The NFL never misses an opportunity to brand and market an event. The NFL Draft is a three-day television bonanza. The NFL Combine in February and schedule release in May are primetime TV events. October is for “A crucial catch,” November for “Salute to Service,” and so on.
Perhaps it’s time to rebrand the start of the NFL new year. The league calls it “free agency,” but the actual free agency process has been effectively killed off by the owners. If anything, it’s the trade market that now drives the offseason.
“I think modern contract structures, the rookie wage scales, and lack of minimum cap spending requirements have completely derailed free agency,” said NFL salary cap expert Jason Fitzgerald, who consults for teams and runs the website OverTheCap.com. “Free agency does not really present the ability to sign game-changing talent. Those players have all re-signed after three years, and those who don’t generally get [franchise] tagged.”
The trade market, thankfully, has provided plenty of fireworks this offseason. Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, and Khalil Mack are among the star players who were dealt. And trades are exciting for fans. The Broncos can be excited to have Wilson, while the Seahawks can be excited to have two extra first-round picks.
Pure free agency — the concept of bringing in several veterans from other teams — is now more or less a secondary market, for players who weren’t wanted by their teams. Most of the big contracts this offseason — such as those for Aaron Rodgers, Stefon Diggs, and Chris Godwin — are extensions with their original teams.
Owners have essentially dulled the free agent market via tools won at the bargaining table with the NFL Players Association — the franchise tag and a rookie contract structure that locks players into below-market contracts for three or four years.
Even when the Patriots splurged on free agents in 2021, they weren’t getting elite players. Between Matthew Judon, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, and Jalen Mills, only Judon has made a Pro Bowl.
“Free agency lately has become a market with a few very good players each year, but not many,” one AFC executive said. “The bulk of players who make it to the market are either old, starters with limitations, or backups.”
It’s not that big money hasn’t gotten thrown around since the new league year began March 16. The collective bargaining agreement requires each team to spend 90 percent of the salary cap between 2021-23 and 2024-26. So Rodgers got a new deal from the Packers that will pay him $42 million this year. Four receivers got contracts averaging at least $20 million per season. Watson got $230 million fully guaranteed.
But most of the cash being spent is on players acquired via trade or re-signing with their old teams. The NFL’s “hot stove” didn’t get past a simmer.
“The NFL would be a very different place if we had a year where Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller, Mike Evans, Jake Matthews, [Odell Beckham Jr.], and Zack Martin were all free agents,” Fitzgerald said. “Instead, you got a year with C.J. Mosley, Sammy Watkins, and Jadeveon Clowney.”
On offense, especially at the skill positions, free agency was mostly slim pickings.
At quarterback, the top movement came via trade: Wilson to the Broncos, Watson to the Browns, Matt Ryan to the Colts, and Carson Wentz to the Commanders. Jimmy Garoppolo also will be traded in due time, as will Baker Mayfield (unless he gets released). The big money in free agency went to players who stayed put: Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, and Matthew Stafford. Free agent quarterbacks who switched teams were almost all backup types or seat warmers: Mitchell Trubisky (Steelers), Marcus Mariota (Falcons), and Teddy Bridgewater (Dolphins).
The same holds true for receivers. Hill, Adams, and Amari Cooper were traded, as were Robert Woods and DeVante Parker. Diggs, Mike Williams, Godwin, Brandin Cooks, and Michael Gallup signed big contracts to stay with their teams. The only impact free agents to switch teams were Allen Robinson (Rams), Christian Kirk (Jaguars), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (Chiefs), with two career Pro Bowls between them in 17 combined seasons.
“I think teams are coming more and more to the realization that picking up a contract where the bulk was paid as bonuses by the original team is a cheaper way to access talent without having to take on much risk,” Fitzgerald said. “What’s better, Mack at $17.8 million for a second-round pick, or signing Chandler Jones and guaranteeing $32 million but keeping the pick? I think for a win-now team, the former is a better option.”
All of the top tight ends available re-signed with their teams or were franchise tagged — Dalton Schultz (Cowboys), Mike Gesicki (Dolphins), David Njoku (Browns), and Zach Ertz (Cardinals).
This year, the NFL has seen a bit more free agency movement at less glamorous positions. Offensive linemen Terron Armstead (Dolphins), Brandon Scherff (Jaguars), La’el Collins (Bengals), and Laken Tomlinson (Jets) scored big on the open market. Veteran edge rushers Von Miller (Bills), Jones (Raiders), and Randy Gregory (Broncos) cashed in with new teams, as did cornerback J.C. Jackson (Chargers).
But thanks to the franchise tag and rookie wage scale, the NFL has created a system where most of the best players never reach true free agency. The only way to acquire top talent is to draft it or trade for it.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Patriots not active in free agency
As for the Patriots, fans shouldn’t be surprised they are back to shopping in the bargain bin following last year’s free agency spree. The Patriots have quietly made a few solid moves — trading for receiver DeVante Parker, bringing back Devin McCourty, Trent Brown, and Jakobi Meyers — but have only spent $27.16 million in full guarantees this offseason, compared with a then-record $175 million last year.
Last year, the Patriots gave two-year guarantees to Nelson Agholor, Hunter Henry, and Matthew Judon. Jonnu Smith got guarantees into a third season. Robert Kraft’s comments at the owners meetings a couple of weeks ago made it clear the Patriots are hoping to build off last year’s 10-7 record rather than making major changes.
“I think we have a lot of young players that are coming into their own,” he said. “It’s a chance for them to grow and hopefully come together.”
The Patriots ranked No. 4 in the NFL last year in total spending, but that was an anomaly. Between 2013-16, the Patriots ranked 30th in spending. In 2017, they jumped to 14th. In 2020, the first year after Tom Brady, they ranked 30th again. This year, they rank 21st as of Friday, per the NFL Players Association.
The Patriots may be more active next year when several 2021 signees run out of guarantees.
“Last year was a clear pattern break,” salary cap expert Jason Fitzgerald said of the Patriots. “Those were first-mover, desperation-type signings which they never did in the past. I would expect them to settle back into being a bottom of the NFL spender, but probably being a little more active in free agency in 2023 since Mac Jones will still be on the rookie deal and they will be able to cut the underperformers from the 2021 free agent splurge.”
Help still available if it’s wanted
A boatload of recognizable names remain available in free agency.
On offense: Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (who will likely retire unless a golden opportunity presents itself in training camp); running backs Sony Michel, Melvin Gordon, David Johnson, and Phillip Lindsay; receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Jarvis Landry, Will Fuller, Sammy Watkins, A.J. Green. T.Y. Hilton, Emmanuel Sanders, and Cole Beasley; tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Eric Ebron, Jared Cook, Kyle Rudolph, and Jimmy Graham; and linemen Nate Solder, Eric Fisher, Duane Brown, and JC Tretter.
On defense: Edge rushers Jadeveon Clowney, Trey Flowers, Carlos Dunlap, Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Jerry Hughes; linemen Akiem Hicks, Ndamukong Suh, and Sheldon Richardson; linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Anthony Barr; cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, Joe Haden, Kyle Fuller, and Chris Harris; and safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Landon Collins.
More discrimination alleged
The NFL’s headache over Brian Flores’s racial discrimination lawsuit grew larger this past week when two more coaches added themselves as plaintiffs and introduced more accusations against the league and its teams.
Former Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks, now a secondary coach with the Panthers, and former Titans assistant coach Ray Horton joined the lawsuit and accused their former teams of racial discrimination. Wilks, fired by the Cardinals in 2018 after one season, pointed out that while he was fired, GM Steve Keim was given a contract extension despite the team’s poor performance and Keim’s suspension relating from a DUI.
Horton, a former 10-year player and 25-year coach who is now out of the league, accused the Titans of conducting a sham interview with him in 2016 to satisfy the Rooney Rule. Flores also added the Texans to his list of defendants, accusing them of retaliation by not giving him their head coaching job this offseason after he filed his lawsuit against the NFL.
Most legal experts agree that unless Flores has a smoking gun relating to racial discrimination, he’s going to have a tough time winning his lawsuit. But Horton’s allegation against the Titans could bolster the lawsuit significantly thanks to an interview done in 2020 by Mike Mularkey, who got the Titans’ coaching job in 2016.
Speaking on the Steelers Realm podcast, Mularkey acknowledged he knew he had the job before the Titans had interviewed other candidates.
“The ownership there, Amy Adams Strunk and her family, came in and told me I was going to be the head coach in 2016 before they went through the Rooney Rule,” Mularkey said. “And so I sat there knowing I was the head coach in ‘16, as they went through this fake hiring process knowing a lot of the coaches that they were interviewing, knowing how much they prepared to go through those interviews, knowing that everything they could do and they had no chance to go that job … And I’ve regretted that since then. It was the wrong thing to do and I’m sorry I did that, but it was not the way to do that. Should have been interviewed like everybody else and got hired because of the interview, not early on.”
The Titans denied Horton’s claim, saying the job was “open and competitive.” Mularkey’s 2020 interview, though, lends credence to Horton’s accusations.
McVay’s tree grows another limb?
Serving as offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach under Rams coach Sean McVay has been a plum position over the last five years. Matt LaFleur, Zac Taylor, and Kevin O’Connell have gotten head coaching jobs after serving in those roles.
The next guy to occupy the catbird seat is a name that might be familiar to New England football fans. The Rams’ new offensive coordinator is Liam Coen, who was raised in Newport, R.I., starred at La Salle Academy in Providence, and was a four-year starting quarterback at UMass who set several school records and wore No. 12 in honor of his favorite player, Tom Brady. Coen, now 36, got into coaching after college, and was either a QB coach or offensive coordinator at Brown, Rhode Island, UMass, and Maine.
Coen made the jump to the NFL in 2018 as an assistant receivers coach with the Rams, and quickly became one of McVay’s most trusted assistants, McVay said last year. Coen left the Rams in 2021 to become Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, and now is back to help run the Rams’ offense.
It’s probably only a matter of time before Coen becomes the next Rams OC to get a head coaching job.
Interesting trade between the Saints and Eagles this past week, with the teams swapping draft picks without an obvious player in mind. The Eagles, holding picks 15, 16, and 19 in the first round, shipped Nos. 16 and 19 to the Saints in exchange for No. 18, plus a first-round pick next year and a second-rounder in 2024. Considering this is supposed to be a terrible year for high-end talent atop the draft, it’s a smart trade by the Eagles. They don’t need three mid-first-round picks this year, and this trade ensures they have two first-rounders next year, when they could make a big play for a quarterback. The Eagles also picked up an extra second-round pick for their troubles. This trade makes a lot less sense for the Saints, who gave up a lot of future value for two mid-round picks this year in which is shaping up to be a bad draft. The only way it makes sense is if the Saints plan on making a play for Kenny Pickett or Malik Willis, considered the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft. With picks 16 and 19, the Saints potentially have enough ammo to leapfrog two QB-needy division rivals, the Panthers at No. 6 and the Falcons at No. 8 … Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he’s confident that a contract extension is going to happen soon for quarterback Lamar Jackson, but it’s been a difficult negotiation that has lasted for two years. Jackson is a young, dynamic, former MVP who wants to be paid like an elite quarterback, but he struggles as a pocket passer, has only won one playoff game in four seasons, and may lose value sooner than other quarterbacks as he takes more hits and potentially loses his speed. It will be interesting to see if the sides can find a middle ground or if Jackson, now in the final year of his rookie contract, could shake free next offseason. The franchise tag is also a possibility as a short-term solution … Did you know that until 1974, offensive holding was a 15-yard penalty? Thankfully that year the NFL reduced those penalties to 10 yards, as well as moving the goal posts to the back of the end zone, reducing the number of field goals and punts and boosting offenses … Texans receiver Brandin Cooks has found a home in Houston. Cooks has had six 1,000-yard receiving seasons in eight years but was traded from the Saints to the Patriots to the Rams to the Texans between 2017-20. Cooks has been in Houston for two years and is locked in for at least two more, making $18 million per season … Congratulations to the great John McClain, who retired from the NFL beat at the Houston Chronicle after 47 years. A Hall of Fame journalist and a wonderful mentor to dozens of young reporters, McClain was also a reminder of how fortunate it was to cover a dynasty like the Patriots. He never covered a Super Bowl team in five decades in Houston, and hadn’t covered an AFC Championship game since 1980. McClain’s expert coverage of the Texans and NFL will be missed.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.