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.

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.

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.

Week 1 Free Agency Thoughts

It has only been a week since the start of the NFL’s version of the free market and already many teams have reached their pinnacle in spending for the season. Through the first week of free agency, league wide spending is approx. $2.610B. Of the $2.610B in spending, approx. $1.481B counts towards total guarantees. As a disclaimer, these are fluid numbers based on contract data retrieved by Overthecap and excludes extensions, extensions via trades, and franchise/transition tags. The graph below breaks down league spending from all 32 teams by total contract value and total guarantees.

The top 5 teams that have currently spent the most in total contract value are the Dolphins, Saints, Cowboys, Titans, and Lions. The Dolphins key decision maker, Chris Grier, has not shied away from leaving his print on the roster. After trading away several foundational pieces last season, Grier has acquired 9 new players through free agency and will have 14 draft picks in the upcoming draft. Much of his talent evaluation skills and decision-making ability will be judged over the next two years.

Looking at the Saints free agency spending, the drivers here are the Brees and Peat deals that total $107M. While both players were on the roster last year, Overthecap is categorizing these as free agent deals versus extensions as their previous deals expired. Regarding Peat’s new deal, he’s now the 3rd highest paid Left Guard by APY and has the highest in total guarantees in the LG market. The deal also includes a favorable structure for Peat as his 3rd year salary vests into full guarantees in the 2nd year of his deal. Essentially, Peat gets $23M of the $57.5M guaranteed at signing. In 2021, if Peat is on the Saints roster on March 20th, he will be guaranteed an additional $10.850M for 2022. That being said, Peat is pretty much a lock to be with the Saints until at least 2022.

Thoughts on Amari Cooper

Heading into free agency, there was much anticipation on how the Dallas Cowboys would approach negotiations with their key free agents. Shortly after applying the exclusive franchise tag on Dak Prescott, the Cowboys were able to reach an agreement with Amari Cooper on a 5 year, $100M deal, making him the second highest paid WR behind Julio Jones. However, the team can easily move on from Cooper after two years. The deal is structured in a way where Cooper gets $40M fully guaranteed at signing, paid over the first two years, with an additional $20M serving as injury protection. In the third year of the deal, 2022, if Cooper is on the roster on the 5th day of the league year, the $20M injury protection vests to a full guarantee. While this is a nice deal for Cooper, a player with his leverage typically sees a more favorable structure. At minimum, Cooper should have gotten a portion of his 3rd year salary guaranteed at signing. Instead, it’s essentially a 2 year, $40M deal and then a “we’ll see” situation. An explanation for why Cooper might have decided to accept the deal is that he weighed other factors. He’s playing in a state with no income tax and in an offense that has stability at the QB position. There were reports that the Washington Redskins had shown interest in Cooper and even if they were ready to offer a better structure, perhaps Cooper valued stability more than making a couple extra million. Every player is going to have a list of priorities when entering the open market and it’s plausible to think Cooper’s football earnings of $36M to date enabled him to consider other factors.

Thoughts on DeForest Buckner

One move that seems to have fallen under the radar in the last week is the DeForest Buckner trade. Heading into free agency, the 49ers had a decision to make on Arik Armstead. Armstead, who came into the league a year prior to Buckner, played out his 5th year team option and was scheduled to be a free agent. On the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering window, the team rewarded Armstead with a 5 year $85M contract. With already so much invested in Dee Ford and the future spending on Nick Bosa, the 49ers likely knew it would be difficult to keep Buckner. However, the team could have gotten one more year out of Buckner under the 5th year option, similar to what they did with Armstead. Instead, Buckner was able to leverage a position strong enough to be traded for a first-round pick and get an extension that makes him the second highest paid interior defensive lineman and tied for 3rd highest defensive player, per the APY metric. It was a true win-win for both player and team. The 49ers got a first-round pick for a player they wouldn’t have been able to afford after this year while Buckner doesn’t have to incur an additional year of injury risk to get a top of the market deal. The Colts also get the dominant interior disrupter that is coveted in the league.  

Thoughts on Kenyan Drake

Another interesting story over the last week relates to Kenyan Drake’s signing of the transition tag. On March 16th the Arizona Cardinals applied the transition tag on running back, Kenyan Drake, with the ability to rescind at any time before he signed the tag. The transition tag works similar to the franchise tag in that it ties a player to the team for an additional year. The transition tag value, however, is less than the exclusive and non-exclusive tags. Furthermore, another team can make an offer-sheet to the player and the incumbent team would have the option to match. If the incumbent team doesn’t match, the player can sign with the new team and the incumbent team doesn’t receive draft compensation. So long story short, the Cardinals were indirectly allowing Drake to test the market on a long-term deal. What’s interesting, and a point that Mike Florio of PFT raised in his podcast, is that days after the transition tag was applied on Drake, the running back market saw Todd Gurley agree to a $6M deal with the Falcons and Melvin Gordon sign a 2 year deal, averaging $8M per year. The transition tag for Drake is $8.483M. With Gurley and Gordon being more accomplished RBs than Drake, the Cardinals could have rescinded the tag, pointing to the value being too high for him. Drake was smart enough to realize the deal he had was solid and signed his tag the day after the Gurley and Gordon deals were announced. 

Thoughts on Workout Bonuses

                        Teams often negotiate workout bonuses in player contracts to entice players to workout at team facilities during the off-season. Small market teams like the Packers, Bengals, Panthers, and Jaguars will use this structure and will payout if a player participates in 90% (negotiable) of the off-season program.  Given the current conditions in society, the question arises on whether players will be able to recoup their workout bonuses if the impact of COVID-19 crisis continues and team facilities remain closed through the off-season. Assuming facilities remain closed, there’s a chance that workout bonuses wouldn’t be paid out as many payouts are contingent on there being a workout program (some players do have workout bonuses protected by guaranteed language). Assuming facilities open, but cuts into the days or weeks of the offseason program, the question will be whether teams would have good-faith and allow players to earn the full bonus if they meet the participation % for the days the off-season programs were held. Another proposition that players and agents may want to consider is to request teams to allow the player to recoup their lost workout bonuses through per-game roster bonuses throughout the season. To put some perspective on how much a player might lose if things don’t get better, Za’Darius Smith’s off-season workout bonus is $750K. It’ll be very interesting to monitor how the league will handle this situation and whether the union will need to get involved.

Thoughts on Market Growth

Per Jason Fitzgerald’s recent article, the amount of massive money deals seem down this year. Last year, there were 30 non-QBs who signed contracts that averaged at least $10M/year and 17 non-QBs who signed for at least $13M/year. This year the numbers are 27 and 11. One reason for this could be the increased use of franchise/transition tags by teams. Ten teams have applied the franchise tag this year, tied for most since 2016. In 2017, 7 players were tagged and in 2018 and 2019 6 players were given the tag. Furthermore, last year, the top of the safety and linebacker market exploded when Landon Collins and CJ Mosley reset their markets respectively. This year, a small correction has taken place in the stagnant cornerback and tight end market after Darius Slay and Austin Hooper reset their respective markets.  In regard to total spending, the below table builds off the first graph and illustrates free agent spending this year vs years in the past. Please note that these figures are based on FA spending from February-April. 2020 is asterisked as it will obviously continue to grow until April.

Looking at the Next Stage of NFL Free Agency

Free agency is just about a full week in now and this is about the time that we get the first market reset as the money dries up and teams and agents have to re-evaluate their plan for the upcoming season. Usually most free agent periods have at least three phases. The first phase is the mad rush which sees the biggest players signed to massive contracts in the first 48-72 hours of free agency. Phase II then begins with the mid tier players taking center stage, often getting pretty lucrative terms, and then Phase III where the dynamic changes and more and more bargains are found for teams. 

This has been an odd free agency, I guess in part due to the Covid-19 outbreak, where I kind of feel that Phase I barely existed and Phase II was really the start leading for us to immediately jump into Phase III really a few days ago. The amount of massive money deals seems way down. Perhaps that is because more teams used the franchise tag this year, but last year there were 30 non-Qb’s who by this time signed big contracts that averaged at least $10 million a season and 17 making at least $13 million a year. This year the numbers are 27 and just 11.

Contract years are also way down. Last year we had 16 players who made $10 million or more a year that signed for four or more seasons. This year its 7 which means the eye popping numbers we often see in free agency (even if they are just fluff) simply did not exist. Most teams are opting for 2 and 3 year contracts and while the guarantees are high relative to the contract size they are getting some better cash flows on this contracts as it generally costs a team far less over three seasons to reach a $10M APY on a three year deal than on a five year one.

Of course this could be player driven as well with hope to come back into free agency in a few years when the cap is expected to rise. For some that can work out well. For others probably no so much. Those angling for that probably should be doing one or two year contracts as three years in the NFL is an eternity.

Thus far I think this virus outbreak has seemed to change the dynamic of some things related to free agency which may have made it more difficult for some to work with scouts and positional coaches to “work the room” a bit more in regard to contracts. Maybe that has led to some added short term contracts though I think it has impacted those on the lower salary spectrum more than the mid level guys.

Now with the Phase III in full swing there is probably a good deal of soul searching that has to go on. There are still a number of big name free agents out there, the biggest being Jadeveon Clowney. Other names include Robby Anderson, Jason Peters, Everson Griffen, Damon Harrison, Jimmy Smith, Logan Ryan, Dontari Poe, and Ndamukong Suh among others. There are also still a good number of solid, viable contributors who were hoping to get a small piece of the pie but may have to now settle for an even smaller one.

While its not out of the realm of possibility for a team to still make a massive offer for one of the big names the odds are generally against it. Players planning for contracts worth over $25M in guarantees on annual values in excess of $10 million a season will likely need to decide if they want to hold out hope for the money, take a one year team friendly contract and hope to hit it the following year in free agency, or to take a longer term deal that may be 60-75% of what they hoped to get in free agency.

The same holds true for the lower level players who may now be staring at minimum salary contracts as a way to continue their careers and get opportunities for 2021. This group of both expensive and lower cost talent often wind up being the biggest bargains in free agency.

It can certainly be a nerve wracking experience. There are various things that come into play now that did not exist a few weeks ago. Going into the season the average cap space in the NFL was around $40 million per team. It’s now under $20 million per team. Teams have spent millions on other players and may be cash strapped as well as cap strapped.

Many depth charts are filling up and team needs are much less than they were last week. Teams also begin to focus more on the draft at this stage. Why sign a $5 million contract with a third tier receiver or lock into an Anderson at $15 million a year when the draft may be full of receivers that can fill a void. If you miss in the draft odds are there is still going to be a veteran sitting around to sign so teams do not need to rush into anything at this point.

The compensatory process also lasts for a few months. Based on Nicks current work there are 15 teams currently on pace to receive at least one compensatory pick. 10 of those teams have at least one 3rd or 4th round projected compensatory pick. Those teams risk picks with any signing and often wait until the compensatory signing period expires before they go back into free agency.

The NFL is also slowly becoming a trading league. We discussed this possibility in our book a few years ago and its becoming more and more of a thing. It is often cheaper for a team to trade a late pick for someone who had the majority of their contractual guarantee paid by another team than to sign a player for millions, especially if that player may cost the team a comp pick to boot.

Overall the leverage almost completely goes to the team side at this stage often making for some unique contracts and landing spots that people like myself will generally praise as some of the best deals of the offseason even though they are often just a byproduct of circumstance and in some cases pure luck.

For those fans who have been disappointed with free agency so far it is far from over and you may be surprised to see who you wind up with out of the blue in the next few weeks. So let’s watch along and see how it all plays out.

A look at the NFL Tight End Market and Potential Market Movers

Per my recent article on the NFL Cornerback Market, several NFL positional groups have experienced robust growth over the last 5 years. This growth can be attributed to star players maximizing their leverage and the 31.35% rise in salary cap since 2015.  The top 5 of the QB market has grown 57.96%, the safety market has experienced a 51.34% market boom, linebackers at 48.74%, and edge rushers at 40.34%.  

