Front offices are getting down to business. Here are the key issues
Cowboys: They may have the two most undervalued players in the NFL in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot, even with Elliot being the fourth overall pick in last year’s draft. For this team, the CBA’s rookie compensation system is a gift from heaven that keeps on giving: neither player can renegotiate until two years from now. This luxury will compensate for the most mortgaged contract in the league, that of Tony Romo, who will cost the team almost $25 million if he’s there next year and almost $20 million if he’s not.
Eagles: The first team in NFL history with a payroll exceeding $200 million, there was not bang for the buck this year but the hope is that will reverse in future years with Carson Wentz being paid among the lower tier of starting quarterbacks in the next couple of years. Paying Sam Bradford $11 million for participating in the offseason (and carrying a $5.5 million 2017 salary cap charge) was not planned, but the cost can be seen as payment for a first-round choice shrewdly taken from the Vikings. The most contractually active team in the league should chill out next year, although their lack of playmakers is stark.
Giants: I always say that the teams who win in March rarely play in January, but this is an exception to the rule. Expensive defensive free-agent acquisitions such as Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins paid off handsomely for the short-term. Having said that, however, the odds are that at least one of them, if not two or all three, will not complete their scheduled long-term contracts.
Washington: There has been and will be lots of noise about Kirk Cousins’s pending contractual status, but his situation is very simple, as it was last year. Either Washington negotiates a long-term deal at terms that it feels comfortable with (whether it is what Cousins’ camp desires or not) or he will receive high earnings ($24 million) but low security once again. Having the backstop of the franchise tag gives teams an upper hand even with a player who, from the outside, appears to have the leverage.
Lions: Losing Calvin Johnson opened up 2016 cash to use elsewhere, including on value-adds at the same position (Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin) and 2017 cash and cap, as Johnson’s $12.9 million charge for 2016 will now come off the books. Matthew Stafford has earned $111 million in the NFL at age 28, and will likely finish his career as one of the highest-earning players in the history of football. Speaking of which...
Vikings: Sam Bradford continues to win at the business of football this year, earning $11 million from the Eagles and $7 million from the Vikings. And on March 13 a $4 million roster bonus kicks in. Their forfeiture of a first-round pick to acquire Bradford was a lost game of chicken. If the Vikings had held firm in offering a second-rounder (perhaps even a third) the Eagles, in my opinion, would still have made the deal, as they were going to get no better deal for Bradford this year. The Vikings spared no expense in 2016, leaving the least unused cap room in the league. Finally, I would be surprised to see Adrian Peterson in a Vikings uniform again; his time seems past there.
Bears: Jay Cutler is the ultimate dilemma, with fans and management alike always left trying to answer the question, “If not him, then who?” Now that the guaranteed money on his contract has run out ($54 million), the sense is they will move on, but he will leave a $16 million charge in his wake. This team also allocated nearly $20 million in cash this season to two guards (Kyle Long and Josh Sitton), a position seen by the vast majority of teams as one to save on, leaving resources for other (more valuable) positions.
Packers: As I know well from managing player finance there for a decade, the Packers spend to (or above) the cap; it is just on their own players, not ones from other teams. Eschewing free agency does not equate to low player spending. One of those players the Packers gave a top-of-the-market to was cornerback Sam Shields, who was placed on injured reserve this year with post-concussion symptoms after playing in one game. I have advocated for a roster exemption for players suffering post-concussion symptoms, and the Shields scenario illustrates such a need. His lingering symptoms speak to a need for more long-term concussion management, and such care could potentially be facilitated by a roster exemption.
Falcons: After swinging and missing in free agency in the past, they hit nicely this year with Alex Mack and Mohammad Sanu. And they have used some leftover 2016 cap room toward the future (the best use of such surplus) with recent extensions for Ryan Schraeder and Robert Alford. This front office is deep with experienced NFL veterans in player personnel.
Saints: A perennial NFL leader in money allocated to players no longer on the roster (dead money), they continue to pay for contract sins of the past. This year’s staggering $42 million included a $12.1 million charge for Junior Galette (the second highest cap charge on the team behind Drew Brees’s) and $20 million for Jahri Evans, CJ Spiller and Brandon Browner. As for Brees, he was extended earlier this year but only guaranteed through 2017, a potential expiration date on a partnership that has seemed ageless.
Buccaneers: Doug Martin lost any security on his $7 million salary next year when his PED suspension voided the guarantee attached to it. With Vincent Jackson’s contract off the books, they should use 2017 as a year to lock up key players while in the last year of the window where James Winston is highly undervalued and unable to renegotiate.
Panthers: Maybe one day we’ll find out the backstory of why the team rescinded the franchise tag on Josh Norman, letting a Pro Bowl cornerback walk without getting any compensation in return. They could have had status quo with him for at least 2016 before letting him seek riches elsewhere. They also exercised admirable restraint in keeping Luke Kuechly sidelined long after a concussion, protecting him from himself. As noted above with the Packers and Sam Shields, his situation exemplifies the need for a roster exemption for this specific injury, ensuring proper care in a sport lacking real job security and guaranteed contracts.
Cardinals: When a veteran-laden team has great success one year but regresses the next, that usually means the regression will continue. While the team has young stars in Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and David Johnson, they cannot keep expecting Carson Palmer (compensation fully guaranteed for 2017) and Larry Fitzgerald ($11 million nonguaranteed for 2017) to be ageless. The team has stated that it will place the franchise tag on Chandler Jones if they are unable to reach terms, which should tamp down any oversized contract expectations he may have.
Seahawks: While top deals have come for Sherman, Thomas and Wagner, two other defensive stalwarts—Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor—had issues with the deals they signed a couple years ago, thinking they “took one for the team” rather than squeezed their leverage as the others did. One was addressed last week (Bennett); the other featured grumbling and a true in-season holdout in the past. The Chancellor contract situation bears watching this offseason.
Rams: I would expect an overhaul in both coaching and management with this team, one that has habitually underperformed in both areas. Trumaine Johnson gladly played under a $14 million franchise tag (an overvalued cornerback number) this past season, and his situation will have to be addressed again. Despite the need for an entertaining product in the nation’s capital of entertainment, this team realistically has a two-year honeymoon period before the 2019 season, when the product must match the glitzy stadium now under construction in Inglewood.
49ers: There will be an interesting 30 for 30 one day about the steep decline this team has had since being a play away from winning the Super Bowl a few short years ago and is now bereft of talent. Colin Kaepernick renegotiated his contract with, it appears, a goal of getting out of there after last season. New coaching and management will have a clean slate, however. They brought forward almost $40 million of unused 2016 cap room into 2017, adding to the projected $80 million they already have to work with.
Check in next week for a roundup of the AFC.
Five Thoughts on the End of a Season
The reality 20 teams are now facing…
1) I always found the day after the season ended to be one of the hardest of the year; the finality is stark. Players load up boxes and clean out lockers; most will disappear until April and some will never return.
2) The day after the season was also the first time since before training camp that I would see coaches walking around in real clothes rather than the usual team-issued gear. I remember doing some double-takes with that.
3) Every year watching players exit Green Bay for the winter, one or two would always ask, “Do you have to stay here year-round?” I did; it was the job.
4) Front offices of non-playoff teams are as busy as ever these days, signing all of their practice squad players and a handful of other “street” free agents. The contracts are completely one-sided; these players have no leverage.
5) The team facilities become very quiet over the next few weeks; players are gone, coaches are in and out, and scouting staffs are sequestered in dark War Rooms where they are putting together their “Board” before the combine in February. Welcome to January in the NFL.
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