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Top Remaining Free Agents on Defense

I took a look at the top 10 available offensive players the other day and wanted to look at the defense. The defense is a much larger group so I made my choices for the top 20 but probably could have easily gone 30 deep. There are plenty of good pass rushers, corners, and safeties that should be available to teams this summer and during the season.

1. Jadeveon Clowney, Edge Rusher

One of the most surprising free agents in recent memory Clowney really checks off almost every box that makes teams usually go crazy in free agency but it just hasn’t been there for Clowney this year. Clowney’s primary negative is that his sack numbers are not going to match the expectations which combined with some injury potential may have made teams afraid of a big deal. The question I have at this point is will he look for a team that is featured a lot nationally to showcase or go for the biggest money offer?  The big money might be around $10 million but probably less for a better team.

2. Everson Griffen, Edge Rusher

Griffin bounced back big in 2019 which allowed him to void his contract. You can pretty much pencil Griffen in for 8 sacks a season and he is an every down player which makes him a real bargain this late in free agency. He certainly tracks with the other veterans who have signed in recent years for $7+ million, but it will likely be less than that at this stage. Every contender with a need on the edge should take a close look.

3. Logan Ryan, Cornerback

Another surprising available option, Ryan looked to be one of the better corners available but may have fallen victim to initial high contract demands and a pretty big group of available corners. It was clear that the market for the older corner wasn’t there this year when Chris Harris signed for $8.5 million. He has been linked to the Jets, who are desperate for help in the secondary, but at what price? I would guess around $6 million which is probably enticing enough to attract Ryan to a team not considered a playoff team.

4. Eric Reid, Safety

Had the Panthers not gone into cleaning house mode Reid probably would have kept his starting job and still be under contract this season. Reid is still pretty young and teams should expect a bounce back season. For a team with help needed in the secondary he would be a good addition at a pretty low cost.

5. Markus Golden, Edge Rusher

Golden pretty much did everything right last year making the most of a “prove it” year with the Giants, but teams have remained lukewarm on Golden this year. Golden has probably gotten tagged with lucking his way into some sacks last season, but still players like Golden usually get multiple opportunities at reasonable offers. The Giants tendered Golden so he may wind up back in New York on another one year contract.

6. Brandon Carr, Cornerback

Carr fits the mold of the solid dependable veteran. There probably is not a chance of a great season but for a team in need of a quality veteran Carr should be able to step in immediately as a third option. Prince Amukamara recently signing for the minimum may give an idea as to the market for Carr. A perfect fit for a playoff contender looking to load up on affordable options in coverage. I could see Carr as an in-season signing if he is looking for a contending option.

7. Cameron Wake, Edge Rusher

While Wake is nearing the end of his career he should still be able to get after the passer as a situational player.  The one year with the Titans did end up bad and likely hurt his standing around the NFL, but I would think he is worth a low cost flier. At the least he should be a good locker room example as someone who really battled hard to not just get into the NFL but to become one of the most consistent rushers of the last 10 years.

8. Damon Harrison, Defensive Tackle

“Snacks” has been so highly touted for years that his lack of interest has certainly been a surprise. Teams don’t generally go overboard for run defenders but Harrison still remains one of the game’s better defenders in that area. He may have been hurt by the talk of retirement at the end of last season which could lead some to question if they are getting Harrison at his best or not.

9. Tramon Williams, Cornerback

Probably the same situational fit as Carr with the exception here being that Williams is even older at 38. While there is the fear that he can fall apart at any time this is a nice player to have as a third option especially if you put him in there with a young group of players he can mentor.

10. Aqib Talib, Cornerback

This is the high upside, high risk player available in the secondary. Talib has had a very good career and was good until last season where he only appeared in 5 games due to injury. There were concerns as to how he looked over those five games but if he is fully healthy and those games were an outlier this will be the best pick up of the bunch.

11. Nigel Bradham, Linebacker

Bradham’s outcome may be tied to what teams are looking for in a linebacker. If they are looking for a traditional player that can attack the line and cut off outside runs on a regular basis he probably is not the guy. If you are looking for assistance in covering running backs out of the backfield he would be a nice veteran pickup.

12. Darqueze Dennard, Cornerback

Dennard never lived up to the potential but in a league where Eli Apple just got a late opportunity for $3 million I’m surprised that Dennard has not gotten a look. He is hurt too often which damages his stock, but there is enough here to take a gamble on him for a year to play in the slot.

13. Timmy Jernigan, Defensive Line

Jernigan had agreed to terms with the Texans but the pending contract was ultimately never finalized. Jernigan is a good talent who is still young and probably has a few years of football ahead of him but the problem is he is too often hurt.  It’s a high upside potential but what is the right cost is the question now that he is back in free agency.

14. Ross Cockrell, Cornerback

Cockrell played over 65% of the defensive snaps for the Panthers last season and has been a solid journeyman corner who can fit in plenty of schemes and provide a boost to a coverage unit. There won’t be much upside with Cockrell but the downside isn’t terrible. He could be a good pick up during the year if things go that long.

 15. Vinny Curry, Edge Rusher

The problem for Curry has always been that when he has been given an expanded opportunity he has never really given expanded performance. But when you play Curry in the kind of role he excels at- pure pass rushing downs- there are few better. In terms of talent he deserves to be higher but too many people put weight on what he cant do rather than focusing on what he can do. Would be a great pick up for a team with a weak pass rush.

16. Terrell Suggs, Edge Rusher

The “old man” certainly still has it and could probably play until he is 45 if he wanted to. Suggs is probably a better option than Wake and many others on this list, but I dropped Suggs this far because I think there are questions about who he will and will not play for. That probably limits his market especially if the feeling is he only wants a call from the Ravens or Chiefs.

17. Jabaal Sheard, Edge Rusher

Sheard comes off a bad season with the Colts but he is the type of veteran that usually gets picked up in the middle of camp, maybe gets released for the first week to avoid  a full salary guarantee and then comes back. Id lean toward him reuniting with a coach who is familiar with him and goes to bat to bring him in.

18. Mike Daniels, Defensive Line

Daniels’ has probably been hurt by the pandemic preventing workouts for a team. This would be a pure hope signing if he comes in during camp. Daniels has been a solid higher end player on the line for years, but the last two years have been wrecked by injury and for many that will be enough to pass on. He may be a player who gets looked at by a playoff team during the season.

19. Marqui Christian, Safety

An all around player that can play both safety positions and chip in at corner. A perfect fit for a team looking for a third safety. Had originally agreed to a contract with the Jets but that fell apart at the last minute. One of the younger players on this list that could be auditioning for a long term role with a team.

20. Clayton Geathers, Safety

Another solid younger player. Geathers is a bit more limited in his role, but with the need for depth in the secondary it would be surprising if he did not get an opportunity somewhere. He would also be someone that could be signed with a potential long view in mind which makes him more valuable than some of the other well known available players.

Our full list of free agents can be found here.

NFL and NFLPA Look Forward to the Future Salary Cap

A few weeks ago I wrote about the potential for a salary cap disaster in 2021 due to the Covid crises with the main take that the NFL and NFLPA need to start negotiating now to get a better handle on the situation to prevent a rash of releases this summer and again next February. Per NFL.com’s team it sounds as if they are doing just that.

Multiple sources say the NFL and NFLPA both acknowledge that important negotiations are coming quickly to determine how to handle yearly salary caps for 2020 and beyond, considering there are likely to be steep revenue losses with limited or no fans in the stands. 

Overall the article pretty much confirms what I speculated on weeks ago- there are rules in place that could cause a massive cap pullback next year, that the league is looking at a massive loss in revenues this year, and that its not really feasible to go into the season without a plan in place.

The article outlines a few ideas being batted around. One is to smooth the cap by borrowing against future years. We discussed that before and it makes some sense. Im not sure Id agree that a new TV deal will cause a massive spike all at once (the NFL has generally avoided massive spikes in the salary cap since their disastrous 2006 CBA extension), but the cap does always go up so its fair to smooth things out that way. Remember back at the start of the prior CBA the salary cap was flat for 3 years before it began to increase. Teams dealt with that accordingly and there was minimal guidance for that situation.

Another option is eliminating performance based pay. PBP is basically a pool of money that is given to players for playtime that goes well beyond their salary level.  I don’t see how the money there is significant enough to make a dent in the potential losses so I will assume that they meant as part of the “smoothing out” the PA will opt to eliminate the PBP for a few seasons.

The second idea was surprising and that was a “salary giveback” this season. That would seem very difficult to accomplish in part because of how different the NFL’s contract system is.  The way it was written made it sound like we would be talking about reducing P5s for the year. The problem is that some players have incredibly high P5s and other have low ones and in many cases those are for high earning players. In essence you could have two players earning $10 million a year giving up grossly different amounts. None of that would seem very fair nor something that could be negotiated in just a few weeks.

The NFL and NFLPA came to an agreement years ago on rookie contracts when there was a clear mistake in the rookie pool formula because someone probably didn’t sit down and do the math (cap nerds like myself picked up on it quite quickly) that the salary cap could rise and salaries effectively go down if the cap didn’t rise enough to keep up with minimum salary growth. Essentially there was an agreement to create a credit bank to borrow from the future to keep the present at the least consistent.

That’s all spelled out in the current CBA but it does give a bit of guidance as to a way in which the sides can agree to a salary cap freeze. The way I think this could work is that the NFL would “lock” the salary cap so to speak at $198.2 million for 2021 and allow for standard minimum wage growth (around $4 million) with a boost of a few million more. and allow only for a specific growth schedule each year that remains in the CBA. Here is an example where raises are limited to $8M, $11M, $14M, $18M, $23M, and so on… until the bank is “bought back” by the NFL cap. Here is an example where the cap takes a big dip but would be expected to grow by around $20M a year starting in 2023.

YearLocked CapUnlocked CapShortfall
2021$206,200,000$133,200,000-$73,000,000
2022$217,200,000$228,200,000-$62,000,000
2023$231,200,000$248,200,000-$45,000,000
2024$249,200,000$268,200,000-$26,000,000
2025$272,200,000$288,200,000-$10,000,000
2026$298,200,000$308,200,000$0
2027$328,200,000$328,200,000$0

A schedule like this allows the NFL to spread out the cap pain and never really have a massive spike which I would think is important to the NFL. There are a large number of ways to do this but something like this makes some sense and can be based upon whatever the NFL and NFLPA accept as a revenue growth expectation.

I’d also think the other possibility, perhaps in conjunction with something like above, is that the NFL asks the union for a credit of sorts on salaries paid in 2020 counting toward the thresholds for 2021 on. The cap is an accounting number. Loss of revenue is a real number. Losing $73M now to only gain it back in 5 or 6 years may not be acceptable under any circumstance. By applying a portion of salary paid this year (perhaps 50% of whatever the excess team by team or league as a whole is from the 2016 to 2020 bucket) to the cash minimums from 2021 to 2023 gives the sides a way to allow teams to pick and choose how much they allow the revenue loss to impact them.  Doing something like that might save some jobs this season if teams are inclined to cut spending simply because they don’t have to spend this year.

Top Remaining Free Agents on Offense

Now that we are into the post June 1 period in the NFL and teams begin to prepare a bit more for camps I wanted to take a quick look at the top free agents still available this summer. Even though it’s a much smaller group on offense I figured I would start there and then do defense in a few days.

1. Cam Newton, Quarterback

Cam Newton is coming off some injury plagued seasons but remains the top QB available and only QB available that could slide into a starting job. If healthy Newton, who is a former MVP, could completely change the dynamic of a team. The teams that make the most sense are the Bills who are a playoff type team with a question mark at QB. They should also be pretty familiar with him. The Broncos would be the other team that seems playoff capable with a  question mark at QB. The Giants are not a playoff team on paper but their GM should be familiar and having insurance in the event Daniel Jones is a disaster would be fine. Quite frankly any team with a questionable QB situation for the future should be looking here since at this stage Newton should be very cheap.

2. Jason Peters, Left Tackle

Even thought Peters is 38 I have been surprised that he remains available. He has still played at a high level for years and it is doubtful that he would be that expensive- he played last year for $6 million. Peters come with injury risk having missed 12 games in the last three seasons but if healthy there is no reason to think he would not be dominant. Peters likely does not want to play for a team not expected to contend for a Super Bowl which may be why he and the Browns have not been a match.  Maybe he will just wait until the right situation comes across and if it does not just retire.

3. Larry Warford, Guard

Warford’s release kind of came out of nowhere, but when the Saints drafted another interior lineman Warford immediately became the odd man out. Like Peters this is surprising to see him still available as he has been a Pro Bowler the last three seasons and is just 29. Unlike Peters, who is likely a one year solution, this could be a long term match for someone.  The Texans recently reworked the contract of guard Zach Fulton and they had been linked to Warford which leads me to believe that Warford is not coming cheap as the Texans will pay Fulton $5 million this season. There may be some belief that Warford’s play is amplified by Drew Brees which could be a consideration right now as well.

4. Demar Dotson, Right Tackle

The veteran tackle has started 30 games over the last two years and remains a steady veteran. While Dotson is not a great player by any stretch he can be a plug in tackle almost anywhere and likely give them a solid presence. Like with Peters the age is a concern and this is a short term option rather than a long term one. Dotson may be someone that is ends up signed after teams take a quick look at a few younger guys on their team and realize that this would be a much better option for them.

5. Devonta Freeman, Running Back

Freeman was all over the news last week reportedly turning down a contract offer from the Seahawks that likely was in the $3 million range. If Freeman is not going to play for that number it’s unlikely he will land a job this season and should wait to see if an injury occurs to make a team more desperate. Freeman’s skill set does warrant a $4-$5 million contract but its rare that players who are cut off a down season, especially at this position, wind up earning that.

6. Ronald Leary, Guard

Leary who had been trending downward for some time fell off enough last year to effectively be released. Leary may best be suited for a backup role or a starting spot on a bad offensive line in desperate need of a veteran. He has enough name value and ability to land a job somewhere.

7. Taylor Gabriel, Wide Receiver

Gabriel was released by the Bears but could be a cheap option for a team with a very thin receiving corps. Gabriel has the talent to give you one or two monster games a year and then vanish for the rest of the season. That’s worth it on a low cost contract assuming he is healthy as he has had concussion issues. You could do far worse for a low cost veteran.

8. Kelvin Beachum, Left Tackle

Beachum was the best offensive lineman on the Jets the last few seasons and has had a relatively steady career. While he is not a dominant player he should be on a roster this year. Teams always need a tackle so his being available may be more about finding the right spot than being offered a spot. My guess is if he played on a team with other good players he would be a very solid addition.  I would think he would be on a roster by the time camp begins.

9. Mike Person, Guard

Person should be able to fill a role for a team in desperate need for a proven veteran at a low cost. Person certainly does not have the ceiling of other available guards but you do pretty much know what you are getting in Person and you could do far worse than Person as the final addition on the line. Someone will likely be on the phone with him at the start of camp.

10. Josh Gordon, Wide Receiver

You cant have a list like this without mentioning Gordon. Nobody will deny his talent but he has demons and the question is whether or not he can truly get over his demons. He is going to play for the minimum and no guarantees but a team runs the risk of him moving up the depth charts only to vanish a few weeks later.

You can view the full list of NFL free agents on our free agency page.

Teams Set to Pick Up Cap Space On June 2

We have officially hit June 1, 2020 which means the salary cap rules for releasing players are about to change. Starting June 2 any player whose multiyear contract is terminated or traded will only count the prorated portion of this years signing bonus on the salary cap with all remaining bonus prorations moving into 2021. Four teams have already made use of this change using the post June 1 designation during the offseason and will finally realize the salary cap benefit of the change tomorrow after months of carrying the players full salaries on the cap despite their release.

The Rams saga will Todd Gurley more or less comes to a close at least from a cap perspective as his massive $17.25 million cap charge will reduce to $11.75 million, a savings of $5.5 million. The Rams have an estimated $600,000 in cap room so this will at least give them the room to sign their rookies. They will likely need to make some minor changes to some other contracts as the season draws closer to function. Gurley will count for $8.4 million against the 2021 salary cap but the Rams should get a credit of $2.5 million in 2021 for Gurley’s earnings with the Falcons which will offset some of the money he is owed by the Rams.

The Jets will pick up $11 million in cap room with the release of Trumaine Johnson becoming official. Johnson had counted at $15 million on the Jets cap and will now count for $4 million this season and $8 million next year. The move should bump the Jets to around $25 million in cap room for 2020 which certainly gives them the space for an extension for Jamal Adams or to sign a player like Jadeveon Clowney. It would also give them the flexibility to take on an in-season trade if the season goes well from the start. Johnson is still a free agent.

The Falcons will pick up $10.75 million after the release of Desmond Trufant. Trufant was taking up $15.15 million in cap space and will now count for $4.4 million this season and will count for $5.8 million in cap space in 2021. The Falcons were in desperate need of cap room as we estimated them at only $1 million in cap room. This gives them the cap space needed to sign their rookie class and likely function during the year.  Trufant is a member of the Lions.

The Bears dropped Trey Burton despite a $4 million salary guarantee on a $6.8 million salary but a glut of tight ends made him expendable. Burton had counted at $8.55 million but the team will only pick up $2.8 million in cap space since his dead money, even with the June 1, is $5.75 million. The Bears will have a $1.75 million cap charge next season for Burton but should receive a $910,000 credit if Burton makes the Colts this season. The Bears will now have around $11 million in cap room in 2020 which should be enough for them to function during the season.

There should also be two other teams that gain cap room in the coming days, perhaps as early as June 2. The Panthers and Cowboys both had players announce retirements in the offseason but neither was made official with the league. My assumption at the time was that they wanted to use the June 1 but to use that for a retirement requires actually carrying the player until June 2. In interviews I believe the Cowboys admitted that this was the plan as well.

Travis Frederick currently counts for $11.975 million on the Cowboys salary cap and would have counted for $11.04 million in dead money had they officially retired him back in March. By waiting the Cowboys only need to account for $4.975 million in dead money this year, opening up $7 million in cap room to bring them to around $12 million for the season. So waiting was clearly the right move for them as they needed some extra cap space. Frederick’s charge next year will be $6.065 million.  

Luke Kuechly announced his retirement back in January and has been charged at $15.51 million against the Panthers cap. His dead money would have been $11.84 million had his retirement immediately been processed but instead he will count for $4.71 million in 2020 and $7.13 million in 2021. The $10.8 million in savings will give the cap strapped Panthers the room they need this year moving them from around to $3.3 million in cap room to $13.5 million in cap room in 2020.

George Kittle and the 49ers Contract “Stalemate” Thoughts

Yesterday Mike Silver gave an update on the status of the contract negotiations between the 49ers and George Kittle and the update was one that 49ers fans were probably not happy to hear.

These things always sound ominous but for the most part this is just normal business. So let’s take a look at Kittle’s situation right now with the team.

The important part of Silver’s report is the quote from Kittle’s agent, Jack Bechta, which is bringing to light the issue that some like myself have mentioned in the past- it is very hard in the NFL to break out of the pack when it comes to contracts. In this case the wording is very similar to what happened to Jimmy Graham years ago when he was a member of the New Orleans Saints and tried to paint a case that he was a wide receiver trapped in a tight end designation. Ultimately the Saints won out on that one and Graham signed a contract that was more or less a 10% increase at the top of the tight end market, but way under what a top receiver would earn.

I briefly talked about this on the podcast last night but one of the biggest changes in the NFL over the last 10 years has been the power of the NFL to hold down top line players from truly signing top line contracts. In the past the big name players and in turn their agents, held a lot of power, often signing record setting contracts that would withstand some test of time.

In the modern NFL the teams and their negotiators have flipped the script. One of the things we track in some of our offseason work is positional salary growth by contract ranking. The facts are that the NFL is more than willing to bump prices on the low end of the salary spectrum but hold off on doing the same for the top end players in the league. Most positions at the top don’t even come close to keeping up with the growth in the salary cap and tight end has been a position that is very typical of this.

Using 2013 as our starting point you can see how the contracts that are the top 20 in the NFL have basically failed to keep up with salary cap growth over the last 7 years. In the meantime the bottom of the market has outpaced the growth of the cap. The top 10 players are basically showing a flatness over time which means there has been little to no change at all. Even as a new contract comes in an old one is dropping out.

Few players in the NFL have been able to “break the system” and become a market buster. A market buster is a player whose contract far outshines any current player at the position and in many cases will actually maintain a top contract status for some time. That second part doesn’t always happen (i.e. Todd Gurley) because sometimes the contract is the shot in the arm the position needs, but few get there. Instead the NFL has pinned nearly every player into a small positional box with very small incremental gains.

If we look at each position these would be the closest that any had to a market buster since 2014

PositionPlayerYear SignedAnnual ValueTop Market CompIncrease
RBTodd Gurley2018$14,375,000$8,250,00074.2%
RTLane Johnson2016$11,250,000$8,000,00040.6%
LBCJ Mosley2019$17,000,000$12,500,00036.0%
LTLaremy Tunsil2020$22,000,000$16,500,00033.3%
GKelechi Osemele2016$11,700,000$9,500,00023.2%
EdgeKhalil Mack2018$23,500,000$19,083,33323.1%
IDLAaron Donald2018$22,500,000$19,062,50018.0%
WRJulio Jones2019$22,000,000$19,250,00014.3%
QBAaron Rodgers2018$33,500,000$30,000,00011.7%
TEJimmy Graham2014$10,000,000$9,000,00011.1%
CBrandon Linder2017$10,340,600$9,400,00010.0%
CBByron Jones2020$16,500,000$15,050,0009.6%
SLandon Collins2019$14,000,000$13,000,0007.7%

Hopefully we did not miss anyone here (im not including Revis’ inflated Patriots deal in 2014) and there are probably a few you could argue with in particular Gurley and Johnson. The argument against Gurley is that they already were valuing him as a transcendent player and the true comparable for that was Adrian Peterson whose contract was long gone but could have been used as a basis. Lane Johnson was paid what he was paid because the expectation was that he would be signed as a left tackle if he made it to free agency. Some might also put Osemele in the same class. Those are three of the biggest numbers here and Gurley and Johnson really skew the averages going from 18% to 24%.

If we apply each of the percentages to Kittle using the current top market contract of $10.5 million per year we come up with the following list of outcomes.

PositionIncreaseImplied Salary
RB74.2%$18,295,000
RT40.6%$14,766,000
LB36.0%$14,280,000
LT33.3%$14,000,000
G23.2%$12,932,000
Edge23.1%$12,930,000
IDL18.0%$12,393,000
WR14.3%$12,000,000
QB11.7%$11,725,000
TE11.1%$11,667,000
C10.0%$11,551,000
CB9.6%$11,512,000
S7.7%$11,308,000
Average24.1%$13,028,000
Avergae (w/o Gurley/Johnson)18.0%$12,391,000

The next question is where does he belong on this list. Using the stats from our friends over at PFF here is how Kittle’s last two seasons compared with the other players in the NFL in terms of percent of overall offensive use in a few key categories. I adjusted Kittles stats for the trade of Sanders but did not do the same if other trades occurred for other teams like that.

PlayerPositionTeam TargetsTeam RecTeam YardsTeam TDsAvg. Offensive Impact
Michael ThomasWR30.9%33.9%35.9%25.7%31.6%
DeAndre HopkinsWR29.9%30.0%31.7%32.6%31.1%
Davante AdamsWR26.0%25.9%27.7%34.6%28.5%
Terry McLaurinWR20.5%19.5%28.8%38.9%26.9%
Julio JonesWR27.0%24.8%31.7%21.8%26.3%
Kenny GolladayWR22.4%19.7%29.8%32.1%26.0%
Keenan AllenWR26.8%27.4%27.1%21.9%25.8%
Courtland SuttonWR21.9%18.9%27.9%33.9%25.6%
Tyler BoydWR22.7%24.1%27.5%26.9%25.3%
George KittleTE24.9%26.0%29.2%18.5%24.7%
Stefon DiggsWR23.3%21.8%27.0%26.5%24.7%
Jarvis LandryWR26.2%24.8%26.8%20.8%24.6%
Christian McCaffreyRB22.9%29.1%22.9%22.9%24.4%
Larry FitzgeraldWR21.5%22.1%22.8%30.0%24.1%
Allen Robinson IIWR23.6%21.5%26.2%24.6%24.0%
Tyler LockettWR19.7%22.1%26.7%27.2%23.9%
Zach ErtzTE24.0%24.1%23.3%23.6%23.8%
Amari CooperWR20.4%20.5%24.6%28.6%23.5%
Odell Beckham Jr.WR23.9%21.7%25.4%22.1%23.3%
Travis KelceTE24.0%25.5%25.3%18.1%23.2%
John BrownWR21.3%18.3%24.8%28.2%23.1%
A.J. BrownWR20.0%17.5%26.6%27.6%22.9%
Robby AndersonWR19.2%16.6%23.0%31.9%22.7%
Julian EdelmanWR22.6%22.6%23.0%22.0%22.5%
Mike EvansWR21.1%19.3%25.5%23.2%22.3%

