Commentary

Loyalty gets sqeezed by tight cap

Mailbag: Teams not willing to spend extra to retain their veteran leaders

Originally Published: March 24, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the first two weeks of free agency is how rigid teams have been while dealing with their veteran players.

The Chicago Bears offered Brian Urlacher backup money -- $2 million on a one-year contract -- before letting him walk. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison turned down a pay reduction to $4 million before he was released. Now, he might scramble to get $4 million from another team.

The New England Patriots said goodbye to Wes Welker because he turned down a two-year, $10 million deal. Anquan Boldin refused a pay cut from the Baltimore Ravens and was traded to San Francisco. Adrian Wilson had to scramble for a three-year, $5 million deal from the Patriots after being cut by the Arizona Cardinals. Charles Woodson, Antoine Winfield, Bart Scott, Sione Pouha and Cullen Jenkins are among the many veterans over the age of 30 who were salary-cap casualties.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Jerry Lai/US PresswireThe Bears were only willing to offer backup money to Brian Urlacher.

What's becoming clear in this tight salary-cap economy is loyalty among clubs toward long-term leaders and veterans only goes to a certain limit. The Packers were willing to go to $7 million a year to keep Greg Jennings, but he was able to get $2 million a year more from the Minnesota Vikings.

It's pretty clear the tight cap is turning the NFL into a young players' league. It's going to force veterans past the age of 30 to reconsider their bargaining position. Sure, Tony Gonzalez was able to get $7 million from the Atlanta Falcons to reconsider retirement and Welker was able to get $6 million a year from the Denver Broncos, but aging veterans have to make major mental adjustments.

You can see the trend. Teams wanting to keep a veteran past the age of 32 are valuing such a player in the neighborhood of $4 million a year, except for quarterbacks. As long as the cap remains near its current $123.9 million level, the days of keeping non-quarterbacks in their mid-30s making $6 million a year or more are over.

Look at the Ravens. Wisely, the team stuck by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed while they were making in excess of $6 million a year in 2012, and they were rewarded with a Super Bowl championship. Lewis retired and the Ravens were only willing to keep Reed at around $4 million or $5 million, so he walked to Houston for a three-year, $15 million deal.

It's not going to get any better. Teams are looking at tight salary caps for 2014 and 2015, and general managers are cutting corners. Good teams are being economical with their kickers and punters. The middle class of players is getting squeezed.

But seeing what is happening to the Urlachers of the world is sad. The Bears felt they were being loyal to him by offering him $2 million, but it might have been better not to make him an offer and tell him to keep in touch once free agency started if he couldn't find anything.

It's a tough market place.

From the inbox

Q: I remember watching Drew Stanton in college. I find it interesting now that he seems close to being named Arizona's starter, none of the experts has commented on how the NFC West has yet another very mobile QB in the division. Your thoughts?

Christopher in Allen, Mich.

A: Running quarterbacks rule this division, but I still find it funny that Stanton seems destined to be named starter by the first week in May. Bruce Arians has made it clear he won't have any quarterback controversies on his team. The Cards aren't expected to take a quarterback in the first round, so it seems inevitable they will hand the job to Stanton unless another veteran quarterback pops free. I just don't know whether Stanton can sustain success as a starter once the Cardinals get into the regular season. I look at Stanton as a backup. Going into the season with a backup as a starter is scary.

Q: Given that there are some quality veterans that remain on the free-agent market, do you think the Redskins go after Ronde Barber or Charles Woodson? Woodson can still play in the league, and Barber is connected to Raheem Morris. The team currently lacks safety and corner depth with the loss of DeAngelo Hall, who played well down the stretch.

Matt in New York

A: I can't see Barber playing anywhere but Tampa Bay. Plus, the Bucs have the cap room to pay him $3 million if he decides to continue playing. The Redskins don't have that cap room. They would be able to offer him or Woodson a minimum benefits contract of around only $1.005 million, and that won't entice Barber to go to another team. The Bucs have made it clear that they have a spot for Barber if he wants to come back. If Barber is playing football this year, I think he will be playing in Tampa Bay.

