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Teams taking fewer risks on contracts

Over the next two weeks, spending in the NFL will be crazy.

As the free-agency signing period approaches, deals are getting done. Marshawn Lynch got a four-year, $31 million deal from the Seahawks. The Bills paid Stevie Johnson. The Houston Texans stepped up to keep restricted free agent Arian Foster. And they were all signed to long-term deals.


But what fascinates me is whether enough teams lock up enough players to long-term deals. Last year was strange. The lockout held up free agency until the summer. When the lockout ended, teams scrambled to sign 163 players, but 99 signed one-year deals.

Heading into last weekend, there were 459 unrestricted free agents. And that's after subtracting 11 players who were franchised. That's a lot, but it's also a byproduct of teams' taking fewer chances on long-term deals.

The salary cap of $120-plus million is flat this year, even though teams moved more than $301 million of unused cap dollars from 2011. Capologists and general managers have to figure out how to make the cap dollars work over the next couple of years.

Big network television money will flood the cap in 2014 and thereafter. You would think the strategy now would be to lock up as many players to long-term deals that would extend into the 2014 season, but I doubt that will happen. Salaries could skyrocket in 2014 because of the increased television revenue, but I sense that teams will operate in the short term.

The smart move could be to lock up 2014 and 2015 salaries under 2012 dollars. That wasn't the case with the Packers and Jermichael Finley. The Packers elected to give him a two-year, $14 million contract that pays him $5.75 million this year. In 2014, he's a free agent and could hit for monster dollars.

Probably the last thing on teams' minds is the 2014 season. How many coaches and general managers will survive until then? Still, I just wonder how long the NFL is willing to gamble with so many available free agents. Sure, players are replaceable, but at some point, the replacement costs could skyrocket.

From the inbox

Q: There is a lot of talk regarding quarterbacks -- both in the draft and via trade. How about Kellen Moore? I know that he's a bit shorter than the pros like (tell that to Drew Brees), but he's a winner. His yards per game, completion percentage, interception ratio, QB ranking are all top quality. Sure, he's part of a system with a football-passing philosophy, but isn't that what the pros have?

Craig in Seattle

A: Moore passes the statistical test, but he didn't pass the eye test. His throwing during the Senior Bowl and at the scouting combine wasn't great. He also doesn't have a particularly strong arm. That doesn't mean that he's going to be a bad quarterback in this league, but it means he will be taken in the sixth or seven round of the draft. Moore was rightfully proud that he measured out at 6 feet instead of being shorter. Russell Wilson was shorter, but he threw better at the combine and at the Senior Bowl, which means he should go a little higher in the draft than Moore.

Q: Everyone is talking about the Redskins moving up to take Robert Griffin III, but if you were the Rams, would you trade Sam Bradford for the sixth pick? We know Mike Shanahan loves Bradford. The Rams have a new system, and this would allow them to get a cheaper long-term answer at quarterback and the best wide receiver in the draft.

Reuben in Washington

A: The Rams believe in Bradford and they aren't trading him. They shouldn't. They had to lose a lot of games to get Bradford. Now they have to get a lot of players to be able to make this work. Trading Griffin is the right move. They don't need a new quarterback. They need a new and better roster.

Q: Am I missing something on Nick Perry falling out of the first round of these mock drafts? Put his numbers next to Clay Matthews' and he's bigger, FASTER, stronger and actually played at USC. The knock I see on him is that he is still raw, but what was Matthews coming out? Why would Pittsburgh, Houston (w/out Mario Williams) or New England not jump on him as a 3-4 OLB at the bottom of Round 1?

Joe in Seattle

A: I must be missing something too. The guy was great at the combine. He weighed 272 pounds and had a hand-held 4.5. He's fast, explosive and talented. I'd look at him as a top-15 pick. The only question is whether he looks better in a 4-3 or 3-4. I think he'd look good in any defense.

Q: What do you think it will take for Jerry Jones to realize the fix to the Boys' problems are him overpaying average talent? To even consider tagging Anthony Spencer would speak on how they see talent or, in this case, lack of talent. Most teams get three or four players from the draft each year that helps their team improve now. We average one good draft pick per year. Being a Cowboys fan, it's becoming harder and harder to defend my season-ticket purchases each year.

Denaus in Dallas

A: Jerry Jones believes in the young players he has drafted and doesn't want to lose them. But you are right about how the defense has been underachieving and is overpaid. Spencer offers some pass rush, which makes him valuable to the Cowboys. This will be their second season under Rob Ryan. They need to make upgrades at cornerback. Sean Lee will be better at inside linebacker. They could get more help on the defensive line.

