Commentary

The $6 million men

Players looking for big deals have found that teams have become cap-conscious

Originally Published: March 15, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The pace of free agency has been faster than ever.

More than 70 players moved to new teams in the first four days. The Indianapolis Colts have signed seven free agents, and six could become starters. The Philadelphia Eagles may not be building Dream Team 2.0, but they have added nine players to coach Chip Kelly's new roster. As expected, the Miami Dolphins have been the most aggressive team.

Here are the five things we have learned since the opening of free agency.

1. The $6 million battleground: More than ever before, teams are being cap-cautious. Only so many big contracts can fit in a $123 million cap that is destined to be flat until maybe 2015 or 2016.

Few teams can fit more than eight $6 million-a-year contracts in that cap in any one season. To get $6 million a year, you have to be either young and talented, or a hot commodity. Mike Wallace got $12 million a year from the Miami Dolphins because he has speed and the Dolphins had to find a No. 1 receiver to replace Brandon Marshall. Percy Harvin got a six-year, $61 million deal after the Seahawks figured he was the one piece on offense that could get them closer to the Super Bowl.

Teams paid a premium for tackles. Chicago rewarded Jermon Bushrod, the Colts signed Gosder Cherilus (Indianapolis) and Andy Levitre got a $7.8 million-a-year deal from Tennessee as the top guard on the market. This year's free-agent class will top the 13 $6 million-a-year contracts given last year, but not by much. Ask Wes Welker. Welker was trying to come close to the $7.5 million salary of Aaron Hernandez or the $9 million average of Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots said no, offering him a two-year, $10 million contract. With Tom Brady, Gronkowski, Hernandez and Logan Mankins drawing more than $6 million a year, the Patriots drew the line. Welker had to go to Denver to get a two-year, $12 million deal.

The Pats gave Danny Amendola about $30 million over five years, but only $10 million of it is guaranteed. You can figure that Brian Urlacher would be hoping for more than $6 million from the Bears, but they might be reluctant to go there. Ask the cornerbacks about the $6 million battleground. Former Miami Dolphins CB Sean Smith angled for the gold, but ended up getting a $5.75 million average from the Kansas City Chiefs. So far, every other corner has come in for less than that.

2. Wow, the carnage: To fit in many of these new contracts, teams have been unloading veteran deals at an alarming pace. As of Friday, 92 veterans have been terminated or had their contracts voided, and it has freed up $373 million of cap room.

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsKevin Kolb is one of the many veterans the Cardinals have jettisoned in free agency.

The Arizona Cardinals have released five starters: Kevin Kolb, William Gay, Beanie Wells, Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson. The Jets have cut Eric Smith, Calvin Pace, Sione Pouha and Bart Scott. Jacksonville gave up on wide receiver Laurent Robinson after one year. More than 20 $6 million-a-year contracts were eliminated from the books. It's surprising that teams are willing to give up on free-agent acquisitions after one year. It's apparent that teams that sign free agents might be willing to give up on them after one or two years for cap purposes.

3. New coaches are driving the volume market:

Often, a new coach turns over more than 50 percent of a roster. By late in the season last year, the Colts had 36 new players on their roster.

With eight new head coaches, the roster turnover is happening at a fast pace. Philadelphia's Kelly and Kansas City's Andy Reid are leading the way. The Eagles are switching to a 3-4 defense, so Kelly aggressively started filling starting jobs. He added linebacker Connor Barwin as a pass-rusher. He picked up nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. He's replacing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha with Cary Williams and possibly Bradley Fletcher. Patrick Chung comes in at safety.

You really have to like what Reid is doing in Kansas City. First, he hopes he fixed the quarterback position by acquiring Alex Smith. He solidified the secondary by adding Dunta Robinson as the slot corner at $4.6 million per year. Then, Reid added Sean Smith to the outside cornerback spot at $5.75 million a year. DE Mike DeVito should help along the defensive line. One of the keys, though, was re-signing Dwayne Bowe and punter Dustin Colquitt.

In Arizona, Bruce Arians has brought in Rashard Mendenhall on offense and Drew Stanton as a backup quarterback. He replaced William Gay at corner with Jerraud Powers. He knows Stanton and Powers from his one year with the Colts.

4. Winning teams can still be aggressive: The arms race between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers remains one of the best stories in the league. Anquan Boldin goes to the 49ers. Percy Harvin goes to the Seahawks. While the 49ers were talking to Charles Woodson and Asomugha, the Seahawks signed pass-rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett for a combined $12.5 million a year.

After an 11-win season, the Colts, who drafted for offense last year, tried to upgrade their offensive line and 3-4 defense. Right tackle Cherilus and guard Donald Thomas should add toughness to the offensive line. Nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois and safety LaRon Landry should strengthen the middle of the defense. Linebacker Erik Walden and cornerback Greg Toler were paid more than $4 million a year to be starters.

Then there are the Denver Broncos. John Elway doesn't settle for second best. Last year, he lured Peyton Manning to Denver. This year he grabbed Welker while getting Louis Vasquez, the second-best guard on the market.

5. What were the surprises? Wallace to Miami was no surprise. Everyone thought that would happen. Getting Dustin Keller to sign a one-year, $4.25 million deal was smart. The surprises were the moves between them. Despite having holes at tackle and cornerback, Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland went for two linebackers -- Dannell Ellerbe andPhilip Wheeler. Each received five-year contracts that totaled $61 million ($35 million for Ellerbe and $26 million for Wheeler). It cost them high-priced linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. By switching to a 4-3 defense, the Dolphins had the luxury of getting younger, less expensive linebackers. They went a different way.

Some people might have been surprised that defensive end Desmond Bryant got $34 million over five years from Cleveland, but Bryant was considered the sleeper free agent on defense.

The Seahawks' deals for Harvin, Bennett and Avril were surprising, but understand the Seahawks' thinking. They never thought Avril and Bennett, two of the best three pass-rushers on their list of free agents, would be available for $7.5 million a year and $5 million, respectively. They jumped on those opportunities.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer