Free Agency’s Big Winners

With the NFL turning its attention to the annual owners meetings, here’s a look at some of the big winners in free agency.
Ndamukong Suh (DT)-Miami Dolphins: Suh re-set the non-quarterback market with a six-year, $114.375 million contract containing $59.955 million fully guaranteed. The previous non-quarterback benchmark was the six-year, $100 million contract extension (averages $16,666,667 per year) J.J. Watt received from the Houston Texans last September. Suh’s $59.955 million also sets a new standard for guaranteed money with non-quarterbacks. It eclipses the $53.25 million of guaranteed money in the seven-year, $113.45 million contract extension Calvin Johnson received from the Detroit Lions in 2012.
Darrelle Revis (CB)-New York Jets: Revis getting a deal to place him at the top of the cornerback salary hierarchy was expected. His five-year contract worth $70,121,060 is clearly superior to other top cornerback deals in key contract metrics. $39 million is fully guaranteed at signing. That’s a little over $8.5 million more than the $30.481 million Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman, the NFL’s second and third highest paid cornerbacks (by average yearly salary) have fully guaranteed at signing collectively.
Julius Thomas (TE)-Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars didn’t make Thomas the NFL’s second highest paid tight end because of his blocking prowess. He is expected to remain arguably the NFL’s best red zone threat at the position after receiving a five-year, $46 million deal containing $24 million in guarantees. Thomas sets a new standard for guarantees in tight end deals with the $24 million. $21 million of the $24 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Byron Maxwell-(CB)-Philadelphia Eagles: Maxwell hit the open market at the right time. This year’s group of free agent cornerbacks wasn’t nearly as impressive as last year’s group, which included Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, Sam Shields, Aqib Talib and Alterraun Verner. He received a six-year, $63 million contract with $25 million fully guaranteed. $32 million is in the first three years.
Devin McCourty (S)-New England Patriots: McCourty became the NFL’s second highest paid safety despite rejecting bigger offers from other teams. His five-year, $47.5 million contract contains $28.5 million in guarantees, which is the most ever in guarantees for a veteran safety deal. McCourty also has the best three-year cash flow for safeties with $30 million in the first three years.
Rodney Hudson (C)-Oakland Raiders: Hudson reached his goal of becoming the NFL’s highest paid center with a five-year, $44.5 million contract. The Raiders were smart in using a pay as you go structure with Hudson’s deal. His cash and salary cap numbers are the same in each contract year because he is receiving salary guarantees instead of a signing bonus. Since Hudson’s $7.35 million 2016 base salary doesn’t become fully guaranteed until the third day of the 2016 league year (mid-March), the Raiders have a window to get out of the deal after the 2015 season without any cap consequences if he doesn’t pan out.
DeMarco Murray (RB)-Philadelphia Eagles: Murray didn’t capitalize on a dominant season in a contract year as much as he would have at other positions because of the devaluing of running backs. Nonetheless, his five-year, $40 million contract (with $21 million in guarantees and worth a maximum of $42 million through salary escalators) makes him the first running back to switch teams in free agency with a deal over $5 million per year since Michael Turner left the San Diego Chargers for the Atlanta Falcons in 2008.
Dwayne Harris (WR)-New York Giants: The Giants made Harris the NFL’s highest paid player whose primary role is returning kicks by giving him a five-year, $17.5 million contract (with $7.1 million fully guaranteed). Harris was second in the NFL in kickoff return average with 30.6 yards per return and third in punt return average (12.8 yards) during the 2013 season. It’s conceivable that Harris will be New York’s fifth wide receiver behind Preston Parker, who caught 36 passes in an expanded role because of Victor Cruz’s torn patellar tendon in his right knee. To put Harris’ deal in better perspective, Cole Beasley, who was ahead of Harris on the depth chart with the Dallas Cowboys last season as the team’s third wide receiver, recently re-upped on a four-year, $13.606 million contract with $5 million fully guaranteed.
Aaron Rodgers (QB)-Green Bay Packers: The Packers maintain offensive continuity with offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and wide receiver Randall Cobb taking hometown discounts to remain in Green Bay. Bulaga signed a five-year, $33.75 million deal. Cobb’s four-year, $40 million contract containing a $13 million signing bonus, which is the deal’s only guaranteed money, is in line with the four-year, $39.05 million contract extension Jordy Nelson signed during the initial days of training camp last season.
Jeremy Parnell (OT)-Jacksonville Jaguars: Parnell signed a five-year, $32 million deal with $14.5 million fully guaranteed after serving as a backup during his five years with the Dallas Cowboys. He got his most extensive playtime in 2014 by starting five regular season games and both of the team’s playoff games because of ankle and foot injuries to starting right tackle Doug Free. Parnell received a much more lucrative contract than Free, who is two and half years older. Free re-signed with the Cowboys for $15 million over three years. The guaranteed money in Parnell’s deal is almost as much as Free’s entire contract.
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Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.

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.
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Who has done well in free agency?

Having spent most of my adult life working in the NFL as a scout, I have great respect for the guys in the NFL who make a living evaluating players. They are very talented people who work hard and, in most cases, make sound decisions. For that reason, unlike other websites, I refuse to put grades on things like free agency acquisitions draft classes.
First of all, what may look good on paper today can turn out to be a disaster come next fall. Just look at Tampa Bay as an example. Last March, most “experts” thought they had a great free agency haul, with all the money they spent and players they signed. Well, a year later, many of those players have already been cut because they turned out to be poor signings. Many times, the under the radar signings turn out to be the best signings.
Free agency is a way to add players to your roster in areas of need. Free agency and the draft have to work hand-in-hand in order to do the best job in reshaping a roster. If a club relies too much on free agency, they could end up getting burned.
That being said, there are some clubs that I feel have done a good job in the first few days.
Jacksonville Jaguars
With this being the third year of David Caldwell/Gus Bradley era, they have to start winning games. Last year, they drafted quarterback Blake Bortles with the hope that he becomes a top NFL quarterback. While Bortles struggled at times as a rookie, he still flashed enough to show the talent is there.
Caldwell got Bortles another weapon with the signing of tight end Julius Thomas. At 26 years old, Thomas is still an ascending player, and with his size and athleticism, he will be a big help in the red zone
The Jags signed defensive tackle Jared Odrick and cut Red Bryant. Odrick makes the Jaguars more athletic on the defensive front.
Davon House is another young ascending corner who is just string to come into his own. He has size and length and will match up well with taller receivers in the league.
Jeremy Pernell is in the same mold as the others. He is still young and improving and will be an upgrade on the offensive line.
New York Jets
Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles have gotten off to a good start by doing a great job strengthening their secondary. They got the best corner in the game with the signing of Darrelle Revis, who still has plenty of great football in him.
A few years ago, the Jets had one of the best secondaries in the league with Revis and Antonio Cromartie. With Cromartie signing with the Jets last night, they are back together. Add to that duo, the addition of Buster Skrine form the Browns and the Jets have done a great job upgrading the corner position. This morning, it looks as if they will add another good player in safety Marcus Gilchrist.
Miami Dolphins
To sign Ndamukong Suh the Dolphins were going to have to pay big dollars, which they did. That is the cost of business when you want one of the two best defensive lineman in the game.
If tight end Jordan Cameron can stay healthy is actually an upgrade over the possible loss of Charles Clay. While Clay is terrific as a receiver, he doesn’t do as much in the run game as Cameron can.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

