No offense to any of the impending free agents out there. This isn’t personal.
But you don’t need to rip off Bill Belichick or Howie Roseman’s free-agent board to know the truth. The new league year opens next Wednesday. And there simply isn’t a whole lot to be had on the market.
Yes, guys will get paid. There’s a good chance Carolina’s Andrew Norwell eclipses Kevin Zeitler’s benchmark of $12 million per to become the game’s highest paid guard. Ravens center Ryan Jensen has a chance of beating the record $10.34 million average Jags center Brandon Linder is getting. Patriots tackle Nate Solder could move into the Top 5 or so paid left tackles, if he chooses to bolt Foxboro.
And by now, you know soon-to-be ex-Redskin Kirk Cousins will at least have offers that will blow away what Jimmy Garoppolo got just last month from the Niners.
So the NFL is desperate for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Past that? Good luck finding much. Jags receiver Allen Robinson is coming off a blown ACL. By his own admission, Patriots corner Malcolm Butler had a bad year, then got benched for the Super Bowl. Sammy Watkins? Trumaine Johnson? Carlos Hyde? Justin Pugh?
Yeah. Lots of teams have cap space, and there’s not much here to spend it.
“I think it was Carl Banks who said it, talking about the Giants free agents,” recalled one AFC personnel exec this week. “You’re not just buying the free agent, you’re also buying the reason he’s a free agent.”
That point’s always been a good one this time of year, but it’s more applicable than ever now. Almost no high-end players without strings attached make it to the market anymore. That’s why, if you look at any free-agent list this month, you may not exactly be pushing aside plans to track the madness on March 14.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you a fun anecdote about one of the draft’s top quarterbacks that explains why teams love him; pass along the name of a position coach who could be a real difference maker on a new staff; look at the value of skill position players; break down the spot Seattle’s in after all the movement on Wednesday; and go through a ton of rumblings heading into next week.
We’ll start with the next phase of the player acquisition process, and that starts with the open of the new league year at 4 p.m. ET next Wednesday. And if you want overriding reasons on why the group, on the whole, kinda stinks, there really are two: the cap keeps rising, and teams are getting smarter in how they approach it.
“That’s definitely the case, it’s been a trend and it makes sense,” said the lead negotiator for one NFC team. “It certainly fits with the logic that more teams are being more proactive in locking up their own players. I don’t know that there’s even another side to it.”
That’s the first part: More money to spend, more intelligent ways to disperse it. But there are different levels to this, so let's get into those now...
• Good players are signed earlier. More teams are getting in front of big contracts, and the world champions are a good example of it. The Eagles gave Lane Johnson $11.25 million per coming out of his third year. Some scoffed at that price for a right tackle. Two years later, there are guards paid more. They also locked up Zach Ertz at that point, before Washington’s Jordan Reed and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce got theirs.
The rule now holds that teams can’t do deals until drafted players complete their third year, and teams are acting quickly at that point.
• More trades. We’ve certainly seen it this week. And it plays into why there are fewer cap casualties, and fewer good young players making it to the market. If you’re sick of a guy or deem him too expensive, you’re more likely than ever before to be able to find a viable trade partner.
Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus was on his way to being a 2018 cap casualty before the Jaguars dealt for him, for next to nothing, in October. Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan was headed for free agency this spring, and then the Eagles traded for him in April and signed him to a four-year, $48 million deal in November.
The bottom line is a new aggressive breed of NFL executive is out there on the trade market. And so if a talented player isn’t a fit somewhere, chances are his employer will be doing more, and finding more help, to get him to a place where he is.
• A reliance on younger players. Analytics data says it’s smart to play guys early, and that loading up on mid-round picks is a more effective way to fill out the middle of your roster than to spend $6 million or $7 million on a middle-class free agent.
The result? Teams have answers on players earlier, so they’re less likely to be caught off guard by a bushel of guys coming of age at the end of their rookie deals, making for decisions to let some go to market. Those mid-round picks who grow up fast, because the roles are there early, get contracts before they expire. And teams put more value in comp picks, and to get those you have to do less in free agency.
The Vikings are carrying upwards of $50 million in cap space (hello, Kirk) with a loaded roster in part because they’ve crushed it in this area. Adam Thielen, a former college free agent, was a big contributor as a minimum salary guy in 2016, then did a four-year deal with a base of less than $20 million last March. Likewise, defensive end Danielle Hunter and receiver Stefon Diggs were middle-round picks.
• Cap space means teams can use the tag, if need be. So what happens when you do have a late bloomer? More teams than ever have the room now to accommodate using one on a player who they might want to see another year of production from, before signing that guy long-term.
It’s how we got here with Cousins, and there are two good examples of it this year. Lamarcus Joyner was just a nickel corner for the Rams in 2017. Then Wade Phillips arrived, moved him to safety, and, in the new scheme, they really had something. So they tagged him. Ditto for Dallas and DeMarcus Lawrence, who broke through in 2017 after being dogged by injury and off-field issues earlier in his career.
Years ago, the Cowboys and Rams were tight to the cap annually. This year, Dallas was fine allotting $17.143 million to Lawrence, and Los Angeles was cool putting aside $11.287M for Joyner.
• Matters of job security. If you feel like the turnover in positions of power with NFL teams comes up in a lot of different areas, you’re on to something. It does here, in a very interesting way.
In the past, the free agent market was drive largely by GMs and coaches on the hot seat. The 2016 Jaguars would be one example: Gus Bradley made it to a fourth year, and the team signed Malik Jackson, Tayshaun Gipson, and Chris Ivory. But coaches getting such a stay of execution has become the exception, not the rule.
With fewer teams taking this sort of urgent, short-term focus to drive the market, there’s less incentive for players to get there and fewer guys whacked on the back end.
So with more cap space, and more perspective, teams have wound up following what conventional wisdom has always held—buying high on the veteran market isn’t the wisest way to build a team.
It can help to supplement already good teams, like Denver’s 2014 splash (Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders) did. But you won’t find your foundation in the middle of March.
“Teams are much more adept at seeing the whole cycle,” said one NFC team president. “More focus on comp picks, a lot more trades, it all plays into it.”
That, of course, isn’t to tell you not to get excited about what’ll happen over the next several days. The quarterback movement alone will be compelling enough to keep everyone’s attention. But it is to say that the pickings are slim, and that really isn’t just a one-year thing.
FIRST AND 10
1. We’ll have more on the Michael Bennett trade later in the column, but I wanted to address first what the Eagles are getting from the Seahawks: A player who isn’t quite what he was and picked his spots more than he has in the past, according to the three offensive coaches I asked about him. He was also a pain in the ass for the Seattle coaches. The good news? With the depth of the Eagles defensive line, Bennett will be more of a spot player there, and Philly’s locker room, on paper, is a good fit.
2. Two other points on the Eagles’ position here. One, Bennett will be replacing Vinny Curry in the defensive line rotation, and the move will open up more snaps for 2017 first-rounder Derek Barnett. Curry played 56.1 percent of the snaps last year. Barnett played 44.1 percent. In Seattle, Bennett played 84.7 percent of the snaps. And at 32, like we said, playing less could make him more effective. Two, Bennett is set to be $3.5 million cheaper than Curry for 2018.
3. The Rams trading Alec Ogletree just five months after giving him a four-year, $42.75 million deal isn’t Los Angeles saying he can’t play. He wasn’t always the most consistent player, but this is more about the value that Wade Phillips puts in inside linebackers in his defense. As it’s set up, resources are better allocated in perimeter players—edge-rushing outside linebackers and corners. So maybe a change of scenery, and back to a 4-3, will help Ogletree.
4. And if it does, the Giants just fixed a hole that’s been there on their roster forever. Some teams don’t value off-ball linebackers at the level that Ogeltree is being compensated. But new Giants GM Dave Gettleman does, and his willingness to pay both Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in Carolina is proof positive of that.
5. Slot receivers are tough to value. Aging slot receivers have a tough time getting paid. But my sense is that Danny Amendola’s going into a pretty decent market. I’d keep an eye on Kansas City, a team that can compete now and could use another security blanket for its new starter, and Amendola’s fellow ex-Texas Tech Red Raider, Patrick Mahomes.
6. When Teddy Bridgewater went down just before the 2016 season, one quarterback the Vikings kicked around as a trade possibility was Cincinnati’s AJMcCarron. And a couple years ago, Broncos GM John Elway put in a call to wrangle Case Keenum from the Rams. Today? I’d say it’s more likely that Keenum lands with the Broncos than McCarron landing with the Vikings. But that sort of history can provide clues as to these teams’ contingencies, should Cousins spurn them.
7. Widespread perception continues to hold that McCarron is likely to end up in Cleveland and it makes sense. Hue Jackson was a champion for the Alabama product before the 2014 draft, helped develop him, and then pushed for Cleveland to trade for him in October. And signing him wouldn’t preclude the Browns from drafting one high. It’s perfect, in a number of ways.
8. I think the Rams’ success in signing Andrew Whitworth to a three-year, $36 million deal last year, at 35 years old, is helping Patriots free-agent LT Nate Solder build a market. Solder is easily the top left tackle on the market, and could provide a quick-fix answer for the Broncos or Texans in an era when there are few sure-thing offensive linemen coming out of college.
9. Lots of people saw Peyton Manning selling his interests in Papa John’s and connected it to the league dropping the company as its official pizza. I’m more inclined to see it as Manning liquidating assets—and wonder if the time’s coming where, as long rumored, the Manning family sidles up to buy a piece of a team.
10. Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh’s personality hasn’t always been peachy, but I’m told he wasn’t a problem for the staff in 2017. So if the team moves on from him, it’s strictly about the money. He’s due $19 million in cash for 2018, and Miami can save $15.8 million on its cap by cutting him. Remarkable, too, that three years after doing his deal, he’s still the highest paid defensive player in NFL history.
1. Darnold has a ways to go. Sam Darnold’s decision not to throw at the combine puts pressure on him to light it up at USC’s pro day later in the month, and reviews of his board work in Indy have come back mixed. My belief is that he went into the process as the leader to be the first quarterback taken, and very clearly he has work to do now to hold the top spot. (Both Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield shone last week.) That said, my feeling is the more people get to know him, the more they’ll like him, and feel comfortable handing the keys to their operations over to him.
And what his college coach, Clay Helton, told the Bull and Fox show in Cleveland on Wednesday explains it perfectly: “No situation is too big for that young man. He does it the right way. He doesn’t come in talking or shootin’ his mouth off. … I’ll never forget when he first took over the starting job, one of our great receivers that was here at the time was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has a dynamic personality and was an older kid at that time. We’re in a 7-on-7 drill and Sam and JuJu hook up. JuJu does a great celebration right afterwards and I’ll never forget Sam walking up to him just one-on-one, not in front of the whole group, one-on-one and just saying, ‘You know what, we don’t need that. Let’s focus on our job, let’s get this practice and really continue to focus.’ I was like, ‘Wow’. For a young kid to be able to do that to a guy that’s older, a guy that was already established, to have that type of confidence to lead right off the bat in the exact, correct way, he does a great job of that. He’s such a dynamic one-on-one leader and that’s why everyone respected him.”
It speaks to Darnold’s sense for every situation as a leader, and I had my own brush with it in August. I was doing a story with Norv Turner on the ex-NFL coach’s first summer out of football and we stopped by a USC fall camp practice, which was just ending. We caught Helton and Darnold coming off the field as the rest of the team went in for dinner and to get ready for meetings. After about five minutes, Norv said to Darnold, “Well, I don’t want to hold you up, I know you got to get to dinner and meetings.” Darnold quickly responded, “Coach Helton’s right here. As long as he’s here, I’m good, and I’ve got some questions for you about Troy Aikman and Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.” Same as it was in the Smith-Schuster story that Helton told, Darnold was thinking on his feet and trying to get the most out of the situation. He had questions ready, and came away with stories on what made the quarterbacks Norv had coached great. And I left thinking that’s what a young Tom Brady or Peyton Manning would do.
That’s not to say Darnold will make it. I don’t know if he, or any of the others, will. But I do know being comfortable with a quarterback is a big part of picking one high—you’re tying your job security to the guy. And so I think if a team like the Browns or Giants or whomever likes Darnold as a player, this part of him will make them feel very good about picking him.
2. The offseason’s underrated hire. We don’t talk much about position coaches here. But I’m going to give you one that I believe has a chance to be a big-time difference-maker for his first-time head coach: new Bears line coach Harry Hiestand. Matt Nagy did incredibly well to poach Hiestand, who’d been a target for a number of guys interviewing for jobs in January, from Notre Dame. And his star guard of last year, Quenton Nelson, reminded me of that last week at the combine.
I asked Nelson how, as an elite offensive line talent, he wound up playing guard and not tackle. Nelson answered, “Left tackle, we had Ronnie Stanley. Right tackle, we had Mike McGlinchey. Center, Nick Martin. Right guard, Steve Elmer, who was a very good player. And there was a hole in the left guard spot that I competed for and I ended up playing there.” Think about that. Stanley was the sixth pick in the 2016 draft, and is now Baltimore’s left tackle. Martin was the 50th pick that year, and is the Texans’ center. McGlinchey is likely to join Nelson in the first round of this year’s draft. And Elmer actually decided to forgo his final year of eligibility at Notre Dame, after starting for two years, to pursue a career in politics. Of the five, only Nelson was a Top 100 recruit coming out of high school.
That’s a staggering record of development, and doesn’t account for Zack Martin (Nick’s older brother), who left Notre Dame the year that Nelson arrived, and has grown into the NFL’s best guard. We’ve seen the importance of line coaches the last few years, of course. Jeff Stoutland’s work last year in Philly—remember the Eagles lost Jason Peters for the year—helped the Eagles win it all and earned the ex-Alabama assistant a promotion to run-game coordinator. The difference Dante Scarnecchia makes in New England is well-documented, and Tony Sparano was huge in helping the Vikings meld new piece to fix their front last fall. Likewise, it looks like the Bears got a good one.
In fact, I hit up Nagy on this on Wednesday. He and Hiestand didn’t know each other before Nagy assembled his staff, and as first impressions have gone, the new Chicago boss put it like this: “He impresses me more and more every day.”
3. The value of Bell and Gronk. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has been contemplating retirement since the Super Bowl, and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell brought up the idea to my buddy Jeremy Fowler as Pittsburgh was getting ready to hit him with a second straight franchise tag. The common thread? The latter is clearly a contract play, while the former could be construed as one. And know what? Good for those guys. I’m not sure it’ll work, but it’d be the only way either would achieve their true worth, dollar for dollar.
It’s simple. Bell and Gronkowski are every bit as valuable as any skill-position player in the NFL. But they’re prisoners of their positions. Leverage points in the NFL are dictated by franchise tag figures, and the running back ($11.866 million) and tight end ($9.846 million) numbers lag badly behind the tag for receivers ($15.982 million). As a result, Gronkowski’s current deal, on a per-year basis, ranks below those of 20 different receivers for 2018. Similarly, the NFL’s highest-paid running back (it’s Devonta Freeman, since Bell hasn’t signed his tag) is beat out in average per year by 21 receivers. And this is before the start of free agency.
How can the elite beat the system? They can do what Bell did and force their teams to keep tagging them—a risky proposition at a position, like tailback, with a short shelf life. Or they can withhold services, a fancy way of positioning a holdout. With Gronkowski, my sense is that he’s truly considering walking away, which could prompt the Patriots to try and sweeten the pot. With Bell, it’s obvious that this is more of a strike at the Steelers to try and get what he wants. It’ll be interesting to see if either can, now or later, bust the market at their position.
4. Roger gets his pound of flesh?The way the fight over the reimbursement of legal fees waged this week has been framed as Jerry Jones vs. Roger Goodell. And that, folks, is the wrong way to look at it. This is, and always was, Jones vs. the larger body of owners, the same way Deflategate was Robert Kraft vs. the larger group. In each case, the backdrop was a single owner gaining too much power for the others’ liking.
Kraft’s transgression, according to his peers, was growing too close to Goodell and, in turn, gaining too much influence at 345 Park. With Jones, it was how he commandeered the NFL’s selection of a project to back as the league planned its return to Los Angeles, then steered the Raiders towards a new stadium project in Las Vegas. And the links are easy to put together.
Members of the league’s L.A. committee felt like Jones tried to big foot them, and five of the six members of that committee (New England’s Robert Kraft, Kansas City’s Clark Hunt, Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney, Houston’s Bob McNair and the Giants’ John Mara) also serve on the league’s compensation committee. The compensation committee, of course, is responsible for doing Goodell’s deal, and so they were the one’s scrapping with Jones over the commissioner’s contract last fall. And four members of the compensation committee (Kraft, Hunt, McNair and Atlanta’s Arthur Blank) are also on the finance committee, which was responsible for handling the penalties levied against Jones. So Jones hacked off the L.A. committee in playing the role of off-the-books director, then got some of those guys angry all over again in leading a very public fight against the league’s public face. And now we have the endgame—those owners sticking Jones with a bill in excess of $2 million for all the money the league needed to fight him over Goodell’s contract and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension.
The lesson? Sometimes one owner may seem to be a bigger deal than the next. But in the end, they’re all pretty rich, and most of them are wildly successful, and none want the next guy to ever have too much power.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
The Seahawks offseason always was going to revolve around five guys.
Defensive end Michael Bennett became, to some degree, a problem for the coaches last year and his play was less consistent with a lower top end at 32. Safety Kam Chancellor and defensive end Cliff Avril are dealing with career-threatening neck injuries. And safety Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman (who’s also hurt) are going into the final year of their contracts.
So what GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll decided to do with that quintet would tell us what we needed to know about the direction of the franchise. And today, we got a much better idea with Bennett dealt off to the Eagles and Sherman clearly on his way out, barring the way outside chance that he’d accept a pay cut.
As always, there’s a lesson here: Follow what a team does, not what it says, to figure out where it is. And Schneider hinted at it at the combine last week. The start of the overhaul flat out screams it. The Seahawks are retooling.
The aforementioned five players were on the books for $48.625 million for 2018, a tick over 27 percent of the team’s cap space. What’ll be interesting now is how the room the Seahawks clear here will be used going forward, with plenty around the league speculating that the image of the franchise could be in flux.
“There’s not noticeable decline (with all those players), but they had a lot of money allocated to defense and the offense has struggled,” said one rival NFC pro scouting director. “They have the core, those two linebackers (Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright) that they can build around, and now they can get a lot younger at spots where they had expensive pieces.
“And then they could allocate money to the offense, get Russell (Wilson) some help and some protection. And maybe get it to where Russell Wilson doesn’t have to be 90 percent of their offense.”
New England went through this over a decade ago. The Patriots won three titles in Tom Brady’s first four years as starter, with a stout defense, and workmanlike offense. That team got old, and in its place, during a dramatic 2007 offseason, Bill Belichick stocked his young quarterback’s arsenal, and Brady responded with his first MVP and the touchdown pass record. And Brady hasn’t looked back.
Just as that was when New England became more Brady-centric, you wonder if now a Seahawks team that won it all with Wilson riding shotgun to a defense-and-run-game-driven operation will lean towards making the offense as prolific as the defense once was.
What we do know is that, one way or another, Seattle’s going to look a lot different in 2018. Their actions are foreshadowing that now. And it should be interesting to see not just who else from the current team is gone, but exactly what kind of team will be taking its place.
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