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.