The NFL was affected by the spread of coronavirus this past week, even though the league is six months away from holding games.
The annual owners’ meetings, where the owners vote on new rules for the upcoming season, was canceled. The NFL Draft, scheduled for April 23-25, is officially TBD. Free agency and the new league year are still scheduled to start on Wednesday at 4 p.m., but chances are decent that both could be pushed back.
But the NFL didn’t completely shut down, either. Even though most teams encouraged their employees to work from home, and pulled their scouts and coaches off the road, plenty of business still took place.
Here’s what you may have missed while you were focusing on coronavirus news:
▪ Even though the start of free agency is still in question, teams began preparing for it by shedding a few veteran players and creating salary-cap space. The Titans were especially busy in this area, releasing pass rusher Cameron Wake, running back Dion Lewis, tight end Delanie Walker, and kicker Ryan Succop, among other players. Lewis, a former Patriot, made $10.3 million in two years in Tennessee, but the final two years and $9.5 million on his contract vanished into thin air.
The Packers released tight end Jimmy Graham, saving $8 million in cash and cap space. The Bengals released offensive tackle Cordy Glenn, the Vikings released cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and the Chargers released linebacker Thomas Davis.
▪ A few veterans smartly signed deals before free agency begins, locking themselves in before their teams could go out and sign a replacement. Most notably, the Bears signed veteran linebacker Danny Trevathan to a new three-year deal worth $14 million in guarantees and a maximum value up to $24 million, per NFL Network. The Bills were also fairly busy. They signed guard Quinton Spain to a three-year, $15 million extension, and restructured tight end Tyler Kroft, who had two years and $11.8 million left on his contract.
▪ The franchise tag window was delayed a few times — the end date was first pushed back from March 10 to the 12th, and then to the 16th at 11:59 p.m. — and a few teams finally made their moves on Friday. The Chargers gave tight end Hunter Henry the franchise tag, which should squash the hope that he would land in New England. The Broncos also placed the tag on safety Justin Simmons, a former Boston College product.
And the Ravens may have set themselves up for a battle with pass rusher Matthew Judon. The Ravens gave Judon the franchise tag for an outside linebacker, which is expected to be around $16.3 million, instead of the tag for a defensive end, which is expected to be around $19.3 million. The Ravens may not have to deal with Judon for much longer — they are believed to be seeking a tag-and-trade deal, similar to what the Chiefs did with Dee Ford last year — but the lower number makes it easier to trade Judon, and gives him less leverage in contract negotiations. Expect Judon to explore fighting this with a grievance.
▪ Most surprisingly, a few free agents were still taking visits as of Friday. Former Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey, released on Tuesday after six years as a starter, racked up the frequent flier miles this past week. On Wednesday he visited the Raiders, on Thursday he was in Green Bay, and on Friday he was in Buffalo.
And former Redskins tight end Jordan Reed must really not be concerned with coronavirus, because on Thursday he visited the Seahawks’ facility in Seattle, which is the epicenter of the outbreak. Reed didn’t play a snap in 2019 because of his ongoing battle with concussions. But he must really want to play football in 2020 if he’s willing to travel to Seattle right now.
▪ NFL teams get to invite 30 prospects to their facility for official predraft visits, and those usually don’t start until around April 1. But the Dolphins made an unusual move, bringing Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins to Miami for a visit on Friday, per the Miami Herald. Dobbins, who rushed for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, was originally scheduled to do an official visit to Miami in mid-April. But the Dolphins are so enamored with him that they moved it up to Friday to make sure they got their visit in, in case the NFL ends up canceling predraft visits. As of now, the decision to host players — both veteran free agents and draft prospects — is up to the teams, not the league office.
▪ It was a busy week for the NFL Players Association. On Tuesday in Miami, it elected Browns center J.C. Tretter as president, replacing Eric Winston, who was not eligible to run again because he is not an active player. It voted in a new 11-member executive committee, of which former Patriots tight end Ben Watson is still a member. And the collective bargaining agreement vote was extended to allow players to vote on the proposal until 11:59 p.m. Saturday.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead, a member of the executive committee, sent out an interesting tweet on Thursday, encouraging his fellow players to vote yes.
“Our union is in a position to secure economic certainty in a very uncertain climate,” Morstead wrote. “The sports world is not immune to global events, as we all can see. No deal is ever perfect, but there are real improvements to most areas that impact current and former players. If we turn this deal down, I believe we will pay for it down the road. Personally, this is not fear mongering, it’s just reality.”
▪ And scouting for the NFL Draft continued — just not in person, as most colleges canceled their Pro Days. I spoke with one coach on Friday morning, who was sitting in his office, grinding away on college tape.
“Not much else to do right now,” he said.
Salary cap rarely biggest concern
When free agency starts this coming week (or otherwise), you will hear a lot about the salary cap and how much space a team has to make moves.
But the reality is that teams don’t really fret much about salary-cap space. The cap can be moved and manipulated in a million different ways.
“When [a] team says, ‘We don’t have the cap room,’ it’s like a potential date who’s always busy. They’re just not that into you,” former Packers executive Andrew Brandt tweeted this past week.
What the teams do care about is cash — the actual dollars being spent on their players. And this past week I took a deep dive into each team’s cash spending between 2011-19 (the length of the current collective bargaining agreement), with numbers provided by the NFL Players Association. Here are the takeaways:
▪ No one should ever accuse the Falcons of being thrifty. The Falcons led all teams in cash spending from 2011-19, averaging $162.2 million per year. They are followed by the Eagles ($159.8 million), Packers ($158.8 million), Bears ($155.6 million), and Saints ($154.7 million). The league average was $151.4 million. The Patriots were just below average, and ranked 15th ($150.7 million).
▪ The teams on the bottom end of spending shouldn’t surprise you — except for the team that ranked dead last. Would you believe that the stingiest team over the last decade was the Dallas Cowboys? They only spent an average of $143.2 million per year on players (though the piper is calling now, with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper both up in free agency). The Texans ranked 31st at $145.0 million, followed by the Colts ($145.9 million), Raiders ($146.4 million), and Chargers ($147.2 million). They are the only five teams that didn’t spend at least 100 percent of the salary cap ($147.5 million average).
▪ Who spent their money the wisest? The Patriots spent $12.2 million per regular-season win between 2011-19, by far the lowest amount. They are followed by the Seahawks ($14.9 million), Steelers ($14.9 million), Packers ($15.5 million), and Saints ($15.6 million). League average was $18.9 million per win. The Falcons, for all their spending, ranked 17th at $19.2 million per win.
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▪ The teams that got the least bang for their buck are, of course, the worst teams. The Browns spent $36 million per win, or three times what the Patriots spent. The Jaguars were next at $32 million, followed by the Buccaneers ($27.7 million), Redskins ($24.1 million), and Raiders ($24 million).
▪ But 2011-19 is a long time frame. Major TV money didn’t hit the salary cap until midway through the decade. I also took a look at cash spending from the three most recent seasons, 2017-19.
The Falcons once again led the way, averaging $208.3 million per year (and compiling a 24-24 record with just one playoff appearance). They were followed by the Packers ($201.3 million), Jaguars ($200.7 million), Bears ($197.9 million), and 49ers ($195.5 million). The Patriots ranked 17th ($182 million).
On the low end were the Cowboys ($159.6 million per year), Colts ($161.1 million), Ravens ($161.7 million), Bills ($162.7 million), and Chargers ($163.2 million).
▪ The 2011 CBA requires teams to spend at least 89 percent of the salary cap in four-year increments (2013-16, and 2017-20). An interesting trend I noticed: 24 of the 32 teams spent over 100 percent of the cap from 2017-19, and only five teams were even below 92 percent (Chargers, Bills, Ravens, Colts, and Cowboys, bringing up the rear at 89.9 percent). With 2020 set to be the last year of the CBA, it looks as though teams were planning not to spend as much money in free agency.
As cap expert Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap wrote this offseason, “The last time the CBA was set to expire, spending hit record lows relative to the salary cap … If you want to break any potential strike, one of the ways to do that is to not be aggressive in free agency.”
Players must get their act together
This past week was a good reminder of why the NFL players will never win a labor battle against the owners. The NFLPA gave the appearance of being a disorganized, fractured mess.
The players asked for an extension — again — and the voting window on the new CBA was pushed back until Saturday at midnight. Several players also reportedly asked the NFLPA if they could change their vote, which the union rejected.
Russell Okung on Monday filed a charge against the NFLPA of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that executive director DeMaurice Smith violated the NFLPA constitution in bringing the CBA proposal to a vote. Okung then backed Giants safety Michael Thomas’s bid for NFLPA president in a failed coup, of sorts, that would have sought to replace Smith.
Thomas didn’t win, and instead, the “centrist” candidate got elected — Browns center J.C. Tretter, who has been transparent about the positives and negatives of the proposed CBA. Tretter, who majored in industrial labor relations at Cornell, is in favor of passing the CBA, but has been more concerned with making sure all players vote than in convincing players to vote yes or no.
Labor relations are always messy, and it would be impossible to get all 2,500 NFLPA members on the same page. This is one major reason why the NFL owners will always win labor battles — they are a small group with aligned interests, they have a far bigger war chest, and they are much more emotionally invested in the CBA than most players are.
Decision on Brady has many layers
A few quick Tom Brady notes:
▪ We’ll find out in the next week (or whenever free agency happens) whether the Patriots are serious about bringing Brady back. But it’s important to remember that the decision is not just about what Brady can do on Sundays. His ability to practice is just as important, and the Patriots had to manage him toward the end of last season. Brady was limited in at least one practice for four straight weeks in November and December with an elbow injury that may have affected some of his game performances, as well.
And a lot of our ears perked up on Dec. 17 when Bill Belichick mentioned, unprompted, that “ there have been a couple of examples where Tom hasn’t been able to do a lot this year. So, that’s given [Jarrett Stidham] an opportunity to go with the first group, and run our plays and run our offense, and that’s been good for him.” Belichick doesn’t do anything by accident, and this seemed to be a case of him wanting everyone to know that Brady has to be managed.
▪ Did you know: Brady has renegotiated his contract with the Patriots 12 times in his career? He came into the league in 2000, and renegotiated his deal before the following seasons: 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019. So he and the Patriots definitely have done this dance before. The 2010 deal was a four-year, $72 million extension that at the time made him the NFL’s highest-paid player.
▪ I spoke to a former Patriots coach on Friday who knows Brady and Belichick well, and asked him what he thinks is going to happen. “Trust me — nobody knows [anything],” the coach said. Brady told Charlie Weis a couple weeks ago, “nobody knows anything,” and that’s the only thing that seems certain.
Most NFL fans (myself included) probably couldn’t pick Marshal Yanda out of a police lineup. But the NFL lost a good one this past week when Yanda announced his retirement after 13 seasons, all with the Ravens. Yanda, a third-round pick out of Iowa in 2007, spent most of his career as a guard, making eight Pro Bowls, earning seven All-Pro nods (two first team), and winning a Super Bowl. But he was one of the game’s toughest and most versatile linemen, playing every offensive line position except for center. The Ravens inducted Yanda into their Ring of Honor, and he will be a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame. “One of the best I ever played against,” Texans pass rusher J.J. Watt tweeted. “Incredible competitor who gave everything he had on every play, then shook your hand with respect after the game.” … Wrestling fans will get a kick out of one draft prospect, Kennesaw State fullback Bronson Rechsteiner. He is the son of former World Championship Wrestling star Rick Steiner, who dominated tag-team wrestling with his brother, Scott. Rechsteiner is not just a lead blocker — he rushed for 909 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and ran a 4.48 at his Pro Day this past week.
Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.