At midnight tonight NFL free agency starts in earnest. The Cleveland Browns head into this free agency period armed with more money to spend than any other team in the NFL. Not only do they have the most money to spend,but they have very few players for which they need to consider resigning. Due to the most recent NFL collective bargaining agreement every NFL team is required to spend 89% of their available cap space. According to John Clayton of ESPN, the Cleveland Brows are a total of 48.9 million dollars under the NFL salary cap. Eighty Nine percent of their cap space means the minimum amount they must spend this offseason is 43.5 million . Keep in mind that approximately 6-8 million of that cap space will be used to sign rookies from the upcoming 2013 NFL draft. Leaving a cool 36-38 million to spend in free agency and contract restructures.
Despite the big money available to the Browns in free agency and the need to spend, don't expect the Browns to be signing top free agent after top free agent. This is a philosophy that goes straight to the top of the Cleveland Browns Organization. Browns CEO Joe Banner is a capologist at heart. Well known as a hard liner in contract negotiations, Banner exudes a passion for getting the most for the value. Many believe that it was this very nature, that got him pushed out of the Eagles organization. Banner, not concerned with relationships at the core as much as getting top value, hurt many feelings throughout his dealings in player negotiations. Ill will that was left to then Eagles head coach Andy Reid to fix, in order for fences to be mended between the players and the Eagles front office. A power struggle by the weary Reid and Banner ensued and Reid won out culminating in then exiting of Banner.
While the issue of pay versus production and player value ended up being Banner's demise in Philly, as he comes to the Browns it could be his strongest asset. In a league full of teams with little or no money to spend in free agency, having lots of money could be a detriment in the hands of the wrong person. Rest assured Browns fans the Browns won't be overvaluing and overpaying for players, whether it be on the free agent market or in resigning their own. This is the very reason teams get into trouble with the salary cap, they over value free agents or their own players and diminish value and production of the team overall. This isn't to say that Banner and the Browns front office won't value elite free agents, but rather that they aren't going to get sucked into bidding wars over free agents. In a league made up of billionaire owners there often times isn't a lot of value in free agency. (See Washington Redskins for example) It's the job of Joe Banner and the Cleveland Browns front office to find and create value where ever it may exists.
It's this pay versus production emphasis put forth by Banner and the Cleveland Browns front office, that is the genesis of the analytics movement within the Browns Organization. Sports analytics revolves around the use of data to influence decision making with regards to everything from scouting, play calling, and player negotiations. Analytics at the core is about taking personal preference and emotion out of decision making equation. In the case of contract negotiations it's about using raw data in order to get the most bang for your buck. There are simply too many positions on a 53 man NFL roster to fill and only so much money a team can spend, to not get value where ever and when ever you can. Analytics can also add resolve to a teams stance on a player or decision made in the midst of fan or media pressure.
This philosophy isn't just about getting the best overall value though, it's about getting production at every position. It's about helping a team's front office discern where the production is and isn't on a roster. The less a team heeds value in free agency and resigning the less production there is to go around. Banner has been saying since he came to Cleveland that it's not just the front office's job to be able to evaluate talent, but also to know how to build a team piece by piece.
Value can, however, be had in free agency if done right. It means targeting players and what their presumed values are based on their production and signing those players when their salary demands get to the right price point. A successful free agency period can take on many traits: quick action, patience, discipline, and at times it may take outmaneuvering, but it can be done.
The bottom line is no one knows how this front office is going to perform. Skepticism abounds in the hearts of many Browns fans. The time is near Browns fan as Browns CEO Joe Banner and GM Michael Lombardi's chance to prove themselves here will come shortly after the sun sets over Berea tonight. Just remember it's easy as fans to fall in love with big name acquisitions, but know that the overall success of the team comes from finding value.
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