How Clubs Prepare for Free Agency

We are two days into free agency and there have been quite a few transactions already, but there is still about a week to go before things will start to settle down and we can turn our attention to the draft.
There are many fans who think that free agency is just a crap-shoot, and teams just go after what is perceived to be the “hot” names on the free agent board. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. For many clubs, preparation for free agency begins during the previous season. Clubs know which players are going into the last year of their contract. The pro scouting staff will begin to track those players and have an ongoing report on them so that if, in fact, they do become free agents, they already have a body of work done on the player.
Once the season ends, and the free agent list takes shape, the pro scouting department will rank the players by value, much as the college scouts do with players in the draft. There are some differences, though, and there will be players that are considered “ascending” or “descending” players.
The ascending player is generally a younger player who is just beginning to come into his own. He may have been a role player early in his career and just as his contract is ready to expire, he starts playing the best football of his career.
Generally, these are the best players to try and acquire. They may not be household names, but the pro scouts know who they are. Often, you can get these guys at a less-than-premium price, but in the long run, they turn out to be the best signings.
Clubs can get in trouble signing a descending player. These are players who have already played a number of years in the league and by the nature of their work, feel they are due the big pay day. Many times, the club they play for knows they have already peaked and their play will start to go downhill.
Often, these players make up the hot names in free agency, and once they hit the market, the bidding can get crazy. Looking back through history, you will often see that while signing this type of player makes headlines, the player doesn’t live up to what he is getting paid. We see it happen every year.
Going back to the evaluation process, after the pro scouting department evaluates a player, the coaching staff gets involved. This will include the position coach, the coordinator, and often, the head coach. When the evaluations have concluded, a board is set.
Just like with the draft, each club’s free agency board will look different. Players who fit the scheme will obviously be rated higher than players who don’t. Once these boards are set, clubs develop a general idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the free agency class.
The next thing that is done is balancing the difference between the free agency class and the draft class. Clubs go into every off-season with positional needs. They hope to take care of those needs in either the draft of free agency. If the draft is strong at certain positions, then your club may feel they can address a positional need in the draft and get another need filled with a free agent. The important thing is they have to balance out.
The other important factor involved in free agency is, of course, money. Depending upon a club’s cap situation, they will have only so much to spend in free agency. If you have a healthy cap situation, a team can often take care of most, if not all, of their needs through both free agency and the draft.
Regardless of the cap situation, a budget has to be set as to how much a team will spend on certain players. They have to be prepared to say no to a certain situation if the bidding gets out of hand. If that happens to be the case, they have to hope that there is a fallback player they can go to if they don’t sign the top player they were looking at. If that doesn’t happen, then you have to hope you can address that need in the draft.
Needless to say, the clubs that do the best job of preparing for both free agency and the draft will be the clubs that win. As we have seen so many times in the past, a club will “win” free agency by spending a lot of money on big name players, only to be disappointed once the season starts. I learned a long time ago, it’s not about winning in free agency and the off season in general, it’s about being smart with intelligent planning, budgeting, and implementation. The teams that do that year after year, generally are teams that win year after year.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

Let the games begin

Yesterday was the official start of the 2015 NFL calendar. With that, trades can be officially consummated, and of course, free agency begins. While there were some big free agent deals done, they took backseat to some of the surprising trades that were made.
Baltimore trades Haloti Ngata to Detroit
The first surprise move was the Baltimore Ravens sending perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and a 7th round pick to Detroit for the Lions 4th and 5th round picks in this year’s draft.
That trade took many off guard. Who even knew that Ngata was available? Baltimore has been getting old on defense and good aging players cost a lot of money to keep. Taking a page out of Bill Belichick’s book, they moved Ngata a year or so earlier than expected. They have been trying to get a deal done for quite some time, and when they couldn’t they moved on and will use that money elsewhere.
Getting only a 4th and 5th round pick in return doesn’t sound like much, but they also have the extra cap room in which to either acquire other players or take care of some of their own younger guys.
Detroit decided they weren’t going to pay Ndamukong Suh what he wanted and got the 31 year old Ngata to replace him. Suh and Ngata are two very different types of players. With Ngata, the Lions won’t be that feared pass rushing team but will be very difficult to run against.
Ngata did not come cheap and has only one year left on his contract. Going forward, that gives him a lot of leverage in future contract negotiations with Detroit. At 31, Ngata is three years older than Suh, and while he still has a few good years left, would the Lions have been better off just paying Suh in the first place?
The Rams and the Eagles swap quarterbacks and draft picks
The St. Louis Rams sent quarterback Sam Bradford and a 5th round pick in this year’s draft to Philadelphia for quarterback Nick Foles, a 4th round pick this year and a 2nd round pick next year.
Every time I look at this deal, I can’t help but think that the Rams made out like bandits. St. Louis is getting a young quarterback who is only in his fourth year in the league and is still an ascending player. As a starter, Foles has a 14 – 4 record and just two years ago, was in the Pro Bowl after throwing 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. No matter how you look at it, he is an ascending player with his best football in front of him. Granted, he didn’t play as well in 2014 as he did in 2013, but the Eagles offensive line was also in total disrepair because of injuries. Foles also comes with a salary of only $1.5 million being in the final year of his rookie deal.
Bradford, on the other hand, has been a disappointment since his very strong rookie year. He also has only played seven games in the last two seasons and has suffered 2 ACL injuries. On the bright side, Bradford played his best when his offensive coordinator was Pat Shurmur who just happens to be the OC in Philly. The difference is, Philly doesn’t play Shurmur’s offense, they play Chip Kelly’s offense, and they aren’t the same. Philly also picks up the final year of Bradford rookie contract at a salary of nearly 13 million. Bradford has to totally turn his game around for this deal to become successful for the Eagles. If not they could look foolish.
New Orleans trades Jimmy Graham to Seattle
The last surprise trade of the day was New Orleans sending Pro Bowl Tight End Jimmy Graham and a 4th round pick to Seattle for center Max Unger and a 1st round pick in this year’s draft. This was shocking considering Graham, along with Drew Brees, were the face of the New Orleans offense. The mismatches that Graham created helped the rest of the offensive flow.
Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, in interviews following the trade, said that the Saints have to get better on defense and the first round pick they acquired in a strong defensive draft will help them achieve that goal. Max Unger is no throw in. He was the leader and heart and soul of the Seattle offensive line. His presence in the locker room will be difficult to replace. As a player, he is one of the better interior offensive linemen in the NFL, so he will greatly help the Saints.
Graham immediately becomes Russell Wilson’s #1 target. His size and athleticism give Seattle something they have never had and will make the wide receivers better players because of the coverage that Graham will get.
While Unger’s leaves a big hole behind, the Seahawks will be able to get a quality interior offensive linemen in the second or third round of the draft.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

Mike Iupati signs with Arizona Cardinals

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Mike Iupati’s deal with Arizona for 5 yrs, $40M, plus incentives up to $41M with $22.5M guaranteed. Selected 17th overall by the 49ers in 2010, Iupati was thought to be one of the most sought after guards in the offseason.
The loss of Iupati is just one of many woes for San Francisco this week, who recently found out Patrick Willis would be retiring, and the rival Seattle Seahawks have reportedly signed TE Jimmy Graham.
In Arizona, Iupati joins Jonathan Cooper on an improving offensive line that wants to be the elite of the NFC West.
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Quarterback trends

It is an inarguable fact that quarterback is the most important playing position on the field.  This year’s playoff participants reinforce that notion.  With the exception of the Cardinals, who were missing Carson Palmer due to injury, each of the 12 playoff teams had a quarterback that is solidly entrenched as a starter.
This article reviews current starting quarterbacks and determines where they came from, how soon they came starters and other relevant characteristics. The article also discusses trends that may affect a team trying to fill a need at the position.
As a first step, teams were grouped into categories based on my humble opinion of the ability of their starting quarterback. The following table reflects that categorization.
 
This table indicates that there are eight teams with quarterback issues. This includes the Bears (and Jay Cutler), a designation with which some might not agree. A more detailed summary of each team’s situation is on the final page of this article.
History tells us that the draft is the principal avenue for acquiring a quarterback. The current situation is no different with 22 of the 32 starters coming to their teams via the draft. If the draft day trade between the Chargers and the Giants is re-characterized as Manning and Rivers coming through the draft to their respective teams, which is in essence what happened, that number grows to 24 starters. Excluding that trade the remaining eight starters came to their current team as follows:

  • Three players (Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith) came via trade
    • Cutler was expensive and came to the Bears along with a 5th round choice for two 1st round selections, a 3rd round pick and Kyle Orton
    • Palmer was a bargain and came from the Raiders for a late round pick and an exchange of late round selections
    • Smith went from the 49ers for 2nd and 3rd round selections
  • One player (Tony Romo) was an undrafted free agent
  • Two players (Drew Brees and Peyton Manning) came to their team via the free agent route, being available largely due to injury
  • Two players (Brian Hoyer and Ryan Fitzpatrick) were journeymen free agents

Improving a team’s quarterback situation in 2015 through free agency seems unlikely. Only two current starters (Brian Hoyer and Jake Locker) are eligible for free agency, and neither is an established player. Ryan Mallett, the backup for the Texans, is a free agent and might have some potential but the Patriots traded him for a late round pick, which says something about his potential.
Historically, trades are unlikely. There have been rumors concerning Jay Cutler and Sam Bradford being on the trade market but neither plays for a team that has a viable backup quarterback. Trades usually occur when a team has an excess at the position but that does not look to be case for any team this year.
This leaves the draft as the most likely path to improvement. There are two draft trends that should be noted. The first is that there is an increased prevalence of first round draft choices as starters. In looking at current starters, 19 of the 32 were first round draft choices. This compares to 13 first round selections ten years ago in 2004.  It is only logical then that college players at the top of the draft boards will be in great demand. Are Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston worthy of an early draft shot? Maybe or maybe not, but they will be taken early. Is this good news for Brett Hundley?
Whether this is a trend or a blip is something worth following. The following table shows a breakdown by draft round for the past five years.

