10 Thoughts on Free Agency

Moneyball comes to the NFL, fullbacks are getting paid and the Cowboys are in a tough spot with Tony Romo’s salary-cap hit. Plus a look at the “golden-ticket” winners, the barely there guarantees for some veterans, and the latest dysfunction in Washington
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We aren’t even a full week into the 2017 League Year, and already there’s a lot of news to analyze following the opening of free agency. Settle in.

1.Having been around the business of sports my entire professional career, I am oddly giddy about the Texans-Browns trade involving Brock Osweiler—a trade that brings the NFL into the 21st century. As previously written in this space, I had lobbied the NFL for years about allowing the trading of money and/or salary cap room; these proposals were always denied. The NBA and Major League Baseball have always had trades that involve variables such as cap space, expiring contracts and future assets, while these concepts have been foreign to the NFL. Until now.

The Browns only took on the albatross of the second year of Osweiler’s Texans’ contract, a fully guaranteed $16 million, so that they could acquire a 2018 second-round pick (a couple of lower-round picks were also exchanged). The Browns’ hiring of former MLB analytical guru Paul DePodesta as their chief executive is now in motion; Billy Beane (and Sam Hinkie) would be proud, as the Browns, with ample cap room and a billionaire owner, are paying $16 million for a valuable future asset.

Or possibly not. The Browns may turn around and trade the pick, a move complicated by the same $16 million guaranteed salary precipitating the first move. My sense is that the Browns will have to pay off some of that $16 million through a bonus—something allowed and done before—and trade the rest of the contract for a draft pick and/or player. For example, they may give Osweiler an $8 million bonus and then trade him and his $8 million salary (high backup quarterback money) for a mid-round pick.

Clearing up one misconception out there about the Browns “needing to spend all that cap room.” Minimum spending thresholds—which I think are too low, but that is another story—are only accounted every four years, with the last accounting having just ended. The Browns, and all teams, won’t be judged on their spending until after the 2020 season.

Moneyball and “trust the process” have (finally) entered the NFL.

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2.In my time in Green Bay managing the cap, I resisted the annual temptation to mortgage (restructure) Brett Favre’s contract for cap purposes—“short-term gain for long-term pain”—so we would not leave a large cap charge in his wake (his “dead money” was $600,000). My not-so-humble brag is relevant now that Tony Romo leaves behind a cap charge of $19.6 million, whether taken as a hit this year or spread out between this year and next. The Cowboys will be operating with this debit on their cap, their highest player cap charge, for a player who will likely end up playing elsewhere. 

I know I have been critical of teams like the Cowboys or Saints in their cap management, but there are consequences such as 1) letting players go to market rather than being able to be proactive and lock them up and 2) not playing with a full deck due to non-roster charges eating up cap space. The Cowboys are now paying the bill on Romo; Drew Brees’s bill with the Saints will come due in the next couple of years.

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3.Speaking of quarterbacks, I am not surprised that the Bears are paying Mike Glennon $14.5 million average per year (APY) and $18.5 million guaranteed. Scarcity creates value; teams never let quarterbacks with any discernible level of production hit the market (Peyton Manning in 2012 was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime situation). Look at this year's quarterback market: Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, Geno Smith, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, etc. Glennon looks like a runway model compared to this motley crew.

Glennon and Tyrod Taylor—newly restructured with the Bills—now fill a void in the veteran quarterback marketplace between “starter” money—over $17 million APY—and “backup” money of $3-10 million APY. 

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4.Like every year, there are 15-20 golden-ticket winners, with this year’s group including Stephon Gilmore, Calais Campbell, AJ Bouye, Andrew Whitworth and more. But even for these players, the best of the best with the most leverage in the league, the contracts are “two years and we’ll see.” I am not sure what it’s going to take to get better security in these deals. Perhaps one way to make incremental change is when the team says it will guarantee $25 million on a five year deal, the agent demand that they guarantee $5 million each year, rather than all $25 million secured in the low-risk first two years of the deal. Agents with this kind of leverage have to lead the charge toward fuller guarantees, and that continues to be lacking.

5.In addition to not breaking the seal of fuller guarantees, only one deal changed the top of the market for their positions, although a couple are at the top level. Kyle Juszczyk’s $21 million deal over four years with the 49ers more than doubles the top of the established fullback market of roughly $2.3 million APY. Beyond this stunning number, the Bills signed not one, but two free-agent fullbacks (Tom Tolbert and Patrick DiMarco). The position—one that several teams have chosen to proceed without—had perhaps its best day in history on Thursday. Fullbacks...who knew?

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6.Speaking of the 49ers, who were highly aggressive with a depleted roster, a theme of familiarity and professionalism ran through their signings. Kyle Shanahan knows Brian Hoyer and Pierre Garçon as players with a high work ethic and qualities of leadership, toughness and character. Garçon leveraged the interest of another incoming coaching staff that had coached him and knew his character—the Rams—into an astounding deal for a 30-year old receiver ($20.5 million guaranteed). Coaches love players like Hoyer and Garçon, and it showed this week. Character counts, and has value.

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7.Even on the first day of free agency—the best day of the year for player-friendly deals—there were a surprising number of one-year deals and deals with no security. The Eagles particularly leveraged players not seeing the market they hoped with Alshon Jeffery taking a one year, $9.5 million deal (plus incentives) and Torrey Smith and Chance Warmack receiving only $500,000 guaranteed, an amount the Eagles will not hesitate eating. Forget the guidelines of “two years and we’ll see” or even “one year and we’ll see”—these are “let’s see in a few months.” Perhaps the legal tampering period gave these players an early dose of reality.

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8.Dysfunction, mistrust and partisanship in Washington, DC … imagine that? I have known recently deposed general manager Scot McCloughan since 1999, when he was an area scout with the Packers. I have always found him to be a skilled evaluator of talent. With the Redskins’ preemptive strike to fire him for “for cause”—voiding the team’s obligation to pay him for the next two years, we know there will be (and probably have already been) lawyers. However, I would expect and hope that Bruce Allen (a former agent turned team executive like myself) has thoroughly vetted whether he is on solid ground in firing Scot. Buckle up; this dispute may take a lot longer to resolve than the Kirk Cousins situation.

Speaking of which…

9. Although clearly in the minority on this, I wrote last week defending the Cousins repeat-tag strategy as reasonable in using the powers given by the CBA to retain the team’s most important player. Cousins’ inherently agreeable nature made it virtually impossible for him to stage any rumble of discontent; no one would ever believe his actions were sincere. He has signed his one-year contract and no, he is not getting traded. As for a long-term deal, I think that could still happen: it is surprising how enmity can fade when there is a deadline and tens of millions at stake.

Two things happened last Friday: the Browns released Robert Griffin III, the player for whom the Redskins mortgaged the future to draft in 2012, and Cousins—taken by the same team in the same draft in the fourth round—signed a one-year deal for $24 million. Life comes at you fast.

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10.Often the biggest deals are not with new teams, but rather with existing ones. Deals for Nick Perry, Brandon Williams, and Chandler Jones were examples of teams spending big on free agents, just not on players coming from other teams. One misconception about teams being “active” is that it necessarily means spending externally; often the biggest spending teams do so internally (last year’s Eagles were a prime example).

Winning in March usually does not translate into winning in January. For the sake of their fans of teams like the Jaguars and Browns, let’s hope there are better translations ahead.

Finally, some names still sitting and waiting for a market—any market—to develop read like a 2014 Pro Bowl roster: Romo, Jay Cutler, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Darrelle Revis, Colin Kaepernick, LeGarrette Blount and more.

The NFL: Not For Long. Indeed.

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