NFL free agency certainly opened with a flurry of activity on Tuesday, with several big-name players swapping teams within minutes of the market’s opening bell at 4 p.m. Teams spent a whopping $324 million guaranteed in the first two days of free agency, compared with $107 million at the same point in time last year, as pointed out by the Wall Street Journal.
Defenders of the NFL Players Association say the financial windfall is the result of the new collective bargaining agreement finally working in favor of the players, with the players benefiting from a higher-than-expected $133 million salary cap and new requirements that force teams to spend 89 percent of the cap over a four-year period.
Of course, there’s another way to look at it — that spending levels are catching up to what they were supposed to be four years ago, under the old CBA. The salary cap was $128 million in 2009 and supposed to be approximately $135 million in 2010, before the owners opted out of the CBA and unofficially agreed to knock the salary cap down to $120 million, as the Giants’ John Mara noted at the owners’ meetings in 2012. The cap stayed that low for 2011 and 2012, and while it did jump from $123 million to $133 million for 2014, it would be anywhere from $145-$150 million under the terms of the old CBA.
Either way, a lot of players changed jerseys last week, and teams filled holes in their lineups. A look at the teams that were winners, losers, and somewhere in between:
Chicago Bears — Looking to shore up their 32d-ranked run defense, the Bears beefed up their line by signing Oakland end/tackle Lamarr Houston to a five-year, $35 million deal, nabbing talented pass rusher Willie Young from Detroit (three years, $9 million), and signing former Cowboys defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff for two years and $4 million. They also saved $9.8 million on the cap by releasing 34-year-old Julius Peppers.
Philadelphia Eagles — Re-signed three key offensive players — wide receivers Jeremy Maclin (one year, $5.5 million) and Riley Cooper (five years, $25 million), and center Jason Kelce (seven years, $37.5 million) — added solid secondary depth in cornerback Nolan Carroll (two years, $5.2 million) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (three years, $15.5 million), and traded a mere fifth-round pick for dynamic running back Darren Sproles, then extending his contract (three years, $10.5 million).
Jacksonville Jaguars — Coach Gus Bradley was previously the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator, and he’s certainly copying Seattle’s style. The Jaguars signed four linemen to their promising defense — Red Bryant (four years, $19 million), Chris Clemons (four years, $17.5 million), Ziggy Hood (four years, $16 million) and Jason Babin (undisclosed) — and self-proclaimed a nickname of “Sacksonville.”
Baltimore Ravens — Did a good job of keeping their core together and re-signing some of Joe Flacco’s key sidekicks — receiver Jacoby Jones (four years, $12 million), tight end Dennis Pitta (five years, $32 million), left tackle Eugene Monroe (five years, $37.5 million), and linebacker Daryl Smith (four years, $16 million).
Atlanta Falcons — Added a solid guard in Kansas City’s Jon Asamoah (five years, $22.5 million) and are replacing an old, slow defense that finished No. 27 overall with stout players that appear to signify a switch to the 3-4 under coordinator Mike Nolan — Tyson Jackson (five years, $25 million), Paul Soliai (five years, $33 million), and Jonathan Babineaux (three years, $9 million).
Detroit Lions — Got Matthew Stafford another solid young target in Golden Tate (five years, $31 million), while bringing back tight end Brandon Pettigrew (four years, $16 million), center Dominic Raiola (one year), and running back Joique Bell (three years, $9.3 million).
New England Patriots — They acquired Darrelle Revis, the best cornerback in the NFL, with a low-risk, one-year deal that didn’t cost them a draft pick or hinder their future salary cap. This move alone makes them winners.
Oakland Raiders — Embarrassed themselves by backing out of a $40 million deal with left tackle Rodger Saffold, creating an impression that owner Mark Davis got buyer’s remorse and ordered team doctors to flunk Saffold on his physical because of a shoulder injury. Let their best defensive linemen (Houston) walk away while instead spending on veterans on the downside of their careers — Justin Tuck (two years, $11 million), LaMarr Woodley (two years, $12 million). Also, overpaid former Jets right tackle Austin Howard (five years, $30 million).
