Shaquill Griffin, clutching his cellphone to his ear and grinning, didn’t have to say anything. His twin brother, Shaquem, knew right away, from across the living room. The physical reaction was undeniable.
“I kind of dropped to the ground,” Shaquill recalled. “My brother was on the couch, looking at me crazy because obviously my eyes start to water up. So he knew what happened.”
What got Griffin to fall to his knees were four simple words from his agent, Buddy Baker: You’re a Jacksonville Jaguar. And with that, in a year as tough as any has been in a decade for free agents in NFL, the former Seahawk Pro-Bowler sealed a move back across the country to his home state and scored the sort of second-contract payday that every player enters the pros looking to get.
By the time Griffin, Baker and I got on a three-way call late Tuesday afternoon to talk about all this, while the emotion had subsided a little, Griffin was still overwhelmed enough to admit that he really hadn’t had the chance yet to put in perspective the path he’d taken from drills with his dad in the yard to Lakewood High in St. Petersburg to UCF and then the NFL. His plan was to spend some time on Wednesday reflecting.
But he did have a singular memory from the day that’ll stand out forever.
Some people believe twins have a symbiotic relationship, and a connection that’s unspoken. If that’s true, then this scene in the Houston-area house the Griffin brothers recently bought together is proof, because just as Shaquill had a physical reaction to the life-changing news, Shaquem, himself a free agent, had a physical reaction of his own.
Shaquem, before Shaquill could even get off the phone, starting crying, then started coughing, then bolted out of the room, and then Shaquill heard something unmistakable.
“I think he threw up, actually, if I’m not mistaken,” Shaquill said. “You might need to ask him on that one. I think he threw up. I think he was more excited than I was. I’m gonna let you ask him on that one.”
We did get Shaquem to reluctantly confirm that he did, indeed, lose his breakfast late on Tuesday over the big news.
And who could blame him? In an instant, he saw his twin get $40 million richer.
Free agency isn’t over, but things have calmed down a little, and in this week’s GamePlan, we’re here to take you through it. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• A ranking of the best of what’s left.
• Themes of the early parts of free agency.
• Why teams have cap space in the first place.
But we’re starting with the story of how free agency went for one big name in the most bizarre of circumstances.
Over the last few months, Baker and Shaquill Griffin would get on the phone every so often to discuss updates on Griffin’s situation—and, really, there wasn’t as much as there normally would be between an agent and a pending free agent to talk about. Yes, Baker and Griffin did their homework on what might be out there (Baker through normal conversation with teams, Griffin by talking to other players), and sure they could read tea leaves. They could set priorities and talk through contingencies.
But there was no combine this year, and the fact that the cap was set to fall precipitously, by as much as $23.2 million per team (it didn’t wind up being that much) created a lot more uncertainty, and a lot buzz about where certain players might be headed and for what.
So last Friday, with the cap in place, Baker and his top lieutenant, Tony Bonagura, got Griffin on a call to lay out the landscape—and be as honest as possible with one of their premier clients. In a normal year, bidding on a player like Griffin would come fast and furious, and a deal might be in place within an hour or two of the legal tampering period opening. And Baker and Bonagura were on that call to tell Griffin that this year, because of the cap, things probably wouldn’t go down like that.
“He explained how the cap works now, with the reduction, with everything that happened this year,” Griffin said. “So, just … patience. I thought it was nerve-wracking to not know where you’re going yet, but after having that whole sit-down it put me at ease and I knew I was in a good spot. I just have to let it happen. So I’m gonna work out and stay busy, just go get my body back right. And whatever team it is that I fall on I fall on. That conversation that we had was perfect. It just set me up to put my mind at ease and stay patient.”
Baker said, “And this is going to sound disingenuous, but I’m telling you, it’s true: In all my 20-plus years, I’ve never had a client who I felt trusted us in this process more. Which made things a lot easier. He couldn’t have been easier to deal with in the situation.”
Still, Baker admits now that, after the call, there was a personal level of uneasiness heading into the weekend, not knowing where things would go on Monday. There’d be fewer bidders with less cap space and more players available, and beyond just the cap, some teams’ cash spending figured to be toned down in the midst of pandemic economics as well.
The first few hours didn’t help ease those concerns.
After the opening bell rang, at noon ET on Monday, Baker’s phone didn’t—or at least it didn’t nearly as much as he’d expected it to.
The first wave of action was heavy on edge rusher deals. Shaq Barrett agreed to stay in Tampa at $18 million per year. Matthew Judon went from Baltimore to New England. Things heated up for Carl Lawson (he wound up going to the Jets), Yannick Ngakoue (Raiders) and Trey Hendrickson (Bengals). But the corner market proved to be slow, and Baker’s advice to Griffin that he’d have to be patient proved prophetic.
And then, at about 4 p.m., the floodgates opened and calls started coming. Baker had planned on being home for dinner at 8 p.m.—his daughter, home from college, was cooking for him—but wound up having to stay at his office in downtown Indianapolis, with no time to retreat back to the suburbs. At 9:05 p.m., Bonagura called down to a New York–style pizza place nearby that closed at 9, and begged them to stay open. The pleading didn’t work, so the last few hours of work for those two were done over Papa John’s.
During those hours, Baker said about 10 teams were in contact with him on Griffin, and they were able to narrow the list down to three by midnight. Between noon and midnight, the agent and the player had a half dozen phone calls, to work through everything that was being offered, and who seemed serious and who didn’t.
“Interest is always gauged by a number of things,” Baker said. “Who’s calling, how often they’re calling, but importantly the level of the offer that you receive. It’s easy to say, Hey, we’re interested, but we’re negotiating [something else] right now. If you’re interested, it’s time to present us with the offer that shows the commitment that you’re ready to make. And so I would say over the course of that, we had different levels.”
The last phone call on Monday night, right around midnight (11 p.m. in Houston), led to Baker advising Griffin that three teams were serious—the Jaguars, the Seahawks and a third team (one Baker declined to name). Baker needed Griffin’s blessing that he was truly willing to go to those three and would move forward with negotiations with all three on Tuesday.
That was enough to put Griffin’s mind—which was racing a little during those four slow hours at the start of the legal tampering period—at ease as he went to sleep. Baker told him he anticipated a deal being done around midday Tuesday.
“I felt good Monday night, knowing that the decision would be made on the Tuesday,” Griffin said. “I wasn’t nervous, knowing that the next morning, I know something’s going to happen and it will be a good thing. … Something good for me and my family, something different, I was excited for it. Everything was good going to sleep Monday night.”
So Griffin went to sleep, and Baker drove back home just before 12:30 a.m. ET.
Through all of their early conversations, Baker knew how Griffin felt about Seattle, and that leaving there wouldn’t necessarily be easy for his client.
“They gave me my first opportunity,” Griffin said. “I built relationships there, I started my foundation there. Everything that I want to do as a player, I started there. So, of course, I had some love for Seattle and was hoping that I could go back there. But, end of the day, I know it’s a business. And I know what’s going on in this world.”
But at the same time, a connection to new Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, in addition to the fact that Griffin was a native Floridian, helped warm him to the idea of Jacksonville as he started his day on Tuesday.
Griffin has grown close with Washington receiver Terry McLaurin, another client of Baker’s, the last couple of years, and Griffin was able to get intel on what playing for Meyer would be like if he did, indeed, choose Jacksonville. With winning a stated priority for Griffin, going to a team that finished 1–15 last year might not make a ton of sense. McLaurin was able to put Griffin’s mind at ease in that area at least a little.
“He wants guys who are very serious about football, who handle their business and that he’s a very demanding coach, but it’s produced the results,” Baker said. “And so here again is a guy who hadn’t coached in the NFL yet. But obviously, the reason he got the job, and one of the things that was important to Shaquill. was the winning aspect. And again, I think every player always says that. But I’m just telling you, that’s real conversations that we’ve had through the process.
“So understanding how he wins, why he wins, what the expectations are … [Griffin] wants to make sure that everyone’s going to be performing at that level.”
And that led into Tuesday negotiations. Baker was cognizant of Griffin’s affinity for the Seahawks but moved forward with the three teams on even footing, and the principle that he wasn’t going to shop one team’s offer to another, or give Seattle any sort of right of first refusal for sentimental reasons.
With guideposts in place, the best way to describe how something like this is handled is to compare it to a silent auction, with three parallel negotiations taking place.
“We were halfway through the alphabet when we went to sleep on Monday night,” Baker said. “So now we had to take that second half of the alphabet and finish it off on Tuesday. And there’s a lot of things that go into that. Again, just because you’re negotiating with one club, you’re not closing off discussions with another club.”
