Why 2018’s Power Teams Are Sitting Out 2019 Free Agency

Why 2018’s Power Teams Are Sitting Out 2019 Free Agency

The Cowboys—loaded with young talent that they want to be able to take care off down road—are an example of why last season’s playoff teams have mostly avoided making a free agency splash so far. Why spend big (read: overpay) in what’s seen as a weak year for free agents?
March 18, 2019

The Cowboys weren’t in a position to go hog wild last week anyway—as of Sunday morning, they sat with $24.3 million in cap space and cadre of young stars to lock up. But even if their situation were different, and they did have a little more breathing room to spend, chances are they’d still have sat out all the craziness.

It is, quite honestly, what the Jones family has learned, through success and failure, about running a team in the NFL’s salary cap era, now in its 26th year.

“The biggest thing is just that free agency, I just don’t think you can make a living there,” Dallas COO Stephen Jones said over the phone around lunchtime on Sunday. “That’s what we’ve always said. I think you’re overpaying in free agency most of the time. [Free agents] are overvalued, because you’re competing in a market where you’ve got teams that don’t have as many players they have to spend on, have to use cap space on.

“And the other thing is, I don’t think you’re ever one player away. It’s a building process. You’ve got to have some really good quarterbacking to win championships, but you’ve got to put a good team around him. That whole theory that you’re one player away, it’s one that we don’t buy into like you might’ve in the past.”

Here’s the genesis of my conversation with Jones and a handful of other teams over the weekend: I spent some time looking at which teams have and haven’t spent since the market opened in earnest last Monday (and earlier than that on street free agents). What I found was staggering. And it’s so simple that you can really explain it in five words.

Most good teams didn’t spend. And here’s proof, using Spotrac’s offseason spending tracker for 2019 as our guide:

• Five of the six lightest-spending teams made the playoffs last year, and two of the three lightest spenders played in the Super Bowl. Ten of the 12 playoffs teams from last year are in the bottom 14 in spending thus far. And two of the four in that cluster that didn’t make the playoffs (Atlanta, Carolina) have been in the Super Bowl and made the playoffs multiple times over the last four years.
• That leaves two of the 18 heaviest spenders that made the playoffs. One was eighth (Philly), the other was 12th (Baltimore).
• It’s not unusual that it’d skew this way—good teams don’t spend because they’ve already paid a lot of their own guys and likely don’t feel as desperate. But a quick look at the recent past shows that this year the divide between the habits of the haves and have-nots was much more pronounced.

So how do you explain it? Well, that part’s simple too.

“It’s just a bad class,” said one NFC exec. “This class was always ‘buyer beware.’ Even the guys who got franchised, not that they’re one-year wonders, but players like Frank Clark, Dee Ford—it’s more just that you wouldn’t be sure if you would want to go invest significantly in them.”

And maybe that’s why Bill Belichick was in Barbados while the rest of us were getting all hysterical back here.


This week, we’re doing some clean up work with the headlining part of free agency in the rear-view mirror. So you’ll get to read about …

• The Tyreek Hill situation, and how it differs from the Chiefs’ handling of Kareem Hunt in December.
Kyler Murray’s pro day, through the eyes of the man who choreographed it for him.
• The free-agent signings that others in the league liked.
• The Ravens’ plan, and how C.J. Mosley’s money went to Earl Thomas—which screwed up another team’s plan to sign the Seahawk icon.
• Some numbers to explain where teams are in relation to the cap right now.
• Plus, the differing approaches of the Jets and Colts, the meaning of guarantees in the NFL lexicon, and even some love for Zion Williamson. (And no, I’m not trying to turn him into someone’s left tackle or rush end or tight end, even though he probably could do it, with his Khalil Mack-style build.)

But we’re starting with the Cowboys as an example of the fiscal responsibility of the NFL’s contenders, and how we can piece together the trends along those lines.


Dak Prescott, Byron Jones, Amari Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith are entering contract years. Zeke Elliott is too, though the Cowboys hold a fifth-year option for 2020 on him. And the pipeline isn’t dry after that, with Leighton Vander Esch and Chidobe Awuzie having potential to get really rich down the line.

