Even though free agency hasn't technically started (Legal tampering period starts at midnight tonight), we've already gotten news of several important re-signings and deals.
With those deals come critics, especially fans and analysts crying about player X getting overpaid.
It's not new, or unexpected. It happens every single offseason. Some veteran player gets a big-money deal and people cry overpaid. Sometimes is a team picking up a free agent off the market, sometimes it's a team re-signing its own guys. But no matter what, every offseason, someone is going to be overpaid.
Because every free agent gets overpaid.
The way the NFL is set up is simple: young players on rookie deals get underpaid if they make it in the league, but get rewarded with big deals if they prove their worth. These deals make up for the 3-4 years of being "underpaid."
Look up any list of "underpaid" players or players who are big "value" guys: they're all on their rookie deals. Every once in a while you get a guy like Reggie Wayne, a "last ride" veteran who comes in for a discounted price for a contender (Or hometown discount, loyalty contracts, etc.) and doesn't decline as much as expected. Or sometimes you can pick up a guy like Darius Butler, who's been cut and finds a home in a different scheme or under different coaches. But other than those type of scenarios, underpaid players are on their rookie deals.
This is true now even moreso in the past, when first round picks got big deals before they'd actually played in the league.
I mean, it makes sense.
Draft picks are unknowns. Even some of the most lauded picks turn out to be busts, and are bit players or out of the league in three years. It doesn't make sense to give them huge deals right off the bat. Even with the small deals, turns out that a lot of them can't make it in the NFL. A lot of them get cut and will be forced to travel the league trying to earn a spot.
But for the ones that make it, the ones that get into a regular rotation and prove themselves, they'll get their big contract. If they've been playing well for the last four years, they've been getting underpaid, but that big new contract will make up for it. That's the contract that will set them up for life.
Even the little guys, the players that get playing but aren't worth more than the league minimum? They'll get a raise too, as the minimum increases as player's career gets longer.
The simple fact is that young, drafted players are cheaper than free agents. It's how the league works. If you sign somebody in free agency, there's probably someone else in the league, still on their rookie deal, who is just as good but is getting paid way less.
That's the argument for saying someone like Brian Hartline is overpaid. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this over the last two days: "Why would you pay Brian Hartline $6 million per year when you can just draft a 5/6th rounder and get the same production?"
The answer to that is simple: Hartline is known. That's what you pay for in free agency. You pay for a known quantity.
The draft isn't known. Drafting, in fact, is a lot harder than people think. You can't just say: "Well, we're going to let Hartline walk and replace him with a generic 5/6th round receiver."
It doesn't work that way. 94 receivers have been drafted in the 5/6th rounds over the last decade. 14 have gotten to 1000 career yards. Even if you look at the entire draft in the last decade, less than one third of the receivers taken have reached 1083 career yards (the amount Hartline gained in 2012). Keep in mind, these are career starters, or even average receivers. These are simply receivers who have reached at least 1000 yards in their entire career.
So yeah, if you can find that one receiver in every seven drafted in the 5th or 6th round, then go for it. But you can't count on that. It's a risk.
If you can consistently draft well, and get production from these young players on rookie deals, well then you're set. That's how the Colts were so successful during the Polian/Manning period. They were able to pay Hall of Fame talents like Manning, Harrison, and Freeney because they consistently found production in the draft and in UFAs.
Hopefully, that's what this next regime can eventually do. But not yet. It's not going to start in 2013, because the Colts have $43 million dollars to spend. It has to be spent, so they may as well use it to find some quality talent in free agency.
But make no mistake, whoever they find, whoever they sign to a big contract, whether it be an offensive lineman, linebacker, defensive back, or receiver, they'll be overpaid.
The key is finding someone that will be overpaid, but will still be a productive asset to the team. Samson Satele was not a "good" sign, because he's overpaid and is a liability. Robert Mathis is overpaid, but is still a solid pass rusher (Although, with an eleven million dollar cap hit in 2013, I'd like to see more production).
The Colts are rumored to be targeting free agents on the high end at outside linebacker (Kruger) and offensive lineman. Personally, I think giving an oversized contract to Andy Levitre is a safer bet than an oversized contract to Paul Kruger (who I think has a chance to flame out, a la Connor Barwin).
No matter what happens, the Colts are going to overpay. Don't be too upset when a contract sounds like too much money for a certain player. If they do their scouting and are accurate in their player assessments, it won't matter.