The free agent market is good for one thing, getting players paid above market level. Many times it is necessary for the team to pay above market level for a player in the mold that they desire. This season the Chicago Bears paid LT Jermon Bushrod $35.965 million for 5 years with $22.465 million guaranteed. Bushrod is a serviceable, possibly above average, tackle who has benefited from a good all around line and a QB in Drew Brees who has an amazingly fast release. He is overpaid, but when your franchise struggles to find even an average player at a position, it is time to overpay to solidify that position. That is what is meant by people who preach building through the draft and adding an extra piece or two through free agency.
2013 has been a very strange free agent year in the NFL because of the amazing restraint shown by most franchises, excluding the Miami Dolphins who have signed WR Mike Wallace, WR Brandon Gibson, TE Dustin Keller, LB Dannell Ellerbe, LB Phillip Wheeler and re-signed WR Brian Hartline and LT Jake Long. Not much restraint shown there. Take out those examples, who signed a combined 28 years for $199.53 million, and this free agency period has seen amazing bargains at premium position, especially on defense.
Pass rushers used to be the highest paid players in free agency next to quarterbacks, in 2013 they have been signing incentive laid, team friendly, prove-it deals. Michael Bennett, former Tampa Bay defensive end who had 9 sacks in 2012, signed a 1-year $4.8 million contract with Seattle. In 2012, John Abraham, 9.5 sacks in 2011, signed for 3-years $16.72 million; Mark Anderson, 10 sacks in 2011, signed for 4-years $19.5 million; and Mario Williams, after 2 injury plagued seasons and not breaking 10 sacks for 3 years, signed 6-year $100 million. In 2011, Ray Edwards, 8 sacks in 2010, signed for 5-years $30 million; Charles Johnson, 11.5 sacks in 2010, signed for 6-years $76 million; and Brian Robison, 2 sacks in 2010, signed for 3-years $14.1 million.
Moral of the story, the NFL valued pass rushers extremely highly in most years, but this year they are not getting paid. Like Michael Bennett, former Lions DE Cliff Avril, 9.5 sacks in 2012, signed a 2-year $13 million contract and William Hayes, 7 sacks in 2012, signed for 3-years $10.25 million. The average annual salary of the contracts is comparable to the past, it has gone down from roughly $6 million annually for a 7-10 sack player, to roughly $5 million annually. The big difference though is the lack of years being attached to these deals. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me because in the NFL you can spread so much money over later years in the contract and they aren’t guaranteed so once you cut a player, you no longer have to pay the remainder of that contract. I would think GMs would be more willing to go more years and less money, but it is still a step in the right direction.
Another high value position during recent seasons has been cornerback. Even low upside cornerbacks like Stanford Routt in 2011, 3-years $31.5 million; Eric Wright in 2012, 5-year $37.5 million, were making high annual salaries for several years because of the need by teams to protect themselves against the high-octane new league. However, in this year’s free agency period, we’ve seen CBs on a similar level as these two signing contracts like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s 2-year $10 million deal, Chris Houston’s 5-year $25 million contract and Leodis McKelvin’s 4-year $17 million pact. Even number two, three or four corners were getting high annual salaries and a lot of years, while in this market they are scarcely making more than $5 million a season, even if they have top corner potential.
What is interesting is that the safety market has been extremely level compared to recent seasons. With the top free agent safeties getting roughly $5 million/year being the norm over the past few years, the fact that they are still getting that same amount is telling. There has been no decrease in their perceived value by franchises and compared to the decrease in value for corners and pass rushers, they are becoming more highly valued, comparatively. The penchant for offenses to “take the top off the defense” has led to an increase in value for safeties that can cover speed receivers in combination with the corners. After this year’s debacles in the postseason for every team that the Ravens played, some teams clearly wanted to prevent that from happening to them in 2013-14.
Teams, and their decision makers, are being held accountable for their overspending because of the salary cap not increasing after the new CBA this year. General Managers are getting fired almost every off-season and will likely continue to be fired based on their bad drafting and, more likely, their bad free agency decisions. Buffalo’s GM, Buddy Nix, might be next on the chopping block after bad deals with Ryan Fitzpatrick and possibly Mario Williams if he doesn’t turn it around. Followed shortly by Miami’s Jeff Ireland after this spending spree hits the fan.
The 2013 NFL free agency period is reflecting this change and GMs are being much more careful with their owner’s check books. Much like in the MLB, teams are seeing free agency as more of a way of adding a piece you lack in your system, or adding cheap talent to compete on your roster. Building through the draft, promoting from within, holding onto your quality assets is the new vogue in all of the major sports leagues. Over spending will always happen, but it clearly is becoming less of the norm and more of an outlier. Luckily, for owners that is, this trend seems to be taking hold and likely isn’t just a one-year wonder.