So as negotiations ensued with the three teams, others from the initial round of calls checked back in, most with a question: Why is Shaquill still out there? That, it turned out, happened to be the pace of the corner market, which had lagged well behind the market for edge rushers.
By about 11 a.m., through Baker’s talks with Jaguars GM Trent Baalke, Jacksonville had distinguished itself. Baalke, not allowed to speak with Griffin yet, by rule, was clear with Baker on what he thought of Griffin, a big, long corner with 4.3 speed that mirrored the type that Meyer used to recruit to Ohio State. With Joe Cullen coming over from Baltimore, the Jags also checked a box in having a scheme that would use Griffin in different ways, an idea that Griffin had told Baker intrigued him before he had any idea who’d be interested.
So Baker called Griffin and told him that he was going to try and solidify the back end of the contract, and if he could, he wanted Griffin’s permission to do the deal.
“Basically, if they’re agreeing, we’re gonna run with it,” Griffin said. “Once we got off the phone, after that discussion, I knew for a fact that something good was going to happen. And so I was waiting for the phone call back.”
With $14 million in 2021 and $26.5 million over the first two years agreed to, the two last terms that Baker sought were a partial third-year guarantee and a third-year roster bonus. He got the former with the Jaguars agreeing to guarantee $4.5 million of Griffin’s $11.5 million base salary for 2023 against injury (taking the total guarantee to 72.5% of the deal). And landing the latter was important too—having a $1 million roster bonus due in March of 2023 (with the additional $4.5 million then becoming fully guaranteed) will force the team to make an early decision on keeping him that year.
Add it up, and Baker was able to go back to Griffin with a major payday and, if he plays like he thinks capable, a chance to cash in again, in presumably healthier economic times, in March 2024. He’ll still be just 28 then.
As you’d imagine, as emotional as the call was for Griffin, it was heavy for Baker, too.
“This is his contract, and this is his first and hopefully not only opportunity, but this is the life-changing money,” Baker said. “How we structure and how we do it and what we get is going to impact the rest of his life. So because of that, I always feel kind of the weight of the world on my shoulders, going through that process. And Tony does a great job of kind of calming me down. So, yeah, it started with relief and then eventually throughout the course of the day, turned into joy.”
Once Shaquem returned to the living room on Tuesday, the brothers had a list of people to call. First, they reached out to their oldest brother Andre, then Shaquill called his best friend, Tito, and a cousin of his, and by the end of the night—with family having previously planned to come in—he was surrounded by his nieces and nephews.
Griffin’s got cousins who go to school in Jacksonville and uncles who live there, and he’s already arranging for them to show him around his new home city. And as part of the process, he considered how much easier it would be for his mom to come see him play—she used to have to pick two or three games a year to go to in Seattle, and now every home game will be a very manageable drive away.
On the football side, he’s planning to call around this week to friends of his who played for Meyer at either Florida or Ohio State to learn a little bit more about his new coach and his new program. Soon enough, he’ll have to hunker down and dive into the defense, with offseason programs, in some form, set to start next month.
And while the first thing he says he wants to do with his newfound riches is take care of some people around him, there is one thing he’s planning on buying himself.
He first saw the Bentley Continental GT on television his junior year in high school. Three years later, he finally got to see the car in person, when one drove by him on the street in Miami, over spring break during his sophomore year at UCF. Which was enough to make him set the goal—eventually, he’d have one.
“I wasn’t even thinking of about buying the car with football money around that time—football would be a backup plan,” Griffin said. “You figure out your career. You do that and if football comes behind it, cool. If not, this is what you’re really trying to do, anyways. So around that time, I’m thinking it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, even if football is not whatever career I am in, I want to be successful at it and be able to buy nice things for myself and live comfortable and be able to take care of my family.
“So it wasn’t about football. I was going to find a way to make it happen.”
He has. But if the events of Tuesday are any indication, he might want to make sure his brother doesn’t get too excited for their ride in it.
The market has cooled considerably. So here are five names to watch.
1) Ex-Lions WR Kenny Golladay: He had a very solid offer on the table, one that topped $18 million per year, over the summer in Detroit. After turning it down, things went sideways on him with the Lions, and the team’s new regime hasn’t made an effort to bring him back. There are lots of questions here, which is why he may be best taking a one-year deal, giving the league answers in 2021, then hitting the market again in 2022.