Q: Seeing all the discussion over the "third" QB in this year's class, am I the only one who thinks Brandon Weeden is easily No. 3? I know he is 28, but I'd rather have a six- to eight-year starter than a 12-year backup. Great arm, mature, professional. Best fit: Dolphins second round.

Ryan in Goldthwaite, Texas

A: I was with you six weeks ago, but I have gone in a different direction. Weeden didn't wow me during Senior Bowl week. He wasn't impressive throwing at the combine. In fact, I thought Kirk Cousins threw better than he did. Maybe I'm overrating those viewings, but I've moved him down. He has time to do better, but I think he may fall to the third round.

Q: I wanted to question something you wrote in the most recent mailbag, in the short notes section. You wrote, "I believe defenses only get you to championship games, and quarterbacks win Super Bowls." While I think there's validity to the importance of the QB, I also think if you look at the recent Super Bowl, most folks would definitely rank Tom Brady as being the better QB over Eli Manning. Manning is an excellent QB and deserves the kudos he's received, but tell me, if you had a choice between them, wouldn't you take Brady every single time? So doesn't that suggest that having the better defense not only gets you there, but also is equally as important in winning Super Bowls?

Cary in Sacramento, Calif.

A: Say what you want about defense, but the Giants were 27th and the Patriots were 31st on defense. You have to have a certain level of quarterback to win a championship these days. Brady is better than Eli, but that doesn't mean he is going to win the game. That's why they play the games. The Giants were the hotter team down the strength, but so much of their success went with the quarterback.

Q: Do you think the Denver Broncos could get Mario Williams? The Broncos have the cap space and Fox had a guy in Carolina similar to Williams in Peppers. Adding him with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, I feel would shore up the pass rush and allow the Broncos to focus on DB, D-Line and a QB in the draft.

Fred in Boulder, Colo.

A: They could, but I don't think they will. They have the cap room but I don't know if they want to spend $15 million a year for a defensive end. For John Fox, it would be nice. It would give him a Julius Peppers-type defensive end to rush the quarterback. A Williams-Dumervil pass rush would be fun, but it would also be expensive. I wouldn't count the Broncos out, but I wouldn't count on it.

Q: Why is it that everyone is writing off Peyton Manning in Indianapolis? There seems to be a lot of interest in his services; why not in Indy? If he is willing to rework his contract, I see no reason not to keep him. If he can't perform, he retires as a Colt and we have Andrew Luck in the wings. If he does come back, then we have a playoff contender. If Peyton takes another team to a Super Bowl, I don't think the fans will forget. It has been three years, and fans are still upset about the "perfect" season. I am a season-ticket holder and drove through a blizzard (4 hours each way) to watch the Colts tank it against the Jets. I won't forget.

Rick in Hobart, Ind.

A: I have felt like a voice in the wilderness by suggesting he could return. I'd like to see it. I think Jim Irsay would like to see it. No doubt, Colts fans would love to see it. He has to decide if he is willing to adjust his contract to make it work. The fact that he is throwing better may give Irsay incentive to get something done. Sure, the Colts might be rebuilding, but Manning made that franchise.

Q: Let's talk about the elephant in the room, the tough question. Roger Goodell and even Congress want HGH testing, but the players are rejecting it, despite the fact that nearly two dozen scientists and lab directors endorsed the recommended testing methods. And now we have ex-players like Boomer Esiason saying at least 20 percent of the league uses HGH. And why wouldn't the average fan think this?

Are we really to believe that all of the biggest, fastest and strongest human beings in history all popped up in the last 20 years and happen to play football? I think we may be sitting on a baseball-like PED situation here. How does the NFL plan to handle this potentially explosive situation?

Tony in Lackawanna, N.Y.

A: With the recent baseball mess with Ryan Braun, you can understand why the players don't want to jump into a new drug testing program until they are totally comfortable with the way it's administered. For an HGH test, players would have to agree to have blood testing.

Before the start of the season, I do believe the players will agree to the testing program. They just want more information. The players did put language in the new CBA that they would accept HGH testing as long as they are comfortable with the program.

In the 1980s, football players were willing to do steroid testing, which put them well ahead of baseball. If there is no agreement before the season, then the pressure might have to come down on the players. I think it will happen and testing will start this year.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter
@ClaytonESPN