It’s an issue for Dallas, of course. But not a bad one, as those go.

“It’s what you want. You want to draft players like this,” Jones said. “I saw somebody write, ‘They’ve drafted well, they’ve got a bunch of players who’ve made Pro Bowls and All-Pros.’ What more do you want? You want to win a Super Bowl, and that’s hard. But other than that, you couldn’t ask for a better problem—to have young players that are homegrown, that, you know how they’re going to react. There are no surprises.

“In free agency, you get guys in and you find out a lot about them that you didn’t necessarily know. I mean, when we let players go, there’s a reason.”

So Dallas’ plan for this offseason was never not to spend. It was to not spend on someone else’s players, because the Cowboys have enough of their own to take care of.

As Jones sees it, signing an outside free agent would probably mean letting one of the aforementioned guys go down the line, which is a tradeoff he wasn’t willing to make. Because, as he said, those guys were available for a reason, and then, as the process twists itself into a pretzel, they get overvalued on the market because of that availability.

“I’ve always said it—good players get paid like they’re great, average ones get paid like they’re good, and so on,” Jones continued. “Our philosophy, at the end of the day, is that if we sign a guy in free agency right now, we’re basically giving up a player on our roster at some point that we’ll want to keep, whether it’s a Jaylon Smith, it’s Chidobe, it’s Byron Jones.

“Obviously, we’re going to take care of these top four guys—Zeke and Dak and Amari and D-Law. And then we’ll get into the next wave of guys. We’ve got some needs, don’t get me wrong. Are there some players that could help us? For sure. But …”

The Cowboys would rather keep their own guys than roll the dice on someone else’s.

And they aren’t the only ones. The Rams scooped up Eric Weddle at an affordable rate but haven’t taken their customary swings, having just locked up Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks, with Jared Goff’s contract on the horizon. The Patriots didn’t go crazy bidding for Trey Flowers, Adam Humphries or Jesse James. And others, like the Chargers and Chiefs, have big-ticket contract situations coming.

But there’s also the matter of what was out there on the market last week, and the history of acquiring outside free agents in general. In talking with a half-dozen decision-makers who were frugal over the last seven days, a bunch of interesting stuff came up.

A lot of big acquisitions are from teams chasing draft mistakes. Kwon Alexander is coming into San Francisco to be what Rueben Foster was supposed to be. C.J. Mosley is being paid to make up for the Jets’ miss on Darron Lee. Trey Flowers will replace Ziggy Ansah in Detroit. Lamarcus Joyner got paid in Oakland months after Obi Melifonwu was whacked. And of course, Nick Foles is in Jacksonville because Blake Bortles wasn’t the player the Jags thought he’d be. Even Antonio Brown is coming and taking the old job of Cooper, who really wasn’t a bust for the Raiders.

• Teams that have studied this have found that the high-end free agents usually don’t match their previous production. One team’s research shows that only 30 percent of UFAs play the same or better with their new team versus how they did the year before, with that number dipping below 20 percent in 2018. Another team that looked at it told me their number was at about 40 percent. Either way, and for whatever reason, the play of these guys usually doesn’t just fall short of the sticker price, it also falls short of their own best.

Scheme matters. Football is such a scheme-specific game that it’s hard to expect a high-performing free agent to be as good as he was in a place where he learned and was molded to play a certain way. On the flip side, there are cases where bargains can be had if teams identify players who weren’t great fits for the systems they’d played in previously. New Packer Preston Smith is one guy who was seen as an example of that this year.

Teams are far more cognizant of the compensatory pick formula than they have been in past years, and the ability to trade those picks has only made them more coveted. And so if teams are facing the kind of dilemma Baltimore historically has, or Dallas could in the near future, where they have to let good players go, they’re less likely to be aggressive because they know it will adversely affect their ability to bring back draft pick capital back (because the comp pick formula is based on net loss/gain). The Rams, having lost Lamarcus Joyner and Rodger Saffold (and potentially Ndamukong Suh) are acutely aware of the issue this year, which is why their only big-name pickup was a street free-agent (Weddle) who doesn’t count against the comp pick formula. The Chargers are another team in that boat (losing Tyrell Williams and Jason Verrett), as are the Patriots (Flowers, Trent Brown).

