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NFL Team Spending In Free Agency

In yesterday’s post on free agency I looked at the availability and amount spent on players by position. Today I am going to turn my attention to what teams have spent on free agents and what is the return the teams received. In case you missed the first post the criteria we have for a free agent is that the players must have switched teams (cut players are included), not have been tagged, and signed between March and May, which are typically considered the free agent months in the NFL.

First let’s look at the total amount of annual contract values doled out by teams from 2017 to 2020 and compare that to their winning percentage of the same time frame.

Of the biggest spenders in the NFL only the Bills and the Bears have been above 0.500 over the four year period while the Colts have been exactly 0.500. Some of the big spenders have also shown some false positives at times with the Jaguars and 49ers both having a deep playoff run around some bad years. The Browns this past year could fall into that same category as well. The results run in line with some of the things discussed in our free agency guide which is that bad teams generally spend a lot on free agents and that the return on the players is usually, at best, a one year type of bump.

What if we change the input to the amount of money spent per player in free agency?

Here at least we do get a handful of teams who, while they may not spend a lot in total, do have some success by spending more on fewer players. Of course there are plenty who are in the wrong direction here too. Its worth noting the big slides for some of the teams that spend a lot overall but not on a per player basis. The Bills, Bears, Lions, Raiders, 49ers all fall into the below the average spending pool which goes to the massive volume of free agents they have had to sign. Those teams all had front office/coaching turnover as well which probably led to many changes.

What if we exclude smaller contracts and only look at signings of players for more than $5 million a season?

As far as overall team performance the Jets have basically been the laughingstock of the NFL. They have added $171 million in annual contract value via free agency the second highest number in the NFL, and have produced just 18 wins, tied for lowest in the NFL. They are spending about $9.5 million per win. The next worst team (the Lions) is at $7 million per win. It is terrible and expect another spending spree this year. Hopefully they will get at least the one year bump out of it. Besides the Jets, the other teams with the least bang for the buck have been the already mentioned Lions, Jaguars ($7M per win), Giants ($6.8M), Raiders ($6.7M) and Browns ($6.2M). These six teams are the only teams whose contract additions vs wins cost more than $5 million a win.

The Steelers have by far spent the least in the NFL adding just $42 million to the team. Dallas is the next lowest spender at $66 million, followed by the Patriots, Falcons, and Ravens as teams not adding much overall in free agency. Considering the Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens have been so successful it is no surprise that their low spending has produced the best value. The Rams and Chiefs would be the other two teams to get great bang for the buck.

The Packers average investment (total value divided by number of years) worked out to an NFL high $7.5 million per player, so while they are not the biggest of spenders they have mainly spent on very expensive talent. The Vikings were next at $7 million, fueled in large part by the Kirk Cousins signing. The Jaguars spent $6.6 million, the Jets were at $6.3 million and the Broncos got into the action at $6.2 million.

Seattle’s average worked out to just $2.75 million a year so they are living in the low tier player range and generally look more at trades to add value. Dallas was next at $2.8 million with the Patriots, Eagles, and Steelers rounding out the bottom five. The Eagles number really surprised me. None of the others did.

As far as average dollars per player the Packers were again tops at $5.5 million with the Broncos jumping to the number 2 spot at $5.3 million. The Rams were at almost $5 million followed by the Bucs at $4.9 million and Vikings at $4.8 million. The Patriots were at the bottom of the NFL at just $2.2 million. The Cowboys, Seahawks, Saints, and Eagles were the other teams in the bottom five.

Here is the full list for each team (clicking on the column header should make it sort).