However, there are also positional groups that haven’t experienced the same modicum of success. The stagnant cornerback market was highlighted in my article and the devaluation of running backs has been discussed for several years. Another positional group experiencing sluggish growth is tight end. Since 2015, the top of the tight end market has only grown 6.91%, the lowest growth rate of all positional groups, excluding special teams. Below is a graph illustrating all the positions that haven’t kept with up with salary cap growth.

tight end salary growth

Tight End Market

In looking at the top of the tight end market, 3 of the 5 highest APY values have remained flat since 2016. This includes Jimmy Graham’s $10M APY, Travis Kelce’s $9.368M APY, and Jordan Reed’s $9.35M APY.  In fact, Graham’s $10M APY has been the benchmark for the TE Market since 2014. No other positional group has been close to having the same benchmark for such an extended period. Graham first became the highest paid TE when the Saints extended him to a 4 Year, $40M extension in 2014, eclipsing Rob Gronkowski’s 6 Year, $54M extension from 2012. Graham went on to play the entire deal with the Saints and Seahawks and became a free agent in 2018. The Packers then signed him to a 3 Year, $30M extension and Graham quickly regained the title of highest paid TE with the same $10M APY. The tables below illustrate the top 5 of the TE market by APY and Guarantees.

top 5 tight end contracts
tight end guaranteed money

Other noteworthy deals since Graham’s extension include Greg Olsen’s 2 Year, $17.1M extension with $12.115M guaranteed, Kyle Rudolph’s 5 Year, $36.5M extension with $16.025M guaranteed, and Trey Burton’s 4 Year, $32M FA deal with $22M guaranteed. While Burton’s deal didn’t crack the top 5 by APY, he eclipsed Jordan Reed’s fully guaranteed figure by $4M, setting the new benchmark in Fully Guaranteed at $18M.

Looking ahead, there are 3 players who I believe will uplift the market between now and the upcoming off-season.

Market Movers

  1. Travis Kelce

            The Kansas City Chiefs have had great success with tight ends over the last two decades. From 1997-2008, the Chiefs saw great production from Hall of Fame Tight End, Tony Gonzalez. Several years later, the Chiefs selected Travis Kelce in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft. In his first 33 regular season games, Kelce recorded 1,737 receiving yards and 10 Touchdowns. This led the Chiefs to extend him in 2016 to a 5 Year, $46.8M extension, making him the 2nd highest paid TE at time of signing. Since his extension, Kelce has continued to prove his worth. The table below illustrates his production among other top ranked TEs since 2016.

nfl tight end stats

Further illustrating Kelce’s value, the table below compares his production to WRs since 2016.  Kelce ranks 10th in Yards/G, 9th in TD/G, 11th in Targets/G, and 9th in Receptions/G.

kelce receiving stats

While Kelce will have 2 years remaining on his deal after this season, his level of production has given him the leverage to approach the team for a new deal. The Chiefs have also shown good faith in extending players with multiple years remaining as they extended Mitchell Schwartz this past off season. Regarding a value for Kelce, his representatives should make the case for high producing TEs to be paid like a low-end Tier 1/ high-end Tier 2 WR. This should put him in the $13M-14.5M APY range. Assuming the salary cap for 2020 is set around $200M, an APY between $13M-$14.5M would be between 6.5-7.25 percent of the salary cap. Kelce’s 2016 extension was 6% of the salary cap at time of signing. The highest paid TE by APY as % of signing was Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham at 7.5%. Kelce’s figure should be in that ballpark.

2. Austin Hooper

The Falcons drafted Austin Hooper in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Coming off a Pro Bowl season last year, Hooper’s receiving totals in his first 9 games this season puts him on pace for over 1,000 yards. Hooper is a prime example of a player maximizing his future earnings by producing at the right time as he will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after this season.  It’s doubtful the Falcons will retain him as they will have major cap issues next year, as highlighted in Zack Moore’s recent article. However, Hooper will have many buyers on the open market and should easily surpass all the current benchmarks in the TE market.

3. George Kittle

George Kittle was a great find for the 49ers in the 5th round of the 2017 draft. Since entering the league, Kittle has racked up over 2400 receiving yards, ranking 3rd in TEs. His value to the offense is further validated by his 256 targets since 2017. The next closest over the same time period is Marquise Goodwin at 169 targets. While Kittle has one more year on his deal after this season, the 49ers should do an extension early as he is the focal point in their pass game. Kittle should also eclipse all the current benchmarks in the TE market.

Other Candidates

Other candidates who could uplift the TE Market include Eric Ebron and Evan Engram. After posting career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns last season, Ebron has struggled to find the same level of production this year. However, his first-round pedigree and upside will make him an attractive option for several teams during 2020 free agency. Regarding Engram, the Giants will need to decide on whether to exercise his 5th year option by the first week of May 2020. Thereafter, he’ll be eligible to sign an extension.