It sounds good in theory. An NFL player completes four seasons, his contract expires, and he steps into a career opportunity: auctioning his talent to the highest bidder. The market takes hold, and he is rewarded based on his accomplishments and potential for future success.
In reality, such freedom is available to a sliver of the NFL population. In three years since the league's new collective bargaining agreement went into effect, we've seen a sturdy pattern emerge.
As fans root for their teams to sign a star, most elite players remain locked down, either via contact extensions or the franchise tag. Some front-liners sneak into the market, unwanted or unaffordable by their prior teams, but only a few sign lucrative deals before the money dries up. The rest are relegated to an increasingly squeezed middle class, accepting short-term contracts in hopes of a future payday.
The 2014 edition of free agency was shaping up in similar fashion, at least before last week's unexpected salary-cap bump added $320 million in league-wide cap room. That infusion brought the concept and reality of NFL free agency to a crossroads. Will owners respond with more competitive bidding on a wider swath of players? Or will they remain true to the principles they've set over the past three years with a class largely devoid of true difference-makers?
A quick survey of NFL executives and agents late last week revealed a level of uncertainty about the new cap's impact. One administrator said the inherent competitiveness of owners left open the possibility of a more active market, but the consensus fell in line with a supplemental philosophy advanced by John Elway, the Denver Broncos' executive vice president/general manager, at last month's scouting combine.
"With free agency," Elway said, "we're always trying to get ourselves in a position where when we go into the draft, we don't have a glaring weakness where we are reaching for somebody in the draft. So I think it's important for free agency, in my opinion, to try to pick up the places where you think you have glaring holes and fill those holes and then when you go to the draft be able to draft the best players that you hope are going to have great careers in the NFL."
The foundation of the Broncos' Super Bowl team was a 2012 free-agent acquisition: quarterback Peyton Manning. But Elway supplemented his group with a number of "middle-class" signings last spring, from guard Louis Vasquez to linebacker Paris Lenon and defensive end Shaun Phillips. Lenon and Phillips started a combined 18 games last season and collectively earned less than $2 million.
The limited opportunities for players such as Lenon and Phillips incline one prominent agent to advise clients on the virtues of accepting the incumbent team's best offer before the market opens.