TeamFA SigningsTotal of Annual Contract ValueTotal Contract ValueYearsAverage Per YearAverage/ PlayerWinsWin %Annual Value/Win
Bills53$174,935,834$457,140,000103$4,438,252$3,300,676380.594$4,603,575
Jets43$170,877,500$463,027,50073$6,342,842$3,973,895180.281$9,493,194
Raiders56$168,286,666$389,397,50086$4,527,878$3,005,119250.391$6,731,467
Lions47$161,990,000$444,727,50081$5,490,463$3,446,596230.367$7,043,043
Jaguars36$153,838,333$494,065,00075$6,587,533$4,273,287220.344$6,992,652
Bears44$153,004,733$390,921,40074$5,282,722$3,477,380330.516$4,636,507
Browns34$148,064,999$436,225,00076$5,739,803$4,354,853240.383$6,169,375
Dolphins32$135,767,778$349,971,94558$6,033,999$4,242,743280.438$4,848,849
Panthers35$133,779,166$320,702,50063$5,090,516$3,822,262280.438$4,777,827
Giants37$123,082,500$298,007,50059$5,050,975$3,326,554180.281$6,837,917
Colts26$117,142,500$197,117,50039$5,054,295$4,505,481320.500$3,660,703
49ers37$114,168,667$333,152,00070$4,759,314$3,085,640290.453$3,936,851
Cardinals29$112,406,667$237,560,00050$4,751,200$3,876,092240.383$4,683,611
Broncos21$112,154,167$311,800,00050$6,236,000$5,340,675230.359$4,876,268
Buccaneers22$109,233,334$248,775,00042$5,923,214$4,965,152280.438$3,901,191
Saints38$106,759,167$273,912,50068$4,028,125$2,809,452490.766$2,178,759
Titans30$106,071,667$304,680,00057$5,345,263$3,535,722380.594$2,791,360
Packers19$104,100,000$293,600,00039$7,528,205$5,478,947390.617$2,669,231
Football Team28$97,236,000$294,593,50056$5,260,598$3,472,714240.375$4,051,500
Vikings19$91,579,167$265,995,00038$6,999,868$4,819,956380.602$2,409,978
Texans24$91,095,000$195,220,00040$4,880,500$3,795,625290.453$3,141,207
Seahawks34$86,619,167$121,105,00044$2,752,386$2,547,623420.656$2,062,361
Chiefs24$84,065,000$198,332,50036$5,509,236$3,502,708480.750$1,751,354
Rams15$74,516,016$137,467,04127$5,091,372$4,967,734430.672$1,732,931
Chargers15$71,671,667$176,580,00029$6,088,966$4,778,111330.516$2,171,869
Bengals16$71,475,000$176,900,00030$5,896,667$4,467,188190.305$3,761,842
Eagles25$70,947,983$138,364,65035$3,953,276$2,837,919350.555$2,027,085
Ravens17$68,968,333$207,210,00036$5,755,833$4,056,961440.688$1,567,462
Falcons23$66,593,333$143,185,00035$4,091,000$2,895,362280.438$2,378,333
Patriots29$66,445,000$148,120,00042$3,526,667$2,291,207430.672$1,545,233
Cowboys26$65,970,833$102,270,00036$2,840,833$2,537,340330.516$1,999,116
Steelers12$42,493,333$99,785,00025$3,991,400$3,541,111420.664$1,011,746

Check out our Free Agency Guide, Available for Purchase or Included with a Premium Subscription

The Most Popular Positions in Free Agency

With the start of free agency a few weeks away I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at what positions are usually big movers in free agency and which ones are not. To do this I went back and looked at all signings from 2017 to 2020 and grouped them by position. To qualify for inclusion a player had to meet the following criteria:

  1. Must have signed with a new team
  2. Was not tendered by the prior team
  3. Signed a contract between March and May (i.e. the free agency period)

Players who were terminated from a prior contract and were street free agents were counted in the numbers. So with that criteria in mind here is what we wound up with.

PositionPlayers SignedTotal Annual ValueTotal Contract ValueTotal YearsAverage Contract Per Year
WR117$418,895,001$978,267,500197$4,965,825
CB99$393,458,327$1,051,449,995177$5,940,395
LB99$315,239,166$770,872,500164$4,700,442
EDGE87$355,347,501$875,362,500148$5,914,611
IDL83$363,575,830$844,962,497157$5,381,927
G80$272,122,500$771,440,000154$5,009,351
S76$266,356,303$744,246,495148$5,028,693
TE66$192,896,834$439,936,000111$3,963,387
QB65$307,328,550$625,886,05096$6,519,646
RB63$153,251,166$324,219,50097$3,342,469
RT36$165,857,500$464,657,50068$6,833,199
C26$93,690,832$279,752,49949$5,709,235
LT16$92,207,500$312,507,50036$8,680,764
K13$32,552,500$79,965,00028$2,855,893
FB11$19,097,500$50,262,50021$2,393,452
P6$10,397,500$29,855,00015$1,990,333
LS3$3,065,000$6,267,5006$1,044,583

By far the most popular position in free agency are wide receivers. We have a record of 117 players switching teams between 2017 and 2020, an average of nearly 30 players per year. The average annual value of the group was just under $5 million with the average contract size being around $3.6 million.

Cornerback was tied for second with linebacker but blew linebacker away financially. Over $1 billion in contract value was allocated to corners with the average contract coming up to nearly $6 million a season and $4 million per year being the average contract size. Though there were less players at corner than wide receiver it was the corner that was considered the better level of player.

