NFL free agency: Pot of gold elusive

The receiver class has some notable names, from Eric Decker to Hakeem Nicks to James Jones. But that group will be compared directly to a talented group of potential draft picks that includes five members of Mel Kiper's top-25 Big Board. What would you do? Would you pay Decker, say, $8 million per season or draft Oregon State's  Brandin Cooks for a fraction of that cost?

"Maybe a few guys will get paid a little more," Jackson said. "But the real winners were the guys who re-signed with their teams early, or guys like Charles Johnson, who signed back [with the Carolina Panthers in 2011] when teams weren't sure how things were going to go. He is a great defensive end, but I don't think guys like that will cash in now like that much. Things have settled down since then."

A deep cornerback class has had some fans intrigued, but the Miami Dolphins took Brent Grimes off the market Monday, and it's not certain how many of the other top names -- Aqib Talib, Sam Shields, Vontae Davis and Alterraun Verner, among others -- will make it to free agency.

Defensive lineman Michael Bennett seems ticketed for a significant payday after an 8.5-sack season with the Seahawks. But it's worth wondering how high teams will bid after they sat on their wallets last year -- when he was a year younger (he's 28 now) and coming off a season with more sacks and starts than he had in 2013. After a nine-sack season in 2012, he signed the Seahawks' one-year offer for $5 million and will take another run at free agency this spring.

The overall uncertainty brings a natural question, namely ...

How will cap money be spent?

At the beginning of the week, NFL teams had some $650 million in available cap space, an average of about $19 million per team. Eight teams had at least $30 million, almost half had at least $20 million and only two -- the Steelers and  Dallas Cowboys -- were over their allotment.

In discussing this space with those who understand the cap, it seems clear that the number to focus on moving forward is not the cap limit ($133 million) but the cap floor. Between 2013 and 2016, according to the CBA, each NFL team must spend 89 percent of its total cap space in cash. There is no obligation to spend beyond, and there is no requirement to carry over any remaining space to the following year.

To stay on track for that 89 percent figure this year, NFL teams must spend at least $118.4 million in cash. If they spend less, they can make up for it in 2015 or 2016 to ensure their four-year minimum. If they spend more, they can adjust downward accordingly for the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of accounting methods to consume large quantities of space with a single player if necessary. Consider the Chicago Bears' contract extension with quarterback Jay Cutler, completed shortly after the season. The deal pays Cutler a $22.5 million base salary in 2014, giving him the highest 2014 cap number of any player under contract at the moment. Cutler's cap hit falls to $15.5 million in 2015 and $16 million in 2016, when the Bears can terminate the deal with no further cap acceleration. In other words, the Bears are consuming more 2014 salary-cap space than they need to with his deal.

So as we sit on the precipice of free agency, it seems clear that NFL teams have more opportunity to spend on free agents but no more incentive to do so than in recent years. The money is there to spend on veterans, but whom should it be spent on? And why? Those are questions NFL teams are facing this week, but a pattern to the contrary already seems largely set.

( NFL Nation reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this article. All salary numbers in this story are from ESPN's Roster Management System.)

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