The fate of four veteran, Hall of Fame-caliber pass-rushers provide a succinct snapshot of the differences between the 2013 and 2014 free-agent markets.
It was only a year ago that Dwight Freeney needed more than two months to find a team for 2013. His two-year contract with the San Diego Chargers guaranteed him a modest $4.75 million and came only after rookie Melvin Ingram tore his ACL during a spring practice. The salary cap had remained flat for three consecutive offseasons, and it was clear that no one was able (or willing) to bid strongly for a 34-year-old pass-rusher despite his 107.5 career sacks.
That reticence seemed justified when Freeney managed a half-sack in four games before suffering a season-ending quadriceps injury. But the market shifted notably this year for players of a similar profile after a $320 million infusion of unexpected salary-cap space.
We've noted already the overall impact of that cap influx: Some big numbers were floated but teams hedged their investments considerably. At the same time, there were some individual pockets of activity that simply wouldn't have happened last season, most notably with pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers and Jared Allen.
From a production and age standpoint, as the chart shows, I think it's fair to put Freeney in the same sentence with Ware, Peppers and Allen. But the latter trio combined to get $36 million in full guarantees this month -- or about nine times what Freeney waited until mid-May in 2013 to see. Allen's deal is especially notable because it is a true two-year contract. The Bears gave him a fully guaranteed 2015 roster bonus of $11.5 million, which they will have to pay even if they cut him prior to the season.
You could argue that the relative health over the years of Allen and Peppers, especially, made them more reliable recipients than Freeney of a major contract. But it's difficult to imagine any of the 2014 trio getting similar deals in last year's market. The money simply wasn't there.
Their paydays are notable, but more intriguing is how the additional cap space might have changed their final destinations. Would Ware have chosen to renegotiate with the Dallas Cowboys rather than hit the market? Would the Bears have been able to outbid the Seattle Seahawks for Allen? Would Peppers have taken a pay cut to stay with the Bears? That's the difference $320 million can make.