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:
- Must have signed with a new team
- Was not tendered by the prior team
- 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.
|Position||Players Signed||Total Annual Value||Total Contract Value||Total Years||Average Contract Per Year|
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.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.