NFL teams haven't had trouble spending money in free agency.
As of Sunday, 255 players have been signed or re-signed off the unrestricted free-agent list, leaving about 150 players still looking for jobs. With $336.1 million of cap room remaining, more deals will get done, most of them one-year contracts at minimum salary.
But don't expect a rash of huge contract extensions anytime soon. Current market conditions aren't favorable for long-term deals.
Few elite players will make it to the open market soon. The first issue is the fifth-year option for first-rounders taken in the 2011 draft, the first year under the new collective bargaining agreement. Draft choices signed four-year contracts, but teams were given the ability to execute a fifth-year option at less than franchise value.
Top-10 draft picks can be optioned at the transition number at their position. Players taken at spots 11 through 32 are tendered at the average salary of the third through 25th players at their position.
As it turns out, the 2011 draft was great. Twelve of the top 16 picks have been to the Pro Bowl at least once. The draft was so good that the easy thing for teams to do is take the fifth-year option and deal with the situation next year. Between 20 and 23 players are expected to get the option year tag, which is guaranteed for injury only in 2015.
That means, among the top-10 picks, Cam Newton could make $14.66 million next year, linebackers Aldon Smith and Von Miller could make $9.754 million, wide receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones may bank $10,176 million, left tackle Tyron Smith $10.039 million, cornerback Patrick Peterson $10.81 million and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus $8.06 million.
The rest will come in at discounted prices. Considering those draft choices were slotted at averages below $2.81 million a year, the incentive is there for the team to get the fifth year and then try to do a long-term deal.
Add to the mix the fact that the top seven choices in the 2010 draft -- Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Trent Williams, Eric Berry, Russell Okung and Joe Haden -- are on six-year contracts that won't expire until after the 2015 season. That's a lot of top players who aren't going to get to free agency anytime soon.
That leaves a decent list of 2010 first-round draft choices and 2011 non-first-round choices, such as Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and Richard Sherman, facing the last year of their contracts, but the market should move at a snail's pace.
Alex Mack used the transition tag to get $8.4 million a year on a deal that the Cleveland Browns matched. Considering how most teams want to pay top centers in the $7 million a year range, Mack's deal could slow any long-term deals for Maurkice Pouncey in Pittsburgh or Mike Pouncey in Miami.
The money is there to get deals done, but teams might wait out the market.
From the inbox
Q: OK, so last year I asked you about the Raiders' progress, and despite my opinion of the answer, you got it right. Let's see if you can go two-for-two. Given that the draft is still to be done, and assuming that those five picks are just solid, not stellar, at this point, did the Raiders do enough in the offseason to improve four games?
Adam in Nashville
A: I think they can. With as many as 10 new starters, the Raiders are built like a team trying to get to seven or eight wins. But it's a roster that might not sustain itself for too long. Most of the signings were to players between the ages of 29 and 32. Within a year or two, many of the additions will become subtractions. But let's focus on this year. If Matt Schaub regains his confidence, the passing offense will be better. The Raiders can try to squeeze another productive year out of running back Maurice Jones-Drew while mixing in carries for Darren McFadden. Dennis Allen has enough defensive players to improve that unit. Don't think playoffs just yet, but expect more wins.
Q: With over 45 years of following the NFL, including the last 19 as a devoted Carolina fan, I'm asking you, have you ever witnessed a WR evacuation like the one Panther GM has initiated, beginning with a very productive "team leader" like #89? Especially without an equal value replacement in line! Also, isn't it apparent that the increased success of Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell was a direct result of the double teams Steve Smith drew in most situations?
Catfish in Salt Lake City
A: I can't remember one so dramatic. Last year, the Patriots entered the season without their five top pass-catchers from the previous year, but that wasn't all on Bill Belichick. Aaron Hernandez was in jail. Rob Gronkowski was hurt. Wes Welker left in free agency. The Panthers elected to lose their top four wide receivers. Steve Smith is going on 35, but he's still good enough for around 70 catches. Most of the new additions at wide receiver are viewed more as slot guys than outside threats. Unless the Panthers hit it big in the draft for receivers, this could be a tough season for Cam Newton and the passing game.
Q: At what point do the New Orleans Saints draft a highly ranked QB as a future starter? Drew Brees is on the downside of his career, and didn't the Colts teach everyone the dangers of not having a capable, future starting QB if your Hall of Fame QB suddenly goes down or retires? Is this the year for the Saints to draft a future starter such as Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Murray or AJ McCarron in the second to fourth rounds?
Rusty in Mandeville, La.
A: Not now, and probably not for a couple of years. I don't see enough drop-off in Brees' game to think he's close to being replaced. The Saints were among the final four teams in the NFC playoffs last year, and they have a great chance of winning the NFC South this upcoming season. As for the Colts, they got lucky. Peyton Manning missed the season because of his neck injury and the team bottomed out, allowing them to select Andrew Luck with the draft's first pick. The Saints' top priority is to try to win now and worry about the quarterback position later.
Q: Though I hope Colin Kaepernick is not going to get into trouble for his alleged Miami incident, I am kind of glad it happened because now the team can use it to leverage a more cap-friendly deal in order to keep some of their other key players around. This is now two consecutive offseasons he has been in the news, and though it was dumb, I can see this costing him anywhere from $1-4 million per year, possibly taking his demands down to $15 million per year.
Matthew in Richmond, Va.
A: First, let's allow the Miami Police Department to sort out what happened. No doubt, the incident will slow down negotiations. I can't imagine the team giving him an extension until the case is resolved. If Kaepernick comes out of this incident without any charges, I don't think the team should use what happened against him to get a better contract. Kaepernick has been to two NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. He is one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in football. He deserves $18 million a year. If he is innocent, why should be sacrifice $15 million over five years?
Q: Does Alex Mack want out of Cleveland because he is tired of losing, does not think the Browns will win and seriously contend, sees no end to the mismanagement of the team, and does not like living in Cleveland? Or does he like the Jaguars? Thinks they are headed on the right track and likes living in Jacksonville? Tough to see how the Jaguars are considered a better run team than the Browns.
Michael in Plymouth, Mich.
A: No, he was just trying to get the best contract, and he accomplished that. Cleveland has more talent than the Jaguars. But the Browns gambled. In trying to lower his value, they gave him the transition tag, saving them $1.6 million by not giving him the franchise tag. Mack, though his agent, Marvin Demoff, made a brilliant move by getting the five-year, $42 million contract. First, for any team to sign him, Demoff had to find a team willing to make Mack the highest-paid center and put something in the contract the Browns wouldn't like. They can't like the idea that Mack can get out of the deal in two years, but the Browns took a chance giving him the transition tag. Mack is a leader and a good player. He just made the system work for him, and I'm sure the Browns understand.
Q: I just read a report that Adrian Peterson has said that college athletes should be paid for playing their sport of choice. While I am all for seeing student athletes excel in their sport, I fear that giving college athletes a salary is going to give the wrong impression, especially to future commits. If say Jameis Winston gets paid to be Florida States QB and for his stats and abilities on the field, then any QB going through Florida State is going to demand the same deal as he got. This will lead to the school's losing money, causing tuition to go up so the schools can operate. Should we allow college students to be paid, even if it brings a level of greed we are not ready for?
Ray in Monroe, Mich.
A: Some accommodation needs to be made, but you are right in the sense that the college financial scene would be chaotic if all athletes were paid. One option is taking the digital rights of the athletes and trying to market those with the money either going to that player or into a pool for players. Let's say colleges want to attach the names of players to games or fantasy games. Marketed properly, that could create money that can go back to the players and not the school. I'm not against paying the players, but the system has to be done in a way it doesn't destroy college sports.