Some of these teams might make noise on the trade market, or with their own players scoring deals later in the offseason. But for now, there’s good reason, as they see it, to stay quiet.

And so you have the Cowboys—who sometimes seem like they’ve never met a headline they don’t like—sitting dormant, along with a bunch of other teams that were playing a lot more recently than most of this week’s big spenders. There’s a plan, of course, for where the money in Dallas is going, and Jones disagreed with me when I said he had to navigate a contractual traffic jam.

His view is that Cooper will be taking the spot Dez Bryant once held on the books, Prescott will be in Romo’s old place, Lawrence will be where DeMarcus Ware once was, and Zeke Elliott will be where they’d once looked at having DeMarco Murray. The challenge, for the team, will be making the rest work, which was what this week’s inaction, in a roundabout way, was all about.

“Where it starts to be a logjam is, when you look, we’ve never paid our linebackers a lot of money, and we’ve got two, I think, rare ones in Jaylon and Leighton,” Jones says. “That’ll be where the logjam starts—when you figure out how to pay the pass rusher, the corners, the receiver, the quarterback, the running back, across the board on the offensive line, and then try to pay a couple linebackers.

“That’s when you start to have to get super creative. And if you go out and do a deal right now that’s not efficient, you’re starting to take some creative money away that hopefully is going to help you keep Jaylon, hopefully help you keep both corners. We’ll just have to see.”

Is there some uncertainty in that statement? Sure. But there’s also a lot of flexibility.

The kind of flexibility that, over the last week, the Cowboys and a group of other contenders were completely unwilling to give up.


EXPERTS’ REPORT CARD: BEST MOVES

So now that I’ve rained on everyone’s parade, what do you say we actually applaud a handful of moves? The other day I fired off a few texts to execs and personnel directors who have a background on the pro side of scouting, and asked a simple question: Outside of what your team did, which move did you like most?

Here’s what came back:

Exec/director 1: Nick Foles to the Jaguars. “It speaks to the issue of scarcity at QB. Supply and demand. But went they went all-in, getting him under contract, and making some tough cuts and tough decisions on other big contracts on the team to fit the most important position on the team into their cap and cash profile.”

Exec/director 2: Odell Beckham, Kareem Hunt, Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernong to the Browns. “CLV for sure! They added pieces on offense to build around their young QB to take the pressure off of him. OBJ is OBJ, but the [Hunt] signing will be big, even though he’s missing eight games. He’ll be fresh the second half of the season, just as the weather is changing! Adding Sheldon Richardson, Olivier Vernon will help bolster the DL. And they still have 8 draft picks to address other needs.”

Exec/director 3: Green Bay’s moves. “Thought [Adrian] Amos and [Za’Darius] Smith by Packers were very solid. … Solid players that they needed and didn’t super overpay for.”

Exec/director 4: Malcom Brown to the Saints. “A handful of teams did real well. Haven’t seen official numbers—but if the reports are true, really like the value of Malcom Brown to New Orleans. Really good underrated player. Very consistent. Solid three-down ability, on a championship team, and may have some rush upside.”

Exec/director 5: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Bears. “Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was one of the best value signings. Which is why it’s my favorite, $3.5 million on a one-year. prove-it deal. Clinton-Dix is still a 3-down player and is one of the top 8 safeties in the league. He is still young and for the most part durable.  One of a few safeties that has WS/SS traits.”

Exec/director 6: Cleveland’s under-the-radar signing. “The Browns signed a linebacker from the Bucs, Ardarius Taylor. Really good special-teamer, really good backup who, in the right spot, could be a starter. Just a good move. Not a big name, but a really good football player who strengthens them from the bottom up.”

As for my take, and a ton of background info, on two of the big ones we covered this week, that we’re not going as in-depth on here (in the interest of not beating you over the head with them), here you go:

Why Le’Veon Bell lost the business end of the deal – and maybe that’s OK.

How the Odell Beckham deal went down, and what it means for the Browns and Giants.