2) Ex-Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. Similarly, there are fit and personality questions that have dogged Smith-Schuster, which is why he’s now taking the step of making free-agent visits. It’s been a tough March for receivers in general, in part because of the strength of the draft class, so he’s another one who might be best served with a one-year deal somewhere.
3) Ex-Buccaneers DT Ndamukong Suh. Suh wants to keep playing, and seems happy in Tampa Bay, so maybe he’ll pop up on a one-year deal back with the Bucs soon. But he could be enticing for someone else in a win-now spot.
4) Ex-49ers CB Richard Sherman. He’s older, and has fought through injuries, but has proven to be effective well into his thirties. And he could be a great program guy for a team putting in a Seattle-style defense, like the Jets or Cowboys (he has history with both Robert Saleh and Dan Quinn).
5) Ex-Chargers DE Melvin Ingram: He’s another older, third-contract type who seems to be right in that category of guy who might’ve gotten paid in a healthier cap environment. The issue is he was hurt most of last year. You can throw him in the same category as Jadeveon Clowney and Justin Houston, older guys who may have to take less than they expected to keep playing.
THE BIG QUESTION
What’s the biggest takeaway from the early stages of free agency?
To me, it was that the top of the market was choked out a little more than I expected it to be. We expected that the middle class would get squeezed and moved on to one-year deals. The predicted raft of lesser players forced to take the minimum is coming. But I still thought the top of the market would get paid like the top of the market normally gets paid, and that really didn’t happen.
Here are some examples.
• Barrett’s four-year, $72 million deal was the standard-bearer for edge rushers. Outside of that? Lawson and Hendrickson hit $15 million per year, Judon got $13.5 million per, Ngakoue got $13 million per. And, look, not one of those guys is Myles Garrett or Joey Bosa. But that those guys struggled to get half of what Garrett and Bosa did, and even Barrett only made it to 66% of the top edge rusher deal, is eye-opening.
• Corner is another premium position where the pinch was felt. William Jackson, now in Washington, and Griffin, both fell in between $13 million and $14 million per, which is pretty far short of not just Jalen Ramsey but also what 2020’s top free agent, Byron Jones, landed in Miami.
• I figured the market for receivers and running backs would be limited by the ease with which teams could find those positions in this year’s draft class. What I didn’t anticipated is there being barely any market at all. The result was Corey Davis, Nelson Agholor and Curtis Samuel topping the market between $11 million and $12 million per, and questions that dogged Golladay and Smith-Schuster coming into the process being magnified.
The interesting thing is that the long-term result might be teams that spent, like the Patriots, Jaguars and Jets, winding up with deals that mature nicely. Something at least to keep an eye on as those players still available scramble to gobble up the money teams still have to spend (there ain’t much).
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
Why teams have all this cap space in the first place.
Now, it’s nice to talk about how you might have cap space to take advantage of this environment. But there’s a reality to having that cap space in the first place—it’s normally because there’s a three- or four-year-old hole in your draft record.
If you want to know why the Jets and Jaguars consistently have money to spend, it’s because they’ve consistently drafted poorly, and don’t have players on their own roster worth paying. The Colts were near the top of the list this year, too. The reason they’re not spending like the others? Because they actually have drafted well more recently, and have to save to pay guys like Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard.
And then you have the Patriots, the story of this week. In the drafts between 2016 and ’18, three Super Bowl years for New England, they drafted 22 players. Just one of the 22 has been rewarded with a long-term deal to stay with the team, and that was rotational DE Deatrich Wise. Joe Thuney was certainly another hit in that group, but now he’s getting paid elsewhere.
For as hot and bothered as people get over this week every year, the ideal position for any team to be in is to supplement, not add top-of-the-roster pieces, in free agency. Again, Indy’s a good example of this: They’re now flush with space to lock up a dynamite young core long term, and have been responsible enough that when a grenade goes off (Andrew Luck retiring), they have leeway to clear the rubble and retool (signing Philip Rivers, then trading for Carson Wentz), while still cherry-picking some complementary pieces.
So yes, I do like what the Patriots did this week, in spending in what was very clearly a buyer’s market, with deals that have potential to look great two years from now.
But I sure wouldn’t advocate for taking the road they did to get there.
THE FINAL WORD
A week from Friday is Zach Wilson’s pro day. Mark your calendars.