This has probably been the most fast paced free agency period in recent memory. With Greg Hardy signing today with the Cowboys, the final tier 1 free agent is off the market, but in looking at who is left I would say that most of our second tier players are also gone and the NFL is already into Phase III of free agency. Normally that happens in another week or two. Instead teams were incredibly aggressive, signing some very expensive contracts within days of the start of free agency, and I wonder if this will potentially have an impact on player decisions in years to come.
Normally if players are presented with an opportunity to sign an extension in their walk year they usually do so as long as they don’t feel that are being low balled. Football is a violent game and one play can end a career without another dollar being earned. That usually gives the team a great deal of leverage in negotiations. To add to that leverage is the threat of the franchise tag that can block a player from free agency. Plus free agency can be a bit of a crapshoot as teams seem to go in cycles with money they allocate to certain positions.
But this year was something unique. With the cap rising at a rapid pace and teams looking to meet cash minimum spending requirements, free agency was like winning the lottery for many players. Contract after contract came in and the prices were outrageous compared to where things were even just a few months ago. That’s not to say this was the first time this has ever happened but it was one of the first times it seemed to hit on so many different positions.
In a rarity there were actually two players generally considered best at position that were able to hit free agency due to contractual manipulations that prevented their former teams from applying that tag. Ndamukong Suh created a media firestorm around him that saw the Dolphins give him a contract that was closer to that of a top tier quarterback than a defensive tackle. Darrelle Revis followed that up with 39 million fully guaranteed from the Jets, who were desperate for help in the secondary.
The last time we had players of that caliber hit free agency was back in 2012 when both Mario Williams and Peyton Manning were available. Manning didn’t want to play the game and settled on a reasonable price to go to Denver while Williams signed a record breaking contract in Buffalo where desperation from the Bills pushed the price more than the player’s ability. It was similar to the Dolphins push for Suh.
But it was not just the superstars cashing in. Byron Maxwell signed for over $10 million a season. Players who were castaways in 2014, like Antonio Cromartie and Brandon Flowers got massive contract. Jeremy Maclin, who has had one 1,000 yard season in his career signed an extremely player friendly contract worth $11 million. The tight end market became ridiculous with Julius Thomas hitting $9.2 million year and Charles Clay and Jordan Cameron getting over 7 million a season. This just a year after the Saints fought with Jimmy Graham over making him worth more than $9 million. There is no comparison between the level of play.
Rodney Hudson became the highest priced center in the NFL while Mike Iupati reached the $8 million year mark at guard. King Dunlap received a $7 million contract from San Diego. Devin McCourty received 9.6 million a year with a tremendous $22 million full guarantee. The only positions that for some reason had a problem hitting the big money were the pass rushers.
Looking at how things went down this year I have to believe that players will not concede on the summer time and in season extensions that usually happen. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is as good if not better than Suh, took a deal that pays him 6 million a year less than Suh. Chris Harris signed for less money and significantly less guarantees than a veteran like Flowers. These were players who were weeks away from free agency when they opted for their contracts.
Looking forward to 2016 there are a number of potential big time free agents. We have two premier quarterbacks that are going to be free agents in Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. Both players will cost a great deal to franchise and it seems clear after Ben Roethlisberger’s most recent extension that both will surpass Aaron Rodgers contract whenever they sign. If they hit free agency they may blow that contract away.
The big franchise players from this year of Justin Houston, Dez Bryant, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Demaryius Thomas should all refuse to sign their tenders unless they receive a no franchise tag designation for next year. If the team is going to extend them it’s going to have to be at free agent dollars not “we hold your rights” kind of prices. Given some of the deals signed this year these players should all receive close to record breaking contracts.
Some players likely cant avoid the tag- AJ Green, Julio Jones, Muhammad Wilkerson, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson- which is a sign of some of the small details in the new rookie wage scale that the union missed out on, but perhaps more of them will be more accepting of the franchise tag possibility if they want to run a two year risk.
The money isn’t drying out anytime soon. There are plenty of teams that didn’t “win” in free agency and will carry over millions to 2016 that they will try to spend. More and more teams are using short term veteran deals and favorable extension terms to go more year to year on the cap with the ability to turn over rosters far faster than in the past and to do it without having large amounts of dead money to compromise their spending.
Normally I would say that risk is far too high for the player to play things out, but in seeing this year’s free agency spending spree the reward is getting much bigger than it had been in the past. It should change the complexion of some of the extensions that we have seen happen in the past that are clearly favorable for the team. Free agency may already be winding down but the next 6 months might be a very interesting time for contract negotiations for some big name players.
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.