Linebacker also had the same number of players switch teams but at an average of $4.7 million per year and $3.18 million per player it is nowhere near the financial investment of the top two positions.

87 Edge rushers have switched teams and like corners they are expensive. The average per year of the group worked out to be $5.9 million and the average player cost about $4.1 million. Similar to corner these would be considered high quality free agents.

Rounding out the top 5 is the interior defensive line with 83 changes. The average contract value here worked out to $5.4 million but the $4.4 million per year average player cost was a super strong number. Why was this so high? Generally the defensive line does not have the crazy top end contracts signed in free agency. Those big long term contracts drive the numbers up for the group. However the overall quality of these players is very strong and they dont have the lower cost players that drag the numbers down.

The special teams positions see the least movement with fullback being the positional group with the least amount signed. This is not surprising since few teams actually even use a full back.

Only 16 left tackles switched teams. While there is not a need for the amount of players at this position I actually thought the numbers would be higher. The average contract value is huge at $8.7 million and nearly $5.8 million spent per player so the players who do make it to free agency are getting paid very well.

Looking at the numbers this way can help teams with planning and possibly explain some reasons why teams do what they do in the draft.

Clearly it is hard to find a left tackle in free agency which is one of the reasons why this should be a draft first position. Free agency doesnt have the number of players needed to plan on filling a void and you will likely wind up in a bidding war for the players. Guard, on the other hand, is a position where you can plan to use free agency to find players.

You can definitely find a lot of players on defense. This is one of the reasons why teams that have invested in defense in free agency have generally outperformed those who spent similarly on offense in free agency (we break this down in our OTC free agency guide). While you may not have access to the top pass rushers you can certainly find complementary players at edge and a number of good players at defensive tackle who are simply not the top tier pass rush types. You should definitely be able to add tons of depth at corner and starters.

Looking at the Trade Options For Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson’s agent made a statement today to ESPN that indicated while his client has not made a trade request, he would entertain offers to four specific teams if the Seahawks did want to trade him.

It is a bit of an odd statement to make and one that seems to be a subtle way of saying that Wilson would not mind being traded this year. Trading Wilson would be very expensive for the Seahawks due to the structure of the contract. Wilson received a gigantic $65 million signing bonus in 2019 when he signed a four year extension with Seattle.  The Seahawks would owe $39 million to the salary cap if they traded him, a loss of $7 million, pushing the Seahawks over the salary cap for 2021 and in the market for a QB. So odds are this trade is not even a remote possibility but for the sake of answering questions I’ll be getting about the trade anyway let’s look at the four teams he mentioned.

Option 1: Cowboys

Why it makes sense for Dallas: Dallas is a win-now team that is currently in the middle of a contract dispute of sorts with Dak Prescott and are looking at a $37.69 million salary cap charge and cash payment for Prescott on  the tag. If they come to a long term agreement the price should be in the ballpark of $38-$40 million a season and that would cover Dallas from 2021 to 2024. Wilson would only cost $19 million this year and $70 million over from 2021 to 2023, an average of just $23.3 million. This takes the Cowboys out of the contract game with Prescott and gives them cheap stability for a player many would consider better, albeit older than, Prescott.

Why it does not make sense for Dallas: Prescott is just 28 years old and conceivably could have at least 8 good seasons with the Cowboys.  Wilson is 33 and Dallas would have to look to re-up him when he is 36 years old. They went down that route with Tony Romo years ago and it was a disaster as his body broke down.

What would be the cost: Seattle really would need a starting QB and Dallas does not have one. Most likely this would be pretty complicated with Dallas having to tag Prescott just for the purpose of trading him, which really is not the way things are supposed to work. Dallas would need to give Prescott’s agent the ability to negotiate direct with Seattle and come to terms on a contract extension. That makes almost no sense for Seattle unless Dallas picks up some of the cost as relief for Seattle having prepaid so much of the Wilson contract. That would still be cheaper for Dallas than signing Prescott to a new contract. I’m not sure Seattle could ask for much more than Prescott in a straight up trade. If the numbers worked out financially this is probably a fair trade for both sides.

Option 2: Saints

Why it makes sense for New Orleans: The Saints are a Super Bowl quality roster lacking a true quarterback with Drew Brees likely retiring. A trade for Wilson would make the Saints the NFC favorites and a deadly offense with Wilson, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and a good offensive line. The Saints could lower Wilson’s cap charge as low as $4.66 million making it one of the few contracts that could fit in their nightmarish salary cap situation.