Q: The Ryan Fitzpatrick signing is really interesting [to] me, because I don't think Jake Locker is going to turn the corner. The Titans are saying he's definitely the backup, but surely they have to be wondering if they can get some production out of him, right?

T in Chicago

A: This was just a salary-cap move. The Titans felt they could get Fitzpatrick signed to a cheaper contract than Matt Hasselbeck, who was able to get a two-year, $8 million contract that paid him $5 million this year. Don't read more into it than that. I'm sure the Titans wanted an experienced quarterback who could not only mentor Locker, but fill in for him if he struggles or gets injured. It looks as though the Titans will start to use some read-option plays for Locker as they expand the playbook. If Locker gets hurt or struggles, Fitzpatrick could do a decent job coming off the bench.

Q: I used to love watching the draft on TV. But I do not care for it anymore. The best part used to be the suspense of who was going to be taken. Now with the cameras on the players, we know before the commissioner says a word who the pick is. That's not fun! That's not suspenseful. That's not good TV. Any way we can change this?

Mike in Allentown, Pa.

A: You raise a good point. Last year was the toughest. With the draft going on during television breaks, the networks fell two or three picks behind. With social media, the news gets out quickly, and that does take away the drama. The clock doesn't stop when the networks go to commercial. The networks are mandated by the league not to announce the picks before the commissioner. There needs to be a way to keep information flowing better. The suspense is still there, but the league needs to figure out a better way to get the timing down.

Q: What do you think about the Patriots going after Darrius Heyward-Bey? They need someone who has the speed that Brandon Lloyd lacked to "take the top off the defense." He could be exactly what they are looking for. His numbers haven't been what were expected since he entered the league as the seventh overall pick in 2009, but he is coming off his career-best season and I think that it's been proven that Tom Brady can get the best out of his wide receivers. What do you think is a good move for the Patriots' offense?

Jack in New York

A: That might be one option. He could play split end and stretch the field, but they would probably need to add another receiver to be the starter. DHB hasn't shown the consistency to be a starter on a team as talented as the Patriots. For that to happen, he would have to take a salary close to the minimum. He might get a little more money elsewhere, but he could help the Patriots.

Q: Do you think teams have figured out a way to slow down the pistol offense?

Ariz in Glendale, Calif.

A: They are working on it. Assistants are going to college practices all over the country to pick up pointers. They are studying tape and calling friends on coaching staffs. It has become one of the priorities of the offseason. Coaches coming from the college ranks such as Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh, Doug Marrone and Greg Schiano have an edge because they were game planning against it while they were in college. We'll have to wait until the regular season to see if the work of the other coaches is successful.

Q: Could you please address why the Redskins' cap penalties are not a larger issue, or how the NFL's decision has not been overturned? It seems their name has garnered more outrage lately than the $36 million penalty. (I am not interested in the uncapped versus accounting argument.) I am perplexed how the NFL can get away with signing off on contracts and saying the contracts are OK, then come back and penalize a team for the contracts that the NFL said were fine?

Stephen in Gulfport, Miss.

A: With 28 owners and the NFLPA signing off on the penalties last year, there is little recourse for the Redskins and the Cowboys. They considered a lawsuit but realized it probably wouldn't work. Clearly, the penalties for both teams were big deals. Mike Shanahan believes the $18 million in one season costs them about six starters, and he's not too far off. The Redskins have to get through this year and hope that the damage isn't too bad, but the Redskins clearly are damaged.

Q: With the acquisition of Greg Jennings by Minnesota and the fact that they will spend a draft pick on a wide receiver in the first 52 picks, why won't they take a chance on a guy like Brandon Lloyd or Laurent Robinson for a year, just to shore up a WR corps and give the rookie a few veterans and time to develop?

Grant in St. Peter, Minn.

A: There are concerns about the concussion problems Robinson would bring. Lloyd could be a decent fit at the right price. I'm sure they will keep looking for a veteran to add to the mix for competition. Like all teams now, they are just being patient, waiting for the price of players to come down. At least they have Jennings and Jerome Simpson to start.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer