An unprecedented amount of salary-cap space will be available next week when the NFL free-agent market opens. Teams must spend about $1 billion or roll it over into future years. What does that mean for the 2016 market? How will it play out? Let's turn to ESPN professor John Clayton and NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert to find out.
Kevin Seifert: John, let's start with the big picture before drilling down to the details of this market. How do you think NFL teams will reconcile the fact that there is so much cap space available but only a limited number of impact players to give it to? Will there be massive bidding wars? Will second- and third-tier guys get paid like elite players? All of the above? And yes, I know I'm asking a lot of questions.
John Clayton: You might think things will go crazy in free agency, but they really don't. Last year, for example, plenty of money was available, but only 22 unrestricted free agents received $6 million or more per year. Six million is more than a normal starter is going to get. Five unrestricted free agents received more than $10 million per year, and I don't see that many from this class. Unless a quarterback hits it in free agency, not many are going to get more than $10 million. Sure, Malik Jackson of the Denver Broncos might get $13 million to $15 million a year if the Broncos don't re-sign him. The franchise tags eliminated a lot of free agents who could have gotten big contracts. Don't forget: Teams need to set aside $10 million of the cap for draft choices and potential injuries. That takes $320 million out of the market.
KS: What about the non-elite but serviceable free agents? You wonder if teams will start fighting over guys whose value should be around, say, $4 million per year, and they'll get significantly more. That happened last year when the Jets gave Buster Skrine, in essence a nickelback, $6.25 million per year. I'm thinking that type of inflation could happen pretty frequently this spring. Tell me I'm wrong. (The first chart shows the amount of spending we've seen in recent years, by cap space.)
JC: There will be plenty of big bidding battles in the $4 million range, which could bump up values for those players. The bidding will be big there because $4 million is a fair price for a starter. It might not bump up the market for the running backs and run-stopping defensive tackles. Those two positions have been pretty well locked in at around $4 million. Other positions might benefit, particularly along the offensive line and maybe at corner or wide receiver. Last year, 21 unrestricted free agents got between $4 million and $5.99 million per year. With so much money on hand, teams might bid a little more if they need the starter.
KS: You mentioned Malik Jackson earlier. Who else do you think is in line to cash in on the open market? The deadline for the franchise tag has already passed, so we have a better idea now of who has a chance.
JC: Bruce Irvin of the Seahawks should get close to $9.5 million a year from Jacksonville or Atlanta. St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins just fired his agent and is hoping he can get $10 million a year. If the Baltimore Ravens don't re-sign Kelechi Osemele as a left tackle, he will be the highest paid guard on the market. That could be worth as much as $8 million a year. The Miami Dolphins are scrambling to re-sign Olivier Vernon. He can probably get $12 million or more on the open market. Quarterback Sam Bradford had a chance, but he ended up re-signing with the Philadelphia Eagles for a deal that averages $18 million per year.
KS: That brings us to where we are today: the last few moments before the negotiating period starts. Give us a sense of what's going on now. Teams are on a deadline of sorts with their players: Get them signed, or lose exclusive negotiating power. How many deals do you see getting done between now and Monday? Or next Wednesday? The above charts show how active the premarket, uh, market has been in past years. At this point, isn't it smart for unsigned players to see what will be available on the market?
JC: I wouldn't expect more than seven or eight decent-sized deals for re-signs. Most players believe they can get $6 million a year at the very least. Sometimes they are wrong in their assessment, but because of the salary cap, there are a limited number of $6 million-plus contracts that fit into a cap. To get that kind of money, a player needs to be at the Pro Bowl-alternate level or among the top 10 or 15 at his position. Last year, the 32 teams averaged about seven $6-million-a-year players on their rosters. The Seahawks had 12, but they were coming off two trips to the Super Bowl. Agents will make their clients wait for the big offer, regardless. They just have to hope the offer comes.
KS: Generally speaking, there is a belief that a significant free agent's best offer is almost always going to come from his incumbent team. The exception would be if the team faces salary-cap constraints. Do you think that's still the case? Is the NFL free-agency system set up to steer players back to their teams? Part of me thinks that dynamic could change after three consecutive years of cap increases, but that part of me is the smart part.
JC: Overall, the salary cap works for all involved. The $10 million-plus increase annually in the cap allows teams to budget themselves so they aren't constantly burdened with cap problems. The cap promotes competitive balance and makes it tough for the top teams to keep all their best players. I don't believe, however, that the free agent system is set up to steer players back to teams. All you have to do is study the difficulty teams have in getting their draft choices to a second contract. With rookies not allowed to negotiate until after their third seasons, players wait until the free-agency period to see if they can get a second contract. They gamble right or gamble wrong. For example, choices from the 2011 draft received less money in total contracts than those in the 2010 draft in unrestricted free agency. On the flip side, the Broncos have entered free agency loaded with draft choices from the 2011 and 2012 drafts, and they will probably lose more than they sign.
KS: When it's all said and done, what do you think we'll say about this market? Do multiple teams have a chance to appreciably better themselves? Are the chances lower that fewer teams will bury themselves? Or will the impact be as negligible as usual?
JC: It's not a great market, but anytime you can add players, you have a chance. The idea is not to believe you can build through free agency. Oakland and Jacksonville can help themselves the most. You've seen their failures. The difference now is that the talent level for both teams is improving. Their goal would be to get closer to .500. Chicago could come up with three needed starters on defense. Tampa Bay, Tennessee and others will be strategic with their signings. This isn’t an impact free-agent class. Detroit could make a jump if the Lions do it right in free agency. The Lions have an easy schedule. Last year, you saw the New York Jets go all-in on free agency and almost make the playoffs.