Washington Redskins — Spent a lot of money, but where are the impact players? They doled out $94 million combined and got a decent No. 2 or 3 receiver (Andre Roberts), a 32-year-old defensive lineman (Jason Hatcher), a young linebacker (Perry Riley), an aging cornerback (DeAngelo Hall), a journeyman corner (Tracy Porter), and a three-year starter at guard (Shawn Lauvao). They also franchised Brian Orakpo for $11.455 million.
Indianapolis Colts — Like the signing of defensive end Arthur Jones from Baltimore (five years, $33 million), but they spent big money on some questionable players — linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (four years, $22 million), cornerback Vontae Davis (four years, $39 million), and center Phil Costa (two years, $2.7 million).
New Orleans Saints — Had to make several maneuvers just to get under the salary cap, discarding Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jabari Greer, Roman Harper, and Sproles. All they’ve done so far is overspend for safety Jairus Byrd (six years, $54 million), engage in a franchise tag battle with tight end Jimmy Graham, and still have more moves to make — as of Friday they had 53 players on the roster and only $2.49 million of cap space.
Wait and see
Denver Broncos — They generated the most headlines by doling out $60 million guaranteed to three players — cornerback Aqib Talib ($26 million), linebacker DeMarcus Ware ($20 million), and strong safety T.J. Ward ($14 million). But let’s see if Talib can stay healthy, how much gas Ware has left in the tank, and if spending big on a safety was worth it before handing out a grade.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — They certainly spent a lot of dough — almost $128 million total value in contracts to six players, including finding a new quarterback (Josh McCown), left tackle (Anthony Collins), pass rusher (Michael Johnson), tight end (Brandon Myers), and cornerback (Alterraun Verner). That’s a lot of change for one offseason, however.
Miami Dolphins — They are slowly filling in holes, signing left tackle Branden Albert (five years, $46 million), cornerback Brent Grimes (four years, $32 million), safety Louis Delmas (one year, $3.5 million), and two defensive tackles — Randy Starks (two years, $12 million) and Earl Mitchell (four years, $16 million). But they still only have two starters on the offensive line, Albert and center Mike Pouncey.
Breaking down deals for Revis and Talib
A few interesting details and comparisons between the contracts agreed to by Darrelle Revis in New England and Aqib Talib in Denver:
■ Neither player could get a one-year guarantee higher than this year’s franchise tag for cornerbacks ($11.8 million). Both got $11.5 million guaranteed — Revis a $10 million signing bonus with $1.5 million salary, Talib a $5 million signing bonus, $2 million roster bonus due on Monday, and $4.5 million salary. They can each exceed the franchise tag number, but only with a healthy season — Talib makes $31,250 per game he is active (for a max of $500,000), while Revis gets $33,333.33 for each game he is active (up to 15, for a max of $500,000). Of the two, Revis is more likely to hit the magical $12 million mark. He has played in 15 or more games in five of his seven seasons, while Talib has never played all 16 games in six NFL seasons.
■ Despite close to equal cash take-homes, Revis’s cap number will only be $7 million in 2014, while Talib’s will be $7.9 million. Revis’s dead money in 2015 will be $5 million, while Talib’s will be $4 million.
■ Of the $57 million on Talib’s contract, $30 million is funny money from the final three years of the deal that realistically he will never see. And his $25.5 million guarantee is technically the highest among NFL cornerbacks, but it comes with an asterisk.
The Broncos realistically gave him a three-year, $27 million deal, but also gave themselves a few escape routes. The contract can also easily be a one-year, $12 million deal or two years, $18 million if Talib doesn’t work out in Denver.
Talib’s $5.5 million base salary in 2015 isn’t guaranteed until the third day of the league year, giving the Broncos two days to decide whether to cut him and save their money. They again have two days in 2016 to decide whether to guarantee Talib an $8.5 million salary or cut him loose. The Broncos would take dead money hits of $4 million in 2015 and $3 million in 2016.
■ A rival assistant general manager said the Patriots came out on top in the Revis-Talib swap, and said the prospect of Revis being coached by Bill Belichick is “scary.”
“He’s going to give them the same benefits he gave Rex [Ryan],” the assistant GM said. “When you want to create pressure on the quarterback, you have a lockdown corner.”
No bonuses viewed as a positive sign
An interesting trend is starting to develop, spearheaded by the Buccaneers and Jaguars — neither team awarded signing bonuses in their many free agent contracts signed last week, preferring instead a pay-as-you-go approach.
Teams usually award signing bonuses as a way to keep cap numbers low — teams can prorate a signing bonus over five years for cap purposes — but it also can make it tougher to cut a player when he still counts, say, $5 million against the cap even if he is cut.
But the Buccaneers and Jaguars took a different tack. The Buccaneers paid $99.25 million in contracts to Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, and Alterraun Verner, but $0 in signing bonuses, allowing the team to move on from each player without penalty after each season. The Jaguars did the same with the $72 million they awarded to Chad Henne, Toby Gerhart, Red Bryant, Ziggy Hood, and Chris Clemons. Instead of signing bonuses, the Buccaneers and Jaguars designed their contracts with roster bonuses due on one of the first few days of the league year, and guaranteed base salaries.
Of course, not everyone can afford this approach — the Buccaneers and Jaguars were each still more than $39 million under the salary cap on Friday despite their flurry of moves.
In the NFL, ideal cap management is to equate cash spending with cap spending so as not to mortgage the future, and the contracts used by the Buccaneers and Jaguars ensure they won’t be in “cap jail” in future years.
Compare that to the Patriots, who have been liberal with their use of signing bonuses and are one of the worst offenders of sacrificing future dollars for today. Tom Brady got a $30 million bonus in 2013 to be spread over five years, and players including Kyle Arrington, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer, and Rob Ninkovich all cost more against the salary cap if they are cut instead of kept on the roster.
The website overthecap.com, which has detailed records of every NFL contract, has an invaluable chart that ranks all 32 teams based on their cash-to-cap ratio.
And while the Patriots love to stress “market value” and prudence in free agency, they actually have the lowest cash-to-cap ratio in the league — they have spent $76 million in real dollars to produce $118 million in salary cap dollars, or 64.5 percent. By comparison, 11 teams are over 90 percent, and five teams are within 98 percent.
The Patriots are also eighth in the NFL in “dead money” for 2014 — money that counts against the cap even if a player is cut — at $10.385 million. To be fair, $7.5 million is due to Aaron Hernandez, and the Patriots may ultimately get some or all of that cap space back.
Fitting time to talk cap
Don’t be too impressed if a GM starts to brag about his team’s cap space. Pretty much every team except the Saints and Bears have plenty of space with which to maneuver.
Per NFLPA records, as of Friday morning the average cap space among the 32 teams was $19.87 million, and the average cap spending so far has been $117.6 million. Oakland was still more than $59 million under the cap, while Cleveland had more than $51 million in space.
The average salary cap carryover from last year was $5.55 million per team. The Browns carried over a whopping $24.5 million, while the Giants, Rams, and Redskins carried over $0.
The Patriots are below average in all three categories. As of Friday, they had $16.9 million in cap space, spent $122.2 million against the cap, and carried over $4.1 million from last year. But the Patriots’ spending didn’t include the contracts of Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner, or factor in a potential release of Vince Wilfork.
The Bears and Saints, meanwhile, still need to make some roster cuts. Both teams have less than $2.5 million in cap space, but Chicago has only 56 players on the roster (offseason maximum of 90), and the Saints only have 53. Teams generally need $4 million-$5 million in cap space just to sign their rookie class.
It’s no secret an agent can help
Cortland Finnegan and Jon Beason saved 3 percent on their contracts when they represented themselves in negotiations. Beason got $19 million over three years from the Giants and Finnegan reportedly got a two-year deal from the Dolphins, though numbers aren’t yet known. Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is also mulling self-representation in his upcoming free agency negotiations, and Ravens safety Matt Elam, the team’s first-round pick, didn’t have an agent last year when he signed.
But only Elam got it right. Players don’t really need an agent to negotiate their rookie contract — those are 99 percent predetermined by the CBA, with very little negotiating involved — but free agent contracts can be tricky, with lots of minutiae and clauses that can have a major effect on a player’s pay. Yes, agent commission is 3 percent, but that seems like a small price to pay to have an experienced negotiator on your side.
Keeping it together
Check out YouTube for a great video of Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and Rams punter Johnny Hekker flying with the Blue Angels this month. The Angels fly up to 700 miles per hour, and the best part of the video is when Hoomanawanui holds up an empty vomit bag.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.