NFL free agency: Pot of gold elusive

"There is a whole lot of value in re-signing with your own club," said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the interests of his clients. "Everyone thinks free agency is gold at the end of the tunnel. But if you can structure a deal with the team that knows you and still wants you, chances are that's where the best overall value is. Unless you are a big-time player, you get into free agency and there are 15 of the same player as you. That drives everyone's value down."

Let's take a closer look at where the concept of free agency is and where it might go.

What has happened?

The math is pretty simple. For six years, the NFL salary cap remained relatively flat. It was $116 million in 2008 and, after changes enacted in the 2011 CBA, just $123 million by 2013.

The concept underlying the new agreement was for a lower rookie scale to shift more cap space to veterans, but as it turned out, only elite players saw a bump.

In most cases they were quarterbacks who remained with their existing teams, whether it was the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco or the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers. The Miami Dolphins' signing of receiver Mike Wallace last year was the rarest of occasions: a free agent receiving a top-end contract (five years with $30 million guaranteed) from a new team.

The 50 highest-paid players in the NFL saw a 14 percent rise in their average annual salary (APY) between 2010 and 2013, by definition squeezing the rest of the league's players into a smaller piece of the pie.

Owners realized that young players, locked into low-paying contracts for at least three years under the new CBA, were cheaper labor than veterans who made it into free agency. (Teams have gotten younger, and the Seattle Seahawks, whose average player was 26.4 years old in 2013, were the second-youngest Super Bowl champion in NFL history.)

"We have definitely seen a disintegration of the 'middle class,'" Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said recently at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "We know we are going to have to spend some time developing our young players to contribute." Later, he added: "We can't have our roster littered by a bunch of veteran talent."

Indeed, the average cash spent by NFL teams has decreased in each year of the new CBA, from $131 million per team in 2011 to $125 million in 2013. That blueprint doesn't bode well for a 2014 class whose top two players -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo -- are all protected by the franchise tag. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy already is off the board after signing his franchise tender on Tuesday.

"The cap is put in place to suppress spending," said Sean Gilbert, a former player who wants to replace DeMaurice Smith as executive director of the NFL Players Association. "Even if the cap moves up, you pay one or two players, and that justifies the meat of the business in free agency? That's spending money? This is a team sport, comprised of young guys and veterans. Guys who have proven themselves, they should have the opportunity to get paid for that, but that's not what's happening.

"The biggest free-agent signing in recent memory," Gilbert adds, "is Roger Goodell."

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