Every fan is excited about NFL free agency and rightfully so, but keep in mind the teams which spend the most often pay the price in many ways.
This time of year, every team pays. The question is which ones pay for years.
Free agency often brings excitement as the unofficial start of the next NFL season. This is certainly true for millions of fans but also the franchise themselves, especially those with front offices either starting anew or desperately trying to keep their jobs.
And so often, there’s the problem.
The latter is especially vulnerable to splashy moves, knowing if it goes bad, they won’t be dealing with the fallout. For the former, it’s the belief a few big moves can jumpstart the program, even when drafting and dealing with growing pains is often the way to success.
There will be ample teams who convince themselves they can be the next Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That they can sign a few stars and go from 7-9 to Super Bowl champions. Of course, the obvious, unavoidable flaw in said logic is Tom Brady isn’t going anywhere.
Here is every $30+ million deal from last year’s free agency period, excluding quarterbacks, when a player switched teams:
Miami Dolphins – Byron Jones – five years, $82.5 million
Chicago Bears – Robert Quinn – five years, $70 million
Jacksonville Jaguars – Joe Schobert – five years, $57.5 million
Cincinnati Bengals – D.J. Reader – four years, $51 million
Detroit Lions – Halapoulivaati Vaitai – five years, $50 million
Atlanta Falcons – Dante Fowler Jr. – three years, $48 million
New York Giants – James Bradberry – three years, $45 million
Denver Broncos – Graham Glasgow – four years, $44 million
Cleveland Browns – Austin Hooper – four years, $42 million
Cincinnati Bengals – Trae Waynes – three years, $42 million
Cleveland Browns – Jack Conklin – three years, $42 million
Washington Football Team – Kendall Fuller – four years, $40 million
Philadelphia Eagles – Javon Hargrave – three years, $39 million
Las Vegas Raiders – Cory Littleton – three years, $36 million
Buffalo Bills – Mario Addison – three years, $30.5 million
Los Angeles Chargers – Bryan Bulaga – three years, $30 million
Arizona Cardinals – Jordan Phillips – three years, $30 million
New York Giants – Blake Martinez – three years, $30 million
Detroit Lions – Jamie Collins – three years, $30 million
All told, 19 such contracts. Only the Browns, Bears and Bills made the playoffs, and only three teams — sub out the Bears for the Dolphins — enjoyed winning 2020 campaigns.
Of the players above, only Conklin made First-Team All-Pro. Bradberry was the single Pro Bowler.
Most of the teams who went all-in last offseason went belly-up by Christmas. Cleveland is the lone exception of a franchise which spent aggressively on more than one player and felt good about its decisions, and frankly, Hooper appears an overpay.
Buffalo and Chicago did reach the postseason, but Floyd was an expensive bust while Addison was a cut candidate this offseason before restructuring. Van Noy, who actually played well for the Dolphins, was released to create cap room this winter.
While free agency is fun, and the money is staggering, it’s often a fool’s errand. The cries about needing to spend cap space is ignorance. The good teams draft quality players and then use their resources to keep them in house. The Kansas City Chiefs are such an example, paying Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Chris Jones to stay around for the foreseeable future instead of splurging on an outside option.
The smart front offices will largely eschew the big money — especially this year with the cap depressed and myriad players looking to take one-year deals — to wait for the second and third-tier veterans to sign for pennies on the dollar. That’s where the value will be.
Every team pays some price for free agency. The desperate ones, though, pay for years.
Top 10 free agents hitting the open market (and 2020 team)
1. Trent Williams, OT, San Francisco 49ers
2. Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3. Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
4. Corey Lindsley, C, Green Bay Packers
5. Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE, Baltimore Ravens
6. Joe Thuney, G, New England Patriots
7. Bud Dupree, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers
8. Shaquil Griffin, CB, Seattle Seahawks
9. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Trey Hendrickson, EDGE, New Orleans Saints
“He is our starting quarterback as of right now. He is our starting quarterback. Things happen between now and then. We’ll see what happens.”
– Houston Texans head coach David Culley on the Deshaun Watson situation
When you start hearing terms like “right now” and “we’ll see what happens,” it’s usually over.
From 1962-65, the Oakland Raiders played at Frank Youell Field. It was named for an undertaker.