Most recent starters come from the first round and all have come from the first three rounds.
The second trend is that quarterbacks are starting earlier in their career. 19 of the current starters were starters as rookies compared to 13 in 2014. Some of the top “older” starters served apprenticeships before taking over but that seems to be a thing of the past. Here are some of those that learned by watching:

  • Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons
  • Philip Rivers spent two years behind Drew Brees
  • Carson Palmer sat behind Jon Kitna for a year before moving up
  • Tony Romo understudied Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde
  • Drew Brees waited his turn behind Doug Flutie

The following table shows more details about changes over the past 10 years:

The difference among the age groups is even clearer when 2014 is reviewed by age and number of years it took to gain the starting nod:

Only four of the 14 players that were 30 and over started as rookies. For the under 30 crowd, 15 out of 18 started as rookies. While a bias toward younger players starting as rookies is to be expected, this is a pretty large difference that borders on the astounding.
In addition to the eight teams who were previously identified as having quarterback problems, should any other teams be seeking quarterbacks due to an aging starter?  As can be seen in the preceding table, slightly less than half the starters are 30 years old or older.
The five oldest, with their ages as of September 1 2105 in parentheses, are Peyton Manning (39), Tom Brady (38), Drew Brees (35), Tony Romo (35) and Carson Palmer (35). Do the teams with older quarterbacks have a backup who is the long-term answer? I would categorize the backups as follows:

The potential starters are largely players who have not had the opportunity to show what they can do. So it is more a matter of uncertainty than being a proven starter-in-waiting. These backups are pre-2015 free agency and excludes backups for the Bills and the Bucs as they do not currently have one.
The bad news for teams looking for a quarterback is that there are unlikely to be solutions for all of them. They are left to hope their existing quarterback or a backup shows improvement or that a recycled free agent will do the job.

 
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2015 Contract Restructure Possibilities