The big takeaway here is that Kittle has been the top performing tight end, just clearing the top 10 at the position. The negative is that the list also has two other tight ends on it- Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce, both of whom are currently signed to “tight end market” contracts.

From a historical standpoint there have been other tight ends to have offensive impact comparable to Kittle’s  though the names to pay attention to here are the ones that pulled it off multiple times in back to back kind of seasons. Here are the top 30 tight end seasons using the same impact percentages.

PlayerYearTeam TargetsTeam RecTeam YardsTeam TDsAvg. Offensive Impact
Vernon Davis201322.8%22.5%27.5%61.9%33.7%
Gary Barnidge201521.3%21.6%25.2%45.0%28.3%
Rob Gronkowski201120.6%22.4%25.2%43.6%27.9%
Greg Olsen201425.1%27.5%27.8%27.3%26.9%
Vernon Davis201122.4%24.3%24.9%35.3%26.7%
Jimmy Graham201322.2%19.3%23.5%41.0%26.5%
George Kittle201827.1%26.7%32.5%19.2%26.4%
Delanie Walker201525.3%27.8%28.3%24.0%26.4%
Rob Gronkowski201422.0%20.9%26.3%35.3%26.1%
Kyle Rudolph201219.1%17.7%16.9%50.0%25.9%
Jordan Reed201521.1%22.5%22.2%36.7%25.6%
Jack Doyle201722.8%27.7%21.1%30.8%25.6%
Travis Kelce201723.7%23.2%24.2%30.8%25.5%
Greg Olsen201524.9%25.7%28.5%20.0%24.8%
Mark Andrews201923.6%22.1%25.4%27.0%24.5%
Kyle Rudolph201622.1%20.3%20.6%35.0%24.5%
Greg Olsen201323.7%25.0%24.1%25.0%24.5%
Zach Ertz201824.3%25.0%23.2%25.0%24.4%
Jared Cook201820.5%18.9%23.7%33.3%24.1%
Travis Kelce201522.4%23.2%25.1%25.0%23.9%
Travis Kelce201621.9%23.2%28.7%21.1%23.7%
Antonio Gates201418.2%18.1%19.1%38.7%23.5%
Greg Olsen201221.5%24.3%21.5%26.3%23.4%
Travis Kelce201924.4%25.7%26.2%16.7%23.3%
Travis Kelce201823.6%25.2%24.4%19.6%23.2%
Zach Ertz201923.6%23.3%23.4%22.2%23.1%
Rob Gronkowski201519.6%17.9%24.5%30.6%23.1%
George Kittle201922.6%25.4%25.9%17.9%23.0%
Greg Olsen201623.8%26.1%27.1%14.3%22.8%
Jimmy Graham201122.8%20.8%23.7%23.9%22.8%

I think this is where the numbers become a little more difficult for Kittle. His two years certainly rank with the best of the players but there is nothing that would push him significantly over names like Graham, Gronkowski, or Kelce. On top of that Kittle does not have the kind of sillier stuff to fall back on like draft status, having a team trade up for him, etc…That probably makes the argument much more difficult from his perspective, especially when negotiating against one of the most prepared contract guys in the NFL, that he should bust the position the way others have.

With that in mind I think I would say its unlikely that he hits the high points of the market buster charts. He next question is what should be the top market growth that we should expect. The Graham contract probably adds in some context with an 11.1% growth over the prior high water mark. This should be the floor as they are very comparable players. Based on the chart that would put a fair offer to be just at $11.7 million a season.

The only other big mover at the position has been Gronkowski. His 2012 contract was about a 22% increase over the top market at the time. That would put Kittle at $12.8 million on a year. That is probably a realistic ceiling and would be an average “market buster” type of raise.

How can you split the difference of those numbers?  That probably comes down to a few factors. Gronkowski pretty much handed his career away to the Patriots when he signed that contract. His ultimate contract locked him in at 2012 prices through 2019. Even after being traded this year his 2012 contract is more or less the contract that is valid for the Buccaneers. His percent of guarantee was around 34% of the total contract value.

Graham on the other hand took a four year contract that allowed him another free agency opportunity early on. He would receive a 52% guarantee on the contract. Graham wound up earning $62 million from 2014 to 2019. In contrast Gronkowski, assuming he plays this year, will earn around $59 million and he only reached that number because they were able to maneuver some incentives into his contract at a later date. He was locked into that $54 million if not for that.

The 49ers of course will always have the leverage of the franchise tag as well. This year the number is only $10.6 million and with the pandemic possibly stunting cap growth it could actually fall next year. Even if there is little impact how much would it be?  $11 million or so probably. That would put his second tag at $13.2 million. Often those numbers are used to begin baseline negotiations and cash expectations and these fall right into the numbers we discuss above using Graham and Gronkowski as comps.

This isn’t to say that Kittle cant break into the “WR Tier” which is around $16 million a season as unforeseen things always happen in the NFL but this is definitely an uphill battle to see that kind of raise at any position let alone tight end.

2021 NFL Team By Team Salary Cap Health

One of the biggest questions that always come up when taking salary cap questions deals with a team’s salary cap position in 2021. This is not always the easiest question to answer since rosters are fluid and most of the 2020 rookie class has not even yet signed a new contract to be included in any estimates. So I thought this might be a good time to go over what I try to look at when determining a team’s position with the cap and then use those criteria to come up with an average ranking.

Factor 1: Projected 2021 Cap Space

I tried to make as many adjustments as possible to this to make it as accurate as possible. So what I did first was calculate teams true cap space in 2020 to determine the cap carryover since that plays a big role in a team’s future cap position. To do that I processed the June 1 cuts, processed the rumored retirements, and added in all of our draft pick projections and replaced a $610K salary for each of those moves. I then subtracted $3.9M from each team to account for in-season spending which is around the minimum I would expect teams to need to move from offseason to in-season accounting. For 2021 I used our effective cap space column, added the calculated carryover and then processed the retirements from above and added in our cap estimates for all of the 2020 draft picks who are not yet signed.

The teams that dominate this category are the Colts, Jaguars, Chargers and Patriots while the Falcons, Eagles, and Saints are in trouble.

Factor 2: Max 2021 Cap Space Based on Cuts

For this I added another adjustment to the criteria above by just cutting every non-QB on the roster that would save at least $500,000 in net cap room. 2020 draft picks were excluded from cuts if they qualified. While obviously nobody is cutting everyone they can I always consider this a good way to see how much the roster is filled with sunk costs. The teams that can create the most room are the Bills and Browns while the Lions and Falcons are much more limited. When adding these to our effective cap space our top cap teams are the Colts, Chargers, Browns, and Bills while the low end teams are still the Eagles, Falcons, and Saints.

Factor 3: Max 2021 Cap Space Based on Restructures

Another avenue to creating cap room is to “kick the can” with player contracts and convert salary into prorated signing bonuses. This is a way  to buy now and pay later so to speak.  As a rough estimate here I calculated the max cap savings that could be found if a player converted all his base salary and roster bonuses into a signing bonus and prorated it over the term of his contract. While teams can, and often do, use voidable contract years I didn’t max them out unless a player had void years already in his contract. This was then added to the cap space from factor 1.

The Eagles by far have the most ability to create cap space using this technique in part because they already have void years in some of their deals but its also based on structure. Dallas and New Orleans are 2 and 3. The teams that cant create much room this way are the Chargers, Steelers, and Patriots.

With this as a signal the top cap teams are the Colts, Jaguars, Redskins, and Dolphins with the bottom being the Steelers, Saints, Chiefs, and Falcons.

Factor4: Potential 2021 Free Agents

One of the other important things to consider is how much is going to be required to keep players on your team. For this I am not going to do any kind of projected salaries and instead just did a basic ranking system of UFAs. If you play at least 75% of the snaps last year you score a 3, over 50% is a 2, and over 30% a 1. There are players under that who also score contracts but since we are in the offseason with rosters so large I didn’t give those players a score as generally those under 30% are the ones that take longer to find a new home and a good portion of these players will be cut. I then assigned a multiplier based on position (QB for example was a 3x, WR 2x, RB just a 1) and a reduction on age (0.7X if over 30). I didn’t include RFAs in this or any tenders in the above factors either. I then summed up the scores to just give a general ranking of the free agent classes. This overestimates the value of some players (Jameis Winston for instance will be a backup this year as will Jacoby Brissett) but for a rough guide this is reasonable enough.

The teams with the most to keep in free agency are the Cowboys, Colts, and Jaguars while the Giants, Eagles, and Browns don’t really have any considerations there. While I am not ranking the impact on cap room directly here its safe to say that the teams with a higher number will likely use up more on their own players either this summer or next offseason than teams with few considerations.

So here is how I would rank the teams in regard to salary cap health (call it the cap health index) followed by a few thoughts on the teams.

TeamEstimated Cap SpaceMax Cap With CutsMax Cap With RestructuresFA ScoreAvg. Rank
Browns$59,651,443$140,590,228$94,715,61015.457
Patriots$88,091,446$121,706,680$98,924,77921.87.5
Bengals$75,794,942$128,015,608$100,369,94225.058
Colts$126,918,221$159,009,117$140,718,22145.78.5
Redskins$86,957,478$118,028,478$117,951,22826.659
Dolphins$65,102,757$113,983,983$109,614,00721.89.5
Jaguars$97,321,958$130,501,958$119,688,62542.759.75
Chargers$95,755,138$144,990,535$99,130,13840.510.25
Titans$56,312,245$117,489,673$103,820,57822.8511
Seahawks$70,189,985$119,892,999$89,439,98529.9513.5
Ravens$67,234,968$118,597,086$81,810,69428.4513.75
Cardinals$57,498,469$108,957,316$85,923,46923.0514
Buccaneers$51,600,507$121,062,500$69,833,84020.2514.5
Bills$52,751,556$136,257,222$77,466,83329.814.5
Jets$63,792,412$124,144,079$93,292,41238.714.75
Broncos$56,586,675$127,579,685$72,760,50828.515.25
Giants$48,645,655$103,391,726$67,878,9887.716
49ers$51,968,044$84,271,939$97,992,21127.2516
Panthers$47,323,388$90,306,888$71,333,38821.317.25
Vikings$26,160,350$87,341,172$73,693,68317.518
Packers$37,182,988$88,606,092$69,724,65521.718.75
Texans$29,598,841$96,512,173$73,873,8412518.75
Lions$53,222,566$77,025,713$95,040,89935.8519.25
Rams$39,844,432$73,647,626$93,507,1823321.5
Eagles($31,280,282)$5,167,693$64,632,21815.523.5
Falcons($3,867,311)$23,408,153$48,507,68917.523.5
Cowboys$36,707,794$67,192,960$97,496,96148.423.5
Bears$24,564,438$71,372,643$74,295,8083124.25
Raiders$19,199,343$83,144,343$69,608,51031.6525.25
Steelers$18,060,168$75,509,539$23,977,66827.926
Chiefs$27,781,439$82,176,677$47,785,85638.726.5
Saints($34,384,740)$27,188,260$24,573,59330.728.75

Tier 1: Browns, Patriots, Bengals, Colts, Redskins, Dolphins, Jaguars, Chargers

These are the teams, with the exception of the Browns, that will likely stand out all of 2020 as having a big chance at free agency in 2020. Ultimately I think with this group the Colts have the most desirable position even if they didn’t rank the highest. Their cap room under any scenario is pretty much absurd and their free agent score is artificially inflated by that Brissett inclusion and that is what drove them down. The Patriots are probably going to wind up with the 2nd most amount of cap room while the Browns are going to be the most flexible team in the NFL if they have to start making big changes with the ability to both cut and restructure. That one caught be a little off guard, but they have been trying to do better with their cap in recent years. The Jaguars and Redskins were teams I didn’t think much about before this but Jacksonville is purging their roster while the Redskins are still finding their way around. No guarantee these teams will be active in free agency next year but basically no extension or signing should trouble them if the cap is normal next year.  

Tier 2: Titans, Seahawks, Ravens, Cardinals, Bills, Buccaneers, Jets, Broncos

These are the teams that likely have the most potential to get into the top tier in the run up to free agency unless they front load the salary cap hits in an extension. Basically this group has moderate cap room but won’t have many players to sign and are all in a position to gut their rosters if needed. For some of the teams like the Jets, Cardinals, Broncos, Titans, Bucs, and Bills I think this makes sense. For the Seahawks and Ravens you wonder if maybe they should have taken some added chances this year. Regardless of my opinion they are all in very good shape and if the teams with an unproven young QB(Arizona, Buffalo, New York, and Denver) break out this year there will be massive expectations in the offseason.

Tier 3: 49ers, Giants, Panthers, Vikings, Texans, Packers, Lions, Rams

This is a more haphazard group as it consists of a few teams that will likely have their cap positon overstated in 2021 and a few that will have it understated. For the most part this group of teams have one primary avenue to added cap space- either restructures or cuts but not nearly as much flexibility with both as the teams in the tier above. The 49ers, Lions and Rams can benefit the most with the restructure strategy while the Vikings, Packers, Giants, Panthers, and Texans could slice away to gain room. This is also the group where one big extension could drop them a tier and have a ripple effect on the cap. Of these teams the 49ers have the most overall flexibility and are probably in the best shape.  

Tier 4: Cowboys, Falcons, Eagles, Bears, Raiders, Steelers, Chiefs, Saints

This is the group of teams that will mainly be looked at as being in trouble with the cap for a number of different reasons. These teams will have a difficult time moving up a tier and in some cases will need to make some difficult decisions to deal with the cap. The team that has the most potential from here is the Cowboys who have a lot of flexibility with restructures if they want to do that. They also can still re-sign their prime free agent next year (Dak Prescott) by July to increase their carryover and likely do a moderate cap number. The Saints stand out as the worst team overall with little flexibility. Kansas City will be interesting since they have free agents, a QB who will want an expensive contract and not much room up unless they start cutting. Neither the Eagles nor the Falcons are in a good spot but both should be ok due to the ability to restructure for cap relief and a lower group of impactful free agents in 2021.