INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The big surprise is the last few days somehow still felt surprising.
Weird, isn't it? How the days before the NFL's franchise-tag deadline annually shock, amaze and most of all disappoint NFL fans – Jaguars fans very much included.
Yes, as the NFL gathered here for the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, free-agency dreams once again were dashed. That dashing came in rapid-fire fashion Monday and Tuesday, with a slew of players who would have drawn league-wide interest – some of whom actually would have helped new teams – kept off the market.
Teams kept players from hitting free agency by using the league's franchise tag, or by re-signing players to long-term contracts:
*Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end, New York Giants. Franchised.
*Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington Redskins. Franchised.
*Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City Chiefs. Signed six-year, $78 million deal.
*Melvin Ingram, outside linebacker, San Diego Chargers. Franchised.
*Le'Veon Bell, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers. Franchised.
*Chandler Jones, defensive end, Arizona Cardinals. Franchised.
All were gone from the potential free-agent market within a 48-hour period, and their departure dwarfed all other NFL news in recent days, including the notable news that the Minnesota Vikings had declined to exercise an option for running back Adrian Peterson.
That means Peterson likely will become a free agent, and the Kansas City Chiefs made a ripple of news Tuesday when they released running back Jamaal Charles, but two aging, recently-injured backs into the free agent pool hardly overrides a most familiar offseason trend:
Once again those Top 50 free-agent lists that seemed so exciting in early January now are a whole lot less enticing. And once again, we are faced with the truest lesson in the NFL:
If you want to build and succeed, then you better draft well.
That's because winning in the NFL is about putting together a group of core players who can form the foundation of your franchise – a quarterback and five-to-seven-ish other players – and who lead by performance on the field and action off it. Those core players are brutally difficult to find. Once found, they define your franchise. Find them, and you have a chance to succeed. Fail to find them and you likely are destined to years or frustration and floundering.
And here's why this matters today, as the franchise tag deadline passes, and as the giddiness of free agency approaches with next week's March 9 start of the new league year:
Those foundation players? Those core guys?
You don't find them in free agency. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are excruciatingly rare – and Monday and Tuesday again showed why.
All teams in the NFL know the formula. All teams realize the value of truly special players, the ones that shape an organization and mold a team's future. And teams simply do not often let them go, particularly when those players are in their primes.
Yes, there might be posturing and negotiating. A pass rusher such as Pierre-Paul might get close to free agency, as was the case this season. A quarterback such as Cousins might seem destined to perhaps – maybe, just maybe – hit the market, also as was the case this season. And a game-changer such as Berry and a team such as the Chiefs might say enough publicly that fans of other teams dare to dream.
The reality? The free-agency dream isn't a dream at all. Rather, it's a nightmare – at least if you're thinking that free-agency millions are going to change the direction of a franchise.
Free-agent signings absolutely can help, and there's every chance they will help the Jaguars next week. It's easy to see a scenario under which the Jaguars add an interior offensive lineman who matters quite a lot next season, and the veteran cornerback market is such that quality can be found there.
But you don't find a franchise quarterback. You don't find build-around players such as Jalen Ramsey. You must draft to get those things, and you have to have those things.
What you find are players who are available for a reason. As General Manager David Caldwell said earlier this week, free-agency often is more of a bandage than a foundation builder, and for every player such as Malik Jackson and Paul Posluszny – the best two high-profile free agents on the Jaguars' roster – there are at least that many cases such as Jared Odrick and Julius Thomas, ballyhooed 2015 free agents no longer in the team's plans.
The lesson isn't new, and it's one NFL personnel types long have known. Yet, it's one that's easy to forget with the millions that will be spent in the next few weeks and the breathless giddiness that will accompany that spending. The lesson?
Use free agency for pieces here and there, but don't think it's going to be your long-term plan. And always realize that what matters when building a roster is the process that in a sense begins this week at the combine: the NFL draft. Draft well, grow talent. Find foundation pieces, develop them. It isn't easy, but it's the way.
Do that, and the days leading to free agency won't matter enough to be surprising or disappointing.