The signings came fast and furious last week, so much so that by the time NFL free agency actually began at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, most of the top players already agreed to contracts.
And by Friday morning, the only top-tier free agents remaining were a few tight ends (Jared Cook, Austin Seferian-Jenkins), a few defensive tackles (Ndamukong Suh, Darius Philon), and a kicker (Stephen Gostkowski).
Let’s take a look at some of the trends that emerged from the first week of the league year:
■ Teams don’t care about dead money anymore.
For a quick refresher, dead money refers to salary cap money a team is spending on a player no longer with the team. A player who receives a $10 million signing bonus on a five-year deal has that bonus count $2 million in cap dollars across all five seasons. If the player is released after three years, the team must take a $4 million dead money cap hit in the fourth year.
Dead money used to protect a player’s roster spot. But teams just don’t care anymore, mostly because the salary cap keeps increasing by $10 million-$11 million each season.
The Steelers traded away Antonio Brown even though he will count a whopping $21.12 million in dead money this year, or 10.24 percent of the Steelers’ overall salary cap. The Giants traded away Odell Beckham even though he has a $16 million dead money hit. The Jaguars are taking a $16.5 million dead money hit on Blake Bortles. The Dolphins took a $9.1 million hit on Suh last year, and another $13.1 million in 2019. The Packers took an $11 million hit on Nick Perry.
The Giants lead the NFL with a whopping $33.656 million in dead money for 2019, per Over The Cap, thanks mostly to the trades of Beckham and Olivier Vernon ($8 million). That’s over 17 percent of the Giants’ salary cap that they are using on players no longer with the team. The Jaguars are second at $24.15 million in dead money, or 12 percent of their salary cap.
Six teams are carrying more than $20 million in dead cap money, and another six are carrying over $10 million. The Patriots have the least amount of dead cap space in the NFL, a little over $700,000. The Bears are the only other team under $1 million.
But what it means is that the annual double-digit salary cap increases have made it easier for teams to swallow these large cap charges, giving players even less roster security.
Not surprisingly, neither Steelers GM Kevin Colbert or Giants GM Dave Gettleman have taken questions from the media about trading away Brown or Beckham, instead releasing brief statements through social media.
■ In a related note, there’s no such thing as “long-term security” in the NFL, unless you’re a quarterback or a first-round pick with four fully guaranteed years. Of all the players to sign this week, Trey Flowers and Brown are the only decent bets to make it through three years on their contracts. Everyone else has their full guarantees run out after one or two years, and the rest of their contracts are basically a team option.
■ You can’t trust a word that comes out of the Combine press conferences.
“We didn’t sign Odell to trade him. OK?” Gettleman said in Indianapolis on Feb. 27. “I know that’s all over the place. So understand that. That’s all I need to say about that.”
Two weeks later, Beckham is a Brown, and the Giants are in full rebuilding mode. The Giants clearly had buyer’s remorse over the large contract extension they gave Beckham last August, and traded him despite the large dead money hit, and despite paying him more than $21 million in cash for the 2018 season.
It’s one thing for a general manager to talk out both sides of his mouth, or to keep his intentions close to the vest. That’s to be expected. Colbert talked himself in circles over the last month when asked about trading Brown.
But Gettleman should know better than to lie to the media and the fans.
■ Veterans released before free agency began had a distinct advantage. It may not seem like much of a favor when the Patriots released tight end Dwayne Allen at the end of February, or when the Ravens released safety Eric Weddle around the same time. But the early release did give those players a jump on free agency, and allowed them to visit teams and sign contracts without having to wait for the March 13 starting date, like the other free agents.
In a crowded safety market, Weddle was able to find a good home with the Rams, signing for two years and more than $10 million. Allen, not exactly the top name available, was able to find a spot with the Dolphins before other players could talk numbers. New Lions receiver Danny Amendola and new Eagles defensive tackle Malik Jackson also were able to sign contracts before teams started spending money and filling spots in free agency.
■ No one wants to play quarterback in Miami, where a vacancy was created after Ryan Tannehill was traded to the Titans. There are just 32 starting quarterback jobs in the world, and the Dolphins have the only one still available, yet no one seems to want it. Tyrod Taylor chose to be Philip Rivers’s backup in Los Angeles instead of competing for the Dolphins’ starting job. And Teddy Bridgewater chose to be Drew Brees’s backup for another year in New Orleans instead of competing for the Dolphins’ job.
A few things are at play here. One, everyone knows the Dolphins are rebuilding from scratch and are gutting the roster, and whoever plays quarterback next year might not have much help. Two, the Dolphins obviously want to draft a quarterback high, so Taylor or Bridgewater might not even be the Week 1 starter. Three, the Dolphins understandably don’t want to pay starting quarterback prices for a veteran seat-holder ($15-million plus), and the veteran seat-holders don’t want to take below-market prices to be a starter. Four, Bridgewater might be in play as the Saints’ next starting quarterback. Brees is 40 and he will be a free agent after this season.
The Dolphins currently have only Luke Falk and Jake Rudock on the roster. Even assuming they do draft a quarterback in the first round, they still need to sign one from a group that is headlined by Bortles, Brock Osweiler, Josh McCown and Trevor Siemian. Perhaps the Patriots should call up Brian Flores and ask if the Dolphins are interested in Brian Hoyer and his $3 million salary.
■ The current setup produces good drama. I saw a few complaints last week that the NFL should put the clamps on the deals struck during the tampering period, and strictly impose its rules that no free agent deals can be agreed to until 4 p.m. on Wednesday. But as long as all 32 teams are on the same playing field – and they are – then I’m all for the current setup, because of the drama it creates. Deals can be agreed to on Monday, but can’t be signed until Wednesday afternoon. Linebacker Anthony Barr agreed to a deal with the Jets, but woke up the next morning and decided to sign with the Vikings.
“It was like you’re about to go down the altar and marry the wrong woman,” Barr said.
Receiver Adam Humphries almost reneged on a deal with the Titans after the Patriots sweetened their offer overnight. And the Browns agreed on a new deal with receiver Breshad Perriman on Tuesday, but both player and team agreed to back out of the deal on Wednesday after the Browns traded for Beckham. Perriman then quickly signed with the Bucs.
Patriots adjusting to make a tight fit
A few Patriots notes on a quiet first week of free agency for them:
■ The Patriots are tight on the salary cap, with about $12 million and change in space following the trade for Michael Bennett, but before accounting for any of their eight free agent signings, which include Jason McCourty, Phillip Dorsett, John Simon and Mike Pennel.
The NFL won’t approve a contract if its puts a team over the cap, so if reports claim the Patriots are signing these players, then the team has found a way to fit them in. The Patriots created a little under $4 million in cap space by releasing defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
■ I don’t think the Patriots are too handcuffed by the salary cap — they’re happy to avoid spending big on free agents and instead look for value — but their cap management isn’t very good this year.
Per Over The Cap, the Patriots have the lowest cash-to-cap ratio in the NFL at 0.74. The Patriots’ $138 million in cash spending has resulted in almost $183 million in cap dollars, thanks to the team doing previous restructurings for Tom Brady, Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty that pushed a good chunk of money into the future. While most teams are swimming in cap space and roster flexibility, the Patriots are treading water.
■ One way they can create cap space is by restructuring and extending Brady’s contract, which calls for him to make $15 million in cash with a $27 million cap hit in 2019, the last season of his deal. The Patriots can give Brady a three-year deal with a $21 million signing bonus and minimum $1.15 million salary — so that his actual salary would increase from $15 million to $22 million, but his cap number would decrease from $27 million to $20 million.
Another player to watch, obviously, is Rob Gronkowski, who is slated to make $10 million in cash with a cap number of $11.86 million this year. If he retires, the Patriots would save $10 million in cap space, and Gronk may even have to pay back $2 million in unearned bonus money.
The Patriots could approach Gronk about a pay cut at any time this offseason. But if he wants more years tacked on to his deal, he can’t sign a new one until Aug. 30, 12 months after the last contract he signed. The 12-month rule shouldn’t apply to Brady because he didn’t earn any of his incentives last year and his cap number in 2018 didn’t change, so he and the Patriots should be able to do a new extension at any time.
■ The Patriots were smart to get ahead of the Shaq Mason deal, signing him to a five-year, $45 million extension in August as he entered the final year of his rookie deal. His $9 million average ranks seventh among right guards and 13th among all guards, but he likely would be re-setting the market if he had reached free agency this March. Guard Rodger Saffold got $11 million per year from the Titans, while top centers Mitch Morse and Maurkice Pouncey both got $11 million per year.
■ Safeties Landon Collins and Earl Thomas both got $16 million per season for the next two years. The Patriots are paying $15.1 million this year for Devin McCourty ($9.5 million), Duron Harmon ($3.25 million) and Patrick Chung ($2.4 million). Chung deserves a pay raise.
■ Six kickers getting deals this offseason, yet the best one remains available. The Patriots declined to put a $5.98 million franchise tag on Stephen Gostkowski. I believe the Patriots still want him back, but Gostkowski will try to top the $4.3 million annual average of his last contract. The Patriots should be careful, because even though every team in the league now has a kicker, another team could easily still swoop in and steal Gostkowski.
The NFL released its Performance-Based Pay amounts last week, and with it, the official snap counts for the 2018 season.
Patriots guard Joe Thuney was one of 32 offensive players to play every single snap last year. Thirty of them were offensive linemen, and two were quarterbacks (Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson).
Interestingly, only three defensive players played 100 percent of snaps: Denver safety Justin Simmons, Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Six players missed one snap on the whole season — Cowboys offensive tackle La’el Collins, Lions center Graham Glasgow, Broncos quarterback Case Keenum, Lions guard Frank Ragnow, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, and Jets safety Jamal Adams.
New Patriots signee Terrence Brooks played the most special teams snaps in the NFL last year for the Jets (392), but his percentage of snaps played (79 percent) ranked 22nd.
The Giants’ moves make sense if you squint hard enough. They’re clearing out the expensive players from the previous regime, collecting draft picks, investing in the trenches, and signing inexpensive veterans such as Golden Tate to set an example for the younger players. The one move that doesn’t make sense is keeping Eli Manning as the starter. The Giants will almost certainly draft a quarterback or trade for Josh Rosen, but the rebuild won’t really begin until they move on from Manning . . . Drew Brees restructured his contract again last week, shaving $10.8 million off his cap number and pushing it into the future. Even if Brees retires after 2019, the Saints still will be carrying him on their salary cap through 2021 . . . Le’Veon Bell came away from his ordeal as a financial loser — he’s never going to recoup the $14 million he would have made last year. But if he’s happy with his decision and his body feels good and he enjoyed his time away from football last year, then that’s all that matters . . . The NFL and the Chiefs were fine with accepting Kareem Hunt’s version of events and were happy to let him play last year until TMZ released a video in November, at which point everyone conveniently developed a backbone — the Chiefs released Hunt and the NFL placed him on the commissioner’s exempt list. Roger Goodell suspended Hunt, now with the Browns, for the first eight games of the 2019 season. But had the video not been released, Hunt would still be with the Chiefs, and the NFL would have looked the other way at his transgressions.
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.