Why it does not make sense for New Orleans: There is nothing that all that should be looked at as a downside for New Orleans in the short term. Long term the trade cost could be so high that the team is effectively selling out the franchise for the next three seasons to maximize their window with this core group of players.

What would be the cost: It is hard to come up with a realistic cost here that would make Seattle happy. The Saints do not have a QB to offer unless the Seahawks were a believer in Taysom Hill. Their top pick in the draft is number 28 which is useless for a team that would be in need of a QB. Basically you would likely have to trade your number 1 pick for the next three seasons plus more. In a sense you are going to sell out the future of the team  which could look ugly two or three years from now when Wilson is nearing the end of his contract and you are still trotting out the same group of players who will now all be in their 30s

Option 3: Raiders

Why it makes sense for Las Vegas: Wilson would be an upgrade over Derek Carr. Las Vegas has been trying since they hired Jon Gruden to find a faster recipe for success using free agency and this would be the fastest track to relevance. The raiders have some nice parts on the team and can create cap room to continue to add in free agency. In a strong year for free agent wide receivers they could conceivably add some good starters to be able to compete with the more explosive teams in the AFC West.

Why it does not make sense for Las Vegas: While Wilson makes the Raiders relevant I am not sure it makes them a playoff team. They have a ton of holes on the team and should be in a very competitive division. Even with Wilson they would not be as good as Kansas City and their standing with the Chargers would likely depend on the growth of the QB. They would certainly be in competition for the playoffs but is the short term playoff appearance worth the long terms costs?

What would be the cost: The Raiders do have two quarterbacks that they could trade over to Seattle with Carr being the more likely player that Seattle would be interested in. Carr costs $19.6 million this year and $19.9 million in 2022 which is fair value but would leave Seattle in a bind with the cap. It would make sense to have Oakland pay Carr about $10 million before a trade. I would look at this a bit like the Lions/Rams trade with Seattle asking for two first rounders and Carr. The Raiders have the 17th pick in the draft this year which I think would be included plus a future 1 and maybe a mid round pick.

Option 4: Bears

Why it makes sense for Chicago: The Bears are desperate for a QB. The last two years the team has trotted out Mitchell Trubisky, Nick Foles, and Chase Daniel as starters and amazingly backed into the playoffs this year. Wilson would give them such a huge boost at the position and likely position them to have the top QB in the division for the next three years with Green Bay likely moving on from Aaron Rodgers at some point.

Why it does not make sense for Chicago: The window in Chicago is pretty much closed at this point. The team has drafted poorly and their better veterans are on the wrong side of the age curve. Trading for Wilson would basically force the team into a massive extension for Allen Robinson and lots of restructured/extended contracts for players most teams would be looking at more as a one year contributor rather than a long term answer. This could very easily be a one year push and then a salary cap disaster where they struggle even with the top QB. To be honest I am not even sure why Wilson would consider this situation.  

What would be the cost: I guess they would send over Nick Foles as part of a deal but that is a pretty low level starter. Their draft pick is in the same range as the Saints (they have number 20)  so I think the cost is the same here with the three first round picks which would basically put Chicago in a really tight situation with their cap.

From the Seahawks perspective, other than landing Prescott, I can not come up with a reason for why Seattle would trade Wilson. They already paid him a lot of money and have a team that needs a quality QB right now. They might talk themselves into Carr if the situation got bad enough but Foles and Hill would not even be remotely close to what they need. Seattle already mortgaged their future to acquire Jamal Adams and moving on from Wilson in almost every scenario would require a complete change in direction.

Seattle just needs to smooth over whatever hurt feelings their were from the coaches comments that insinuated they shouldn’t pass as much as they did and map out for Wilson what they have in mind for improving their offensive line and roster around Wilson. Both sides are probably better off together than apart.

Is Marcus Mariota Tradeable?

Last season the Las Vegas Raiders signed former number 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota to a two year contract with an outside chance that the team could bench Derek Carr at some point and insert Mariota into the lineup. As things worked out Carr had a solid season, seemed to entrench himself as the starter and Mariota only appeared in one game, which would seem to make him expendable this season. He had been rumored as a trade possibility but the guys at NFL Now seemed to say that the trades have hit a snag in the road.

A number of things work against the Raiders trade of Mariota. One is his salary which is $10.725 million this year. While that is relatively cheap for a starter Mariota falls into that no mans land of not being much more than an expected one year stopgap. Salaries for those type of players are much lower, generally not exceeding $7 or $8 million.