Contract restructurings are standard operating procedure in the NFL. Teams with tight salary cap situations use restructures to create cap room to get under the cap, which all teams must be for the beginning of the 2015 league year on March 10. Restructures are important for some other teams because cap space can be freed up to target players in free agency.
A contract restructuring is different from a pay cut. In a typical restructuring, a player will convert some portion of his base salary or roster bonus (without reducing salary) into signing bonus because it can be prorated or spread out evenly over the life of a contract (most other salary components usually can’t be prorated) for a maximum of five years.
The team gets a lower cap number in the current season while the player gains more short-term security and potentially a better payment schedule for the current year of his contract. The player’s cap numbers in the remaining contract years also increase, which can make him more susceptible to becoming a cap casualty in the future.
A relatively new phenomenon is for teams to take away the player’s option to refuse restructuring his contract. Cap flexibility has started being built into contracts, especially the most lucrative ones, with teams having the ability to automatically create cap room at any time during a deal with a discretionary right to convert a portion of a player’s base salary or roster bonus into signing bonus. The Chicago Bears exercised this right with Jay Cutler in 2014, which was necessary to sign Jared Allen. Cutler had the NFL’s highest 2014 salary cap number at $22.5 million before $5 million of his base salary was converted into signing bonus to lower his cap number to $18.5 million.
Players can restructure their contracts at any time, including multiple times in the same season. Chris Snee restructured his contract with the New York Giants twice in 2013. There isn’t a limitation on how many consecutive years a player can restructure his contract. Ben Roethlisberger’s 2015 cap number has increased from $12.1 million to $18.395 million because he restructured his deal for three straight years (2011-2013) to help the Pittsburgh Steelers with cap problems.
Here’s a look at several players, with their 2015 cap numbers, that could be candidates to restructure their contracts. New Orleans Saints players were treated collectively because of the team’s salary cap situation. References to the 2015 salary cap room a team has assume the 2015 salary cap will be set at $142 million.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are approximately $23.3 million over the 2015 salary cap. Restructuring the contracts of safety Jairus Byrd ($10.3 million 2015 cap number), outside linebacker Junior Galette ($15.45 million cap number), tight end Jimmy Graham ($11 million cap number) and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton ($9.25 million cap number) could wipe out the overage. $23,426,666 of cap room can be gained by converting a significant portion of their salaries into signing bonus.
Byrd has the NFL’s highest 2015 cap number for a safety. The Saints can free up $5.6 million of cap room by turning $1 million of Byrd’s $2 million 2015 base salary and his entire fully guaranteed $6 million third day of the 2015 league year roster bonus (March 12) into signing bonus. $10 million of cap room will be created by converting Galette’s fully guaranteed $12.5 million third day of the 2015 league year roster bonus (March 12) into signing bonus.
Graham has the NFL’s only 2015 cap number for a tight end over $10 million. A maximum of $4,826,666 of cap room can be gained through a salary conversion with Graham’s four-year, $40 million contract, which makes him the NFL’s highest paid tight end, if his $100,000 workout bonus is left intact. Lofton’s cap number would drop to $6.25 million by turning his $4.5 million first day of the league year roster bonus (March 10) into signing bonus.
Tony Romo (QB)-Dallas Cowboys: $27.773 Million
It’s hard to believe Jerry Jones will practice the fiscal restraint he’s preaching now that he has a legitimate chance to finally win a Super Bowl without Jimmy Johnson’s fingerprints on it. History suggests that Jones will create $12.8 million of cap room can by converting $16 million of Romo’s $17 million base salary into signing bonus in order to keep the team largely intact since there may not be an extended championship window with him as quarterback. Although Romo, whose contract runs through the 2019 season, arguably had the best season of his career in 2014, he will be 35 years old in April and has had back surgery in each of the last two seasons. Romo’s league high cap number would drop to $14.973 million through such a salary conversion.
J.J. Watt (WR)-Houston Texans: $21.969 Million
The Texans would have plenty of salary cap flexibility by turning $9.2 million of Watt’s $9.969 million 2015 base salary and his entire fully guaranteed $10 million 15th day of the 2015 league year roster bonus (March 24) into signing bonus. $15.36 million of cap space would be freed up, which would put the Texans almost $26 million under the cap. Watt’s would still have manageable 2016 and 2017 cap numbers of $16.34 million for those years considering he signed a six-year, $100 million contract extension last September.
Peyton Manning (QB)-Denver Broncos: $21.5 Million
Although the Broncos have $26 million in cap space, it will be difficult for the Broncos to keep most of their five offensive and three defensive starters set to become unrestricted free agents on March 10 while upgrading the offensive line, especially if nearly half of this room is allocated to a franchise tag on All-Pro wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
General manager and executive vice-president of football operations John Elway would probably prefer for Manning to cut his scheduled $19 million salary now that he has informed the team he is physically and mentally prepared to play the 2015 season. The Broncos don’t have the leverage for a salary reduction. Manning should be amendable to restructuring his contract considering he did it twice while with the Colts. This would be a departure from Denver’s recent practices. The Broncos haven’t done any simple contract restructures for cap purposes during Manning’s three years with the team.
Denver can create $9.015 million in 2015 cap space if Manning’s entire 2015 salary except for his $970,000 league minimum is converted into signing bonus. Manning’s 2015 cap number would drop to $12.485 million but his 2016 cap number would balloon to $30.515 million.
The Broncos might prefer a less extreme restructure. $5 million of cap room could be created by converting $10 million of Manning’s $19 million base salary to signing bonus. His 2015 cap number would drop to $16.5 million and his 2016 cap number would become $26.5 million. The Broncos would have $10 million of dead money, which is a cap charge for a player no longer on the roster, in 2016 under this scenario if Manning called it quits after the 2015 season.
Calvin Johnson (WR)-Detroit Lions: $20.558 Million
Restructuring Johnson’s contract could be likely if the Lions franchise defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. His franchise tag number is $26.87 million, which is based off of 120 percent of his $22,412,500 2014 cap number. The Lions can’t currently accommodate such a large cap figure with slightly under $17 million of cap space. Most of the deficit can be wiped out by turning all of Johnson’s $12.5 million 2015 