Info learned this week
1. Prescott signs with Cowboys, and it lays groundwork for Jackson, Allen
Last week, we led the column with the trio of quarterbacks who will define the offseason.
Like clockwork, the Dallas Cowboys signed Dak Prescott to a four-year, $160 million deal ($126 million guaranteed) later in the afternoon. Maybe Jerry Jones reads Stacking The Box.
Quickly on Prescott, this was the right move even if two years late by Dallas. He’s a top-10 quarterback with mobility, size and arm talent. If the Cowboys are going to win soon, it’ll be because of Prescott.
More importantly from a league-wide view, this sets up the contracts of Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen.
Jackson, 24, is eligible for an extension. The Baltimore Ravens are aware it’ll likely cost somewhere around $45 million per year, now that Prescott is locked in for $40 million. Why such a hike? Prescott has won one playoff game and a single NFC East title.
Jackson is three years younger, has an MVP to his name, won two division titles, a playoff game, has never missed the postseason or a game due to injury, and he has the best record of any quarterback with at least 30 starts in league history.
As for Allen, the Buffalo Bills also realize the Prescott deal only made the younger Allen more expensive. The former first-round pick received MVP votes this year and was a Second-Team All-Pro alongside Patrick Mahomes. He has a division title, two playoff appearances and two playoff victories. Buffalo has been looking for an heir apparent to Jim Kelly for 25 years. It’s not going to lose Allen.
Prescott’s contract is now finished. The work on Allen and Jackson can now begin.
2. Chiefs set to aggressively rebuild offensive line
On Thursday morning, the Kansas City Chiefs jettisoned two of their best players.
In minutes, they released both starting tackles in Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, clearing approximately $18 million in cap space. Both were coming off surgery, with Fisher recovering from a torn Achilles and Schwartz dealing with a back injury. Both were slated for free agency in 2022.
Additionally, starting center Austin Reiter will hit free agency, something reported by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and confirmed by FanSided.
While the moves come as a minor shock — especially after general manager Brett Veach talked about both being back in August only two weeks ago — it opens up ample possibilities. It’s also somewhat telling.
Clearly, something had to be done. Schwartz and Fisher are both on the wrong side of 30 and now with injury concerns. Kansas City, after converting Mahomes’ roster bonus, is $13 million below the salary cap.
It must be noted these moves came after Veach expressed confidence in his tackles returning. It speaks to something potentially having changed between then and now. Veach has largely been a straight shooter in the past. To talk about their returns and then move on 10 days later is bizarre.
Maybe the Chiefs either had a sudden, abrupt change of heart. Or, maybe Kansas City got wind it could make improvements previously thought out of reach in free agency.
It sets up for a potentially wild week ahead for the two-time AFC champions.
3. Look for Raiders to have Chargers-feel to free agency
The NFL is all about relationships. It’s about familiarity.
In those regards, the Raiders could be taking on the look of the Los Angeles Chargers this offseason, specifically on the defensive side. After hiring coordinator Gus Bradley away from the Chargers to run the defense, Las Vegas is transitioning to a Cover 3 scheme which won’t blitz much.
In short, the style demands an excellent four-man rush and corners who don’t need safety help.
Two free agents that make ample sense in that regard? Two former Chargers stars in cornerback Casey Heyward and edge rusher Melvin Ingram.
Heyward would be a nice veteran addition to pair with youngsters Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette on the outside, while Ingram and fellow pass-rusher Maxx Crosby would serve as a quality duo against Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert.
With $24 million in cap space, the Raiders courting both is certainly possible if not probable.
4. Bengals’ plan unclear with young defenders hitting market
Every team has a reputation. It seemed the Cincinnati Bengals, long seen as cheap, were shedding theirs.
Last offseason, the team spent considerably on nose tackle D.J. Reader and cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes. Now, though, the team is allowing corner William Jackson III and edge rusher Carl Lawson to hit free agency after being productive on their rookie deals.
With quarterback Joe Burrow coming off a terrific if injury-stunted rookie campaign, the Bengals would appear wise to lock in Jackson and Lawson with their cap space. It would both bolster a struggling defense and send a message to the locker room that talent — especially home-grown — gets paid.
Instead, the message is you can perform, and we may not pay. It’s not ideal, and with Burrow coming back and offensive talent in place at the skill positions, a defensive leap might propel Cincinnati into the ranks of a playoff contender.
