEP
Denver 50.68
New England 24.95
Green Bay 22.57
Minnesota 21.17
Houston 20.81
Atlanta 20.26
Indianapolis 19.32
St. Louis 18.88
Buffalo 17.23
Baltimore 16.80

Denver still by far outstrips the rest of the field when considering the volume of players signed versus the Total NEP they produced. The New England Patriots also have the second spot locked down in this measure, despite signing the fourth-most players over the past half-decade.

The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings are two new additions to this list, however, as are the St. Louis Rams. The Packers only signed eight offensive skill free agents over the past five years (much to the chagrin of their fans), but they have made the most of James Jones, Jermichael Finley, and Cedric Benson. The Vikings have been even more discerning, with just seven signings, and both wide receivers Greg Jennings and Devin Aromashodu have rewarded them.

This shows us the teams who are best at maximizing benefit, but what about the ones who balance cost, too?

Franchise Financing: Total NEP per Cost

The value a team receives can be offset by how much they have to spend in order to acquire that value. This is why it’s highly important that we examine the Total NEP accrued by each team’s free agents against the cost of signing those players.

By looking at the Total NEP generated on each contract, we can see the rate of value per dollar each player produced on that deal. To normalize the values and make them more noticeable, I multiplied each of these rates by $1 million dollars.

The table below shows the top-10 NFL franchises with the most Total NEP per $1 million spent since 2011. What do we find?

Team Total NEP per Million 
New England 12.68
Atlanta 12.31
Baltimore 10.82
Green Bay 10.79
Denver 10.64
Carolina 10.04
Houston 8.97
Oakland 8.20
New York Giants 7.78
St. Louis 7.51

There’s a remarkable amount of consistency between the top teams across all of these metrics comparing value and cost, but the top team is clearly the Patriots. Whether it was signing Julian Edelman for just over $4 million a year two years ago (having him produce an average 79.61 Total NEP) or Brandon Lloyd's average of $4 million annually (which saw him generate 77.73 Total NEP), the Patriots find bargain bin wideouts and make them incredible players.

We even see a similar effect with the Atlanta Falcons here, who made solidly-strong offensive pieces out of Jacob Tamme (53.25 Total NEP), Harry Douglas (52.43), Devin Hester (42.16), and Leonard Hankerson (39.14), all for the total average annual value (AAV) of $8.7 million. Teams like the Falcons have been able to assemble a fair amount of their offense through the NFL Draft -- Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones -- and via trade -- Tony Gonzalez.

It can be hard to balance a checkbook when you’re barely pushing five figures in your bank account, but it must be even more difficult to do so -- and still compile a good football team -- when you have tens of millions of dollars to account for. But these coupon-clipping teams seem to be doing a pretty good job.