Rapoport alluded to the incentives in his contract also being a problem and that is something that I also discussed on the podcast. However the number itself may be a little overblown. Mariota has a pretty complex contract that was basically designed to pay him based on participation and wins but doing it in a manner that essentially capped off the incentives at one year. Since Mariota barely played last year all those incentives exist this season.

Mariota’s incentives are more player friendly than most players. Typical incentives are for cumulative playtime. For example 60% playtime on the year gets you $3 million, 70% gets you $4 million, and so on. This gives the teams a level of control of the outcome if the player busts as they can just sit him as the season goes on to help ensure he hits the lower numbers.

Mariota’s incentives are effectively massive per game bonuses designed to avoid a cap hit. While this is not entirely unique to Mariota it is a much stronger incentive for a player. He earns $625,000 for each game he plays a significant amount of time, up to a maximum of $7.5 million. This clause at the least would make Mariota’s salary in the $15 million range for a team looking for him to start since it would probably take a half a year to pull the plug. He can earn up to $1.875 million for wins. This total number likely wont be reached (he would need 12 wins to achieve it) but 6 wins would get half the number so we just keep adding to the price. The rest of the money alluded to in the video clip is incentives for playoffs. That should not be a concern since for most teams they would be happy to pay the player if he leads them to a Super Bowl.

The bottom line would be if you thought Mariota was a playoff quality QB you should be willing to trade for him. If he isn’t, financially it makes no sense.

Mariota’s trade prospects grow dimmer when you look at free agency this year and the Raiders cap situation. Free Agency is loaded with stopgap kind of players. In our free agency guide we identified Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Mitchell Trubisky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyrod Taylor, and Andy Dalton as the top stopgap types. Each should have a far lower price tag than Mariota and can be signed for no draft compensation.

It is also worth noting that while the Raiders do have a lot of salary cap flexibility their number right now is nearly $20 million over the cap. While they will have no issues getting under, saving $11.4 million for a bench player is a likely move for a team with so many holes. That would give teams access to him for no compensation and likely a more team friendly contract.

As for who might trade for that contract? It is probably very few teams. In hindsight I think last year the Raiders wound up misreading the market for QBs when Newton and Winston sat around forever and signed for pennies. Mariota should have been in that same discussion. So basically 31 teams last year has a chance at Mariota and took a pass on this type of contract.

For those teams to now want him on that contract you would likely need to have seen a fundamental change at QB from 2020 to 2021 and you still see yourself as a playoff team. Would would fit that description? In no particular order I would guess the Bears, Broncos, 49ers, Eagles, and Football Team.

I doubt Denver and LV would be trade partners so we can throw them out. San Francisco already has an expensive, keep your fingers crossed he can be healthy, type of QB. I cant picture the Eagles going this route. So basically the cap strapped Bears and the Football Team. That is probably the realistic market and both can find cheaper options if they want in free agency.

So it is kind of hard to see a trade when you add it all up. The cost is high. There are plenty of other options available. The Raiders likely are not going to pay him again as an insurance policy against Carr nor are the Raiders picking up any of the salary to buy a late pick. My guess is we see Marcus Mariota the free agent in a few weeks rather than news of a big trade.

The OTC 2021 Free Agency Guide is Now Available

Panthers Open Up More Cap Space

The Panthers cleared $4.69 million in cap space by restructuring the contract of Matt Paradis. The team converted $7 million of Paradis’ salary into a signing bonus to prorate that money over three years. Of those three years, two are void years. If the Panthers do not come to terms on Paradis on an extension by around the time of next years Super Bowl he will leave them with $8.69 million in dead money charges.

The Panthers were no longer in bad shape with their salary cap following the releases of Kawaan Short ($8.6 million saved), Steven Weatherly, ($5.9 million saved), and Michael Palardy ($1.9 million). Tre Boston was also informed he will be released and it looks as if the team is holding off on that move to make it a June 1 cut. By using a June 1 cut the Panthers will create $3.5 million rather than just under $1 million in cap room over the summer. That is money that can be used to sign rookies after the draft.

Carolina now has around $31 million in estimated salary cap space, 8th most in the NFL. This move, which was not really necessary at this time, likely signals that the Panthers are going to be pretty aggressive in free agency this year. If they wind up restructuring the contracts of Shaq Thompson and/or Christian McCaffrey that would definitely be a strong signal to the NFL that they will be a big player in free agency.