Maybe the Bengals still retain Jackson and Lawson during the tampering period or even outright free agency, but it shouldn’t have reached this point.
5. Packers keep Aaron Jones, undoubtedly make Rodgers happy
On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers secured their most high-profile free agent.
The team and running back Aaron Jones agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal with a relatively meager $13 million guaranteed. FanSided’s Matt Lombardo is reporting the pact is really more like $9 million annually with incentives. Regardless, while most veteran backs aren’t worth signing to long-term contracts, this is a solid bargain that, once the details are released, probably looks more like a two-year commitment.
Last offseason, much of the handwringing in Titletown revolved around the Packers failing to give Aaron Rodgers enough weaponry. The offseason has now started by keeping his best back and a dynamic receiver out of the backfield.
Green Bay could, and maybe should, have signed All-Pro center Corey Lindsley instead, but Rodgers can’t be complaining about the decision to keep such a productive player in town.
Players would be wise to go by the old saying “one in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
This year, free agency money will dry up quicker than ever. With the cap shrinking to $182.5 million, there won’t be a litany of offers, even to the best players. Talking to agents around the league in recent weeks, the expectation is stars will get paid, and the second tier will be crushed.
Last week, we saw linebackers Matt Milano and Lavonte David take good, but not exceptional, deals to stay with the Bills and Buccaneers, respectively. Perhaps each could have gotten a bit more on the market — a source told me there was an expectation of “top-dollar” for Milano — but if he got to free agency and didn’t strike quick, he could have been looking at a one-year pact.
Typically, free agency is a mad rush through the first 72 hours and then a steady stream of deals for the next 7-10 days. This year, expect the market to be white-hot at first with agents ready to make deals and teams trying to secure top talent. After that, it could be a long, long wait for established veterans as they try to extract every dollar on a short-term pact.
Inside the league
Teams looking for receivers will find value both in free agency and the draft. The opposite is true at tight end.
Perhaps no position is more limited in upgrade opportunities this offseason, making the good options all the more valuable. In free agency, it’s Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith of the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans, respectively.
One league source tells FanSided it’s believed Henry is looking for $13 million annually, which would put him third for the position behind George Kittle and Travis Kelce.
Beyond Henry and Smith, keep an eye on Zach Ertz. The three-time Pro Bowler is still with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he’ll either be cut or traded soon. Per source, the two sides had brief extension talks which went nowhere in the summer, and it’s been clear since 2020 would be his last season in Philadelphia. If he gets to market, he’ll have ample suitors.
Finally, the draft offers little beyond Florida’s Kyle Pitts. One general manager tells FanSided that after Pitts, the position “blows at tight end minus the Florida kid.”
If your team needs a tight end, best not to wait around.
The NFL granted unrestricted free agency to players for the first time in 1993.
How different was the league then? The salary cap was $32 million. That year, the Packers stunned the football world by landing defensive end Reggie White on a monster four-year, $17 million contract. These days, you can a rotational safety for that price.
Plenty of positions will fly off the board in the early hours of free agency. Quarterback won’t be one of them.
Teams in need of a starting signal-caller will almost certainly wait until the draft, where the crop is both deep and intriguing. It’s led by Trevor Lawrence, but most believe he’ll be followed by four likely first-round picks in Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Justin Fields (Ohio State), Zach Wilson (BYU) and Mac Jones (Alabama) in some order.
Considering Lawrence to the Jacksonville Jaguars is essentially etched in granite, the excitement stems from who else will find their potential future.
The New York Jets could stick with Sam Darnold or go with a quarterback at No. 2 overall. If they retain Darnold, look for a trade-down scenario. The Carolina Panthers would be an idea partner, as they’ve been sniffing around the quarterback market all offseason. Another potential fit would be the San Francisco 49ers, although unlike the Panthers at No. 8, the Niners would be leaping up from 12th.
Other teams that may be looking for a change at quarterback include the Atlanta Falcons (4th), Denver Broncos (9th), New England Patriots (15th), Washington Football Team (19th), Chicago Bears (20th) and Pittsburgh Steelers (24th).
In short, there’s no shortage of suitors for the quarterbacks who will fly off the board higher than their projected talent — prodigious as it might be — suggests they should.