March 18, 2015 - Tony Villiotti
One week later: NFL Free Agency
The article “What Can You Expect from Free Agency” discussed, among other things, early free agent signings and how there would be plenty of them once 2015 free agency started. Well, the first week is now behind us and there was indeed plenty of activity. This article reviews the first week of free agency and focuses on the activity that took place through March 16. By our count, 119 free agent signings took place as of the end of the day on March 16. This includes signing both free agents whose contracts have expired and players who have been cut for salary or performance reasons. Traded players and players claimed via waiver were not included. Resigning a team’s own players is also excluded for the purposes of this analysis. While this is important it strays from the purpose of the article. Contract Length This is just the beginning of free agency, of course, but the early trend seems to be that fewer one- year contracts are being signed. Some of the one-year deals are for players returning from injury (e.g., Adrian Clayborn, Henry Melton, Sean Weatherspoon, Tyvon Branch, etc.,). The following table compares the 119 signings so far in 2015 with the 139 contracts signed during the first three weeks of the 2014 free agency process.
With possible exception of the Scott Chandler signing by the Patriots, it is our guess that all the contracts of unknown length are one-year contract. This would mean that so far in 2015 free agency slightly less than 25% of all signings were for one year versus 36% in 2014. As free agency progresses we are likely to see more veteran-minimum, one-year contracts so this gap should be closed somewhat. The Largest Contracts The Jaguars have been the preeminent team in signing 2015 free agents to longer contracts. They have signed seven players so far with four those receiving contracts of five years. This represents 25% of all free agents who have signed contracts of five years or longer. A fifth player was signed by Jacksonville to a four-year contract. Beside the Jaguars, only the Eagles have signed more than one player to a contract in excess of four years, and they signed two. If all five contracts are combined, the Jaguars committed to contracts having a Guaranteed Value of $77 million. Only the Jets exceed that investment with the contracts of Darrelle Revis, James Carpenter, Marcus Gilchrist, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine having a Guaranteed Value of nearly $90 million. Most would agree that, with the ability of NFL teams to release players and void contracts, a contract’s Guaranteed Value is its most important element. Here are the eleven free agent signings with a Guaranteed Value of at least $15 million. Information is from a variety of published sources.
The Suh contract pretty much drawfs the other contracts signed and makes him the highest paid non- quarterback in the league. By way comparison, JJ Watt signed a six-year contract extension last fall and received a Guaranteed Value of $21 million (total contract of about $100 milllion), only one-third of Suh’s guarantee. Seven of the eleven contracts are for defensive players. It is a matter of conjecture whether this is a matter of chance or a commentary on the importance of defense. Future Free Agent Signings More players will be added to the free agent pool as the year progresses and teams make further cuts, most of which will be salary cap related. A remaining key date for free agency is June 1. Many teams have an incentive to make cuts after June 1, as that will permit them to spread a terminated player’s salary cap impact over 2015 and 2016. Otherwise the entire amount of a player’s “dead money” goes against a team’s 2015 salary cap, something most teams would like to avoid. In addition, while many of the big-name players are already signed, there are still a lot of talented free agents available. By our count, over 250 free agents remain unsigned. Some will retire and others will attract no interest, but most will end up in someone’s training camp. How Are Teams Doing So Far? The emphasis should be on “so far” as there is a still a long way to go in the free agency process. In assessing a team’s performance it was decided to focus on participation losses. If player A is lost in free agency and had participated in 1000 plays from scrimmage in 2014, his team must find a replacement to play those 1000 snaps. That replacement can come from the prior year’s roster, the draft or a free agent. In this analysis only free agency is considered so, if a player or players are signed in free agency to replace Player A, his team has suffered no quantitative loss in free agency. A team that brings in more experience than they lost has a net gain through free agency. The following table summarizes the net gain or loss through free agency for each team. A number in parentheses represents a net loss. The “Added” column represents the number of 2014 scrimmage plays for signed free agents. The “Lost” column represents the number of 2014 scrimmage plays for players lost in free agency.
The Jets and Raiders have added the most while the Eagles and Packers have lost the most. The Packers do not typically chase free agents and others, like the Steelers, tend to sit out free agency until the prices come down. As a matter of perspective, the Eagles lost the most 2014 scrimmage plays (4637), but those plays represented less than 20% of their total scrimmage plays. So the impact of free agency is relatively modest. Follow Tony on Twitter @draftmetrics