KYLER MURRAY, FROM THE FORMER NFL QB WHO’S GUIDING HIM

Smack in the middle of all the madness was Murray’s pro day in Norman, and the man running that particular part of this week’s NFL circus was none other than former Redskins coach Jim Zorn. And so to get to how this whole thing came together, I reached out to Zorn (who’ll coach Seattle’s team in the new XFL in 2020) over the weekend.

Zorn told me he’s been periodically parachuting in to get the Heisman Trophy winner ready for different aspects of the draft process. In the weeks leading up to the combine, Zorn and Murray focused on classroom work, since Murray knew he wouldn’t do the physical testing in Indy. After that, they got out and tossed the ball around, and came up with a script for Wednesday’s showcase.

The idea, Zorn said, was to show how Murray could throw, and generate power and torque, from a stationary position in the pocket.

“If we got across one thing, that was going to be it,” Zorn said. “Because when you watch highlight videos, they show how exciting a player Kyler really is when it comes to creating, and sudden movement, throwing on the run, and throwing in different positions. But a lot of these young guys who come out, it’s something that can be disguised, from a pocket standpoint, if you do all the other stuff and not drop back.

“So we concentrated on dropping back from underneath the center, and dropping from a shotgun location. We majored on those two affects.”

And in Zorn’s eyes, Murray aced this new major.

“I think he did just an excellent job,” he said. “He continued from the start of his workout to the end of the workout with same kind of velocity, power, ball speed, trajectory. He just moved all the way through, outside, inside, both left and right, and just really showed his accuracy, as well as the ball speed. Pretty impressive.”

Zorn’s been impressed, too, with how thoughtful Murray was in planning, given that he had less time (his decision to leave baseball came in late January) to ramp up for the draft than most. Compartmentalizing the mental (combine) and physical (pro day) was part of that approach—Murray even did refresher courses with Sooners coach Lincoln Riley to make sure he was ready for any question on his own offense that NFL teams might ask.

More on Murray from Zorn.

What has stuck out to you about Kyler in working with him?

“Kyler’s pretty focused on what he’s doing now and what he’s going to be doing. When it gets to that present day, he’s all there, he’s all-in, he’s not thinking about something else, he’s not thinking about what he’s going to do later. I think that was the thing I appreciated most about his workout on that pro day. When it was time to go, for however long we worked, he was concentrating. He just tried to do his thing. Very relaxed, but in a concentration mode that constantly kept pushing, pushing for the next one.”

What’s jumped out about his personality?

“I wouldn’t mistake his being quiet for feeling like he’s an aloof guy, or feeling like he wants to disconnect from everybody. No, no, no. When he was at the pro day, you could see he was very much in touch with his teammates who were actually doing the weightlifting, the movement drills and everything else. He was right there with them. And then when it was his turn, he was right there with the receivers and tight end who helped him and helped us do the workout. I felt like he was very engaging. The quietness was just, you know, ‘we’re concentrating.’

Where is he in terms of being ready for the NFL?

“Remember, he’s been a student athlete, so his preparation is a few weeks behind other guys that are getting ready for the NFL game. But his ability to learn and retain is right on. I’d say the one thing that you would have to question him about is really the offense he was with in college. And he knows that. So you realize he knows what he’s doing. And then when you start talking about the NFL game, it’s probably a little more basic terminology, when it comes to defensive terminology, and maybe more detail in coverages than he’s needed to know. But I’m not afraid at all of him learning it. I think he’s going to be right there.”

What do you think of him as a prospect?

“I’d say I don’t have any reservation as to him being successful in the National Football League. I believe he’s going to be very successful, and I’d be confident in drafting him at any point. I’m not the other teams, I can’t predict whether he’s going to be the very first pick overall or the 10th pick overall, or 30th pick overall. Who knows? Each team has its own plan. But wherever he gets chosen, whether it’s the very first pick or not, that won’t be a waste.”

Does his size worry you?

“No. It would if I didn’t feel like he had an NFL type of arm. But he can throw it, and throw it with authority. A lot of guys can throw it hard and they’ll miss, they kind of throw it in the vicinity. They get it close, the receiver has to make a play. He has the ability to throw hard and then locate the ball. He knows where he’s throwing it. He just lets it go and, I’m telling you, it’s in a great location to catch. When you watch the workout again, we threw 60-some balls, he threw one go route over the guy’s head, because he heaved it like he was throwing that deep post he threw the play before. But when you look throw after throw, those balls are coming in at almost the same locations, they’re not dying. He finishes throws and they’re accurate.”

Next up for Murray, per Zorn, are a slew of private workouts with teams.


CAP SPACE: WHO’S GOT IT, WHO DOESN’T

Just to reset, before we get to the rest of the column, here are the 10 teams with the most cap space, and 10 with the least cap space, per Sunday’s internal league report:

Most room

1) Colts $77.07M
2) Texans $46.94M
3) 49ers $37.18M
4) Browns $35.60M
5) Jets $35.46M
6) Dolphins $33.36M
7) Bills $33.13M
8) Raiders $32.35M
9) Titans $31.464M
10) Lions $29.45M

Least room

1) Falcons $4.88M
2) Patriots $5.55M
3) Vikings $5.91M
4) Steelers $6.60M
5) Panthers $6.73M
6) Bucs $6.87M
7) Rams $8.04M
8) Giants $12.26M
9) Chargers $13.89M
10) Seahawks $15.00M

A couple other interesting notes from this Sunday’s report versus last Sunday’s. One, the Eagles have gone from being the seventh-tightest team to the cap ($15.59 millionM) to having the 11th-most room ($28.82M). And two, NFL teams have spent $403.735 million in cap space over the last seven days. They had a collective of $1.123 billion in room on March 10. That number is now at $720.26 million.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

1. On Nov. 30 at 2:33 p.m. Eastern time, video surfaced of then-Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman at a Cleveland hotel. At 8:52 p.m. ET that night, less than six hours later, Kansas City announced it was cutting Hunt, chairman Clark Hunt saying in a statement that Hunt was “not truthful” with the team when details of the incident surfaced months earlier. So, how relevant is Hunt’s cast to Tyreek Hill’s? As of now, it’s hard to say.

KCTV reported that police were called twice to Hill’s house in Overland Park, Kans., this month, once on March 5 for a child abuse/neglect complaint, and again on March 14 to investigate an alleged incident of battery to a juvenile. Hill’s name appears on the first report, the investigation of which was closed on March 8, but not the second; the alleged victim is reportedly Hill’s 3-year-old son. Hill’s fiancée, who is the boy’s mother and who is pregnant with twins, is listed on both reports under “others involved.” No charges had been filed against Hill as of Sunday.

Given Hill’s history—he pled guilty to domestic violence battery charges after choking and punching his pregnant girlfriend while at Oklahoma State in 2014—and how quickly the Chiefs responded in the Hunt case, it’s fair to ask why there hasn’t been such swift action here. There are a couple ways of looking at it. One, as Clark Hunt said, Kareem Hunt lied, and the video made his case clear. We don’t have that sort of clarity yet in Hill’s situation. The Chiefs’ statement read that the team is in the process of “gathering information” and has been in touch with the league and the cops. Second, it’s worth noting Hill’s talent—I don’t think you’d be taking a leap to conclude that if this were some guy covering kickoffs, with a prior history like Hill’s, he’d be gone just about instantly. Bottom line, Hill’s still around because of how good he is. So we’ll see where this goes.

2. Also, because of the previous incident, if the allegations against Hill prove true, the Chiefs have themselves to blame in this case. Andy Reid has always been sympathetic to players seeking second chances. And giving players second chances exposes teams to risk. Most NFL clubs had Hill off the draft board in 2016. As one personnel chief explained his team’s 2016 draft opinion of Hill to me on Sunday: “He was fast and explosive at Oklahoma State. But untouchable off the field.” The Chiefs took Hill in the fifth round and benefited greatly in the three seasons since, to the point where they were ready to reward him this offseason with a contract that was set to stretch into nine figures. The potential outcomes here range from Hill being exonerated and getting that windfall, to never playing in the league again. Clearly, there’s still a lot learn here.

3. If you want to make sense of what the Ravens have done over the last week, the money is where you want to look. Baltimore parted ways with four big pieces: C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith, Eric Weddle and Terrell Suggs. Weddle was cut; Smith was at a deep position and was actually discussed in trade talks in 2018. Mosley and Suggs were really the two the Ravens made an effort to hang on to. Suggs wanted to go home to Arizona, and got a good deal from the Cardinals. As for Mosley, the Ravens’ offer to him reached $14 million per year, but the deal the Jets put in front of Mosley in the wee hours of Tuesday morning was in another universe. So the Ravens’ plan became to wait for the first wave of signings to pass, then find a leadership type on offense, defense and special teams. They wound up with Mark Ingram on offense and Justin Bethel on special teams, then moved the money they’d earmarked for Mosley over to Earl Thomas and swooped in to essentially intercept the five-time All-Pro before he could land with the Chiefs. (Kansas City had a one-year, $12 million deal on the table to pair Thomas with Tyrann Mathieu, which looked like it was going to get done.)

The goal for the Ravens was to act with fiscal responsibility and repair their finances by doing more flat deals (even year-to-year, to stop the flow of salary-cap debt), and that was accomplished. The idea, in a post-Joe Flacco world with new GM Eric DeCosta at the helm, is to create room to keep guys (they would have liked to hold on to pieces like Ryan Jensen and Ricky Wagner in the recent past), be more aggressive in doing so (there’s now some regret in not getting Mosley done last year), and maintain flexibility. Of course, the critical questions long term for the Ravens surround Lamar Jackson’s development. But at the very least, with some tweaks on the business side, they believe they’ll be positioned to be better around him.

4. The Raiders’ decision to move from Donald Penn and sign Trent Brown starts with a significant decline in Penn’s play over the last two years. And it also relates to some of the issues that have arisen around him through that time. Penn held out in August 2017, as the Raiders came off a playoff year with the offensive line as their foundation; he only reported after he was promised a raise, which came a month later. That his play crumbled after his holdout had been rewarded created a ripple effect on a culture of accountability that had been built in the locker room. Jack Del Rio was gone three months later. Penn was always a little bit different—“he’s never been easy,” said one coach—and it was harder to justify keeping him once the price tag went up and the production went down. So he’s gone, and it’s fair to ask whether he can fulfill his stated goal of being someone’s left tackle this year. Oakland will move ahead with a new left tackle, who brings with him some of his own questions on motivation, but also high-end potential.

5. The NFLPA sent out a scathing memo (which we obtained over the weekend) to player agents after a group of them were invited to the union’s rep meeting in Miami last week. It’s a little over two pages long, so we can give you the gist of it—the union hoped to discuss strategy for a labor war in 2021, and while the agents there said they agreed that was important, the players in attendance felt like they were being lectured about which specifics within that broader topic mattered, rather than being presented with solutions. So what should you, the football fan, take from all this? To some degree, agents outside the big companies have been warring with the union for the better part of a decade. Some players are going without agents now. Some agents believe their industry is under siege. And it would be nice for everyone involved if there was a way to get everyone pulling in the same direction, because no one is enjoying the infighting more than the owners who’ll be on the other side of the table for the next couple years.

6. The 49ers remain the Kings of the Contract. They brought in three headliners—Kwon Alexander, pass-rusher Dee Ford and tailback Tevin Coleman—and all are on multi-year agreements that give the team year-to-year flexibility. Ideally, the team’s draft picks deliver, and those guys pan out, and then they have decisions to make. The good news is that they’ve got the flexibility to go in whatever direction they need to.

7. Did the Jets pay a tax on their free agents? Sure they did. But they had cap space burning a hole in their pocket, and there is one good sign that you can take on each of the four guys they made a hard run at—their original teams, at one point or another, fought to keep them. Mosley, as we said, was offered a deal at $14 million per by Baltimore before accepting $17 million per in Jersey. Jamison Crowder had $8 million per on the table from the Redskins. Obviously, the Vikings wanted to hold on to Anthony Barr (since they wound up keeping him, in an unorthodox manner). And the Steelers offered Le’Veon Bell significantly more last year than the Jets wound up paying him, before deciding to walk away after he sat out 2018. Of course, the reason the Jets have all that space is because they have one player left from the 2013 (Brian Waters), ’14 (Quincy Enunwa) and ’15 (Leonard Williams) drafts, so this is far from a perfect science.

8. Credit to the Vikings for finding a way to keep their own. Last year they were aggressive in going and getting Kirk Cousins and Sheldon Richardson, and the thought at the time was that they were going to have pick and choose between four cornerstones going into contract years: Stefon Diggs, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. Kendricks got done in April. Diggs and Hunter followed suit within days of each other in July. And then the thought, a valid one, was that Barr would be the casualty of the cap crunch. So the fact that he, like the other three, is now signed long-term, regardless of the circumstances? Nice cap gymnastics by Minnesota cap chief Rob Brzezinski, along with GM Rick Spielman and assistant GM George Paton. And no time for a breather—those guys are now working on an adjustment to Adam Thielen’s deal.

9. As we mentioned above, the Colts enter the second week of the league with $77.02 million in cap space. That’s more than $30 million clear of the team with the next most space (Houston), and nearly $40 million clear of the team with third most space (49ers). So what gives in Indy? Well, the Colts decided that absent signing a true difference-maker, they’d try to maintain their flexibility as their young core comes of age. So they brought in one free agent at significant cost, Panthers WR Devin Funchess, but on a one-year deal, and rewarded one of their own (Pierre Desir got a three-year, $25 million deal). And now, they’ll pluck from the back end of free agency, which is where they found Eric Ebron, Ryan Grant and Matt Slauson last year, around the time they brought Desir (who was a 2017 waiver claim of GM Chris Ballard’s) back. So yeah, they haven’t been all that active yet. But I wouldn’t bet against Indy using all that space in a smart way.

10. I’d also keep an eye on value pickups on the trade market now. The reason the Giants moved to acquire veteran guard Kevin Zeitler, the Browns got pass rusher Olivier Vernon, and Jets dealt for Kelechi Osemele, as we covered last week, was in anticipation that the price would get out of control on a weak free-agent market, which is exactly what happened. So I’d expect teams will be active the next couple weeks asking on veterans nearing the end of their contracts at positions that were either weak, or where spending got out of whack in free agency. One thing I did hear: The Patriots were making calls on receivers toward the end of the week. Maybe just routine tire-kicking. Maybe more. We’ll see.


… OF THE WEEK

QUOTE

"That was something that, I was weighing the options between both teams. It was tough. Obviously, [the Patriots] have a lot of success with guys similar to me."

Receiver Adam Humphries on choosing Tennessee over New England. And now, I want to see the Patriots draft Hunter Renfro, and validate three years of jokes on the ol’ Twitter machine, even worse than I did before.


TWEET

I’m not saying it was or it wasn’t. All I’m saying is that I don’t think my theory of Tuesday was far off (or off at all). Think about it. If you really wanted out, you’d want the problems you had to seem unfixable. And what can’t you fix? You can’t fix crazy. So Brown makes sure the Steelers think he’s just crazy enough to do anything, and gets a ticket out of town, along with a fat new contract. Once it’s over? Mustache gone. And Brown’s crazy like a fox. And I’m not crazy for thinking this all along.


CLIP

If you’re unfamiliar, these are highlight reels of the presumed top three quarterback prospects in the draft class of 2020, 13 months out: Alabama’s Tua Tagovialoa, Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Oregon’s Justin Herbert. I’m leaving them here for fans of the Dolphins, and maybe the Giants too, and other teams that may or may not choose to pass on this year’s quarterback class in anticipation of next year’s.

The Jets and Browns did that in 2017, waiting until 2018. Both passed on Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes in the process, winding up with Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, respectively. It’ll take time to assess the wisdom of those decisions, but I absolutely think a team or two could take a similar approach this year.

And so when you’re looking at Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Daniel Jones and the rest, know that quarterback-needy teams are likely comparing them against more than just one another.


And this was pretty creative by the Broncos.


And that one was awesome.


MEME

Belichick was probably laughing at the hysteria and overspending from Barbados this week. But it’s fair to ask where the Patriots stand right now—and whether or not their approach would be different, in putting more around Tom Brady, if Dee Ford had lined up onside in the fourth quarter in January.

I do remember the reaction after New England lost in the conference title game of the 2006 season thanks to a deficiency in offensive skill (after the departures of Deion Branch and David Givens). The Patriots traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and signed Donte’ Stallworth. Maybe those kinds of moves are still coming. There’ve been rumblings that New England investigating the trade market for receivers after striking out on Humphries. We’ll see.


Like I said, I get the Giants’ logic. But that doesn’t make what this former Giant, Will Blackmon, tweeted any less funny.


Unreal. I texted with Andrew Hawkins after he tweeted this and he told me Thomas has lost 70 (SEVENTY!!) pounds. Which would put him in the Nick Hardwick category of ex-NFL linemen.


SIX FROM THE SIDELINES

1. Good for Zion Williamson, playing, and dominating, in Charlotte this weekend. It’s not crazy that an athlete would want to experience playing his sport on that kind stage after all, no matter what some people would have you believe. And seeing the kid’s passion would make me want to draft him even more now if I was an NBA team.

2. That’s not to begrudge anyone who does decide to protect himself in a spot like that. I think NFLPA president Eric Winston has articulated the dynamic best, as I’ve talked to him about decisions made by football players, like Christian McCaffrey and Denzel Ward, to skip bowl games. His point was always that the players have the facts, and can make educated business decisions. From there, he’d say, it’s up to them, and not anyone else.

3. I do wonder how far we let these sort of things go, though. The Lakers made the right call, now 8.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West with 13 to play, in sitting LeBron James against the Pistons on Friday night. But that’s still tough for the NBA to explain to a fan in Detroit who might have bought those tickets in October to see one of the all-time greats play. I don’t know how you fix it.

4. Andy Staples is doing God’s work answering this question. And if NCAA football is on its way back, I may have to start playing video games again.

5. Dan Jenkins wasn’t one of my influences in getting into this business—for me, it was guys like Will McDonough, Bob Ryan, Peter Gammons, Mike Lupica and old colleague Peter King. But it’s been cool to read stuff about him this week, like this piece from Michael Rosenberg on our site. (And while we’re here, happy 99th to the legendary Sid Hartman!)

6. … And I always thought Aunt Becky was so wholesome!


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

I get this question a lot, so I figured this would be a good place to address it: Why is the NFL the one place where the word “guarantee” doesn’t mean much is actually, you know, guaranteed? It’s bugged me for a while that all of us do things this way, because it’s intellectually dishonest. But the truth is, more often than not the use of “guarantees” in reporting only means money is guaranteed against injury.

Let me show you what I mean:

Le’Veon Bell
Reported guarantee: $35 million
Actual guarantee: $25 million

C.J. Mosley
Reported guarantee: $51 million
Actual guarantee: $35 million

Dee Ford
Reported Guarantee: $45 million
Actual Guarantee: $19.75 million

The reported guarantee, in each case, was the injury guarantee. Which isn’t really guaranteed unless the player suffers a catastrophic injury, like Alex Smith did in November. Otherwise, the team maintains the flexibility to bail from the deal owing just what we listed as the actual guarantees above. That makes Ford’s contract a one-year deal with team options, and Bell’s and Mosley’s two-year deals with team options.

Really, the reported guarantees here amount to injury insurance. But somewhere along the line, the word “guarantee” became standard in these cases, allowing the waters to be muddied on what the player is certain to get.

And it’s hard to blame agents for trumpeting these very limited guarantees as something more, when everyone else is doing it, the business is so competitive, and most of the public really only pays attention to whatever hits first. They get reported that way, because our business is competitive too. Conversely, most teams couldn’t care less what’s out there. What matters to them is what’s in the contract.

This approach doesn’t do players any favors in the long run. It creates the perception that they’re getting more money than they are. It clouds the need for changes to the funding rule, an archaic guideline that forces NFL teams to fund every dollar they fully guarantee a player, giving teams cover to create policies against doing so. And it misleads younger players and inflates their financial expectations.

So beware when you read about “guarantees,” because there’s a pretty good chance when what you’re looking at isn’t exactly what it seems.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.