NFL free agency: Pot of gold elusive

Gilbert is the author of "The $29 Million 'Tip,'" a book tracing how Goodell's salary as NFL commissioner skyrocketed after CBA negotiations were completed. Goodell received $73 million over the two most recent fiscal years, a tacit approval from NFL owners for the CBA's salary structure.

One of those owners, New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, spoke at length at the MIT Sloan Conference about the "competitive advantage" a team gets not by signing free agents but by finding starting players in the draft.

One player's perspective

In 2013, Lawrence Jackson was caught in the NFL's shrinking middle class of free agency. He had finished a three-year run with the Detroit Lions and offered teams a commodity they routinely value: pass rush. He had 13 sacks and 37 hurries while playing about a third of the Lions' snaps over that period, according to Pro Football Focus. But potential suitors faced a familiar dilemma.

As a player with five accrued seasons, Jackson would have to be paid at least a $940,000 base salary for 2013 -- about twice what a player in his rookie contract would receive. Jackson was experienced and manned a valued position, but were his skills worth twice that of a younger player?

The market answered that question. Two months after the start of the free-agent signing period, Jackson signed a minimum contract with the Minnesota Vikings. He was released before the final preseason game and did not play in 2013.

Jackson recently said he maintained a realistic notion of his situation and suggested "a lot of players have a misunderstanding of their value." Like it or not, he said, money won't be spread out equally.

"I look at it from a business perspective," he said. "I put myself in the shoes of the owner, the president, the general manager. A team is nothing but a car. Some guys are spark plugs. Some guys are engine coolant. The quarterback is the engine. You invest in getting a good one of those. A lot of the other stuff, it can be replaced and those parts are interchangeable. If you don't have a realistic value of what you bring the table, free agency is a brutal place for you."

This year?

Jackson was one of many recent free agents who once projected their career arc around an anticipated salary-cap bump in 2014. Those hopes petered out in recent years as internal NFL projections suggested a continuation of the flat cap, and many marketable players have decided that they won't beat their incumbent team's offer on the market.

The 2014 bump surprised most everyone in the industry; it raised each team's limit to at least $133 million before carryover calculations are made. Now that it has arrived, however, it's difficult to identify more than a small group of players that teams might spend on amid anticipation of what longtime Pittsburgh Steelers executive Kevin Colbert has called the deepest draft he has ever seen.

There isn't a single quarterback available who spent 2013 as his team's primary starter. For the moment, the class is topped by Michael Vick and Matt Cassel. If a team wants to sign Graham or Orakpo, it must surrender first-round picks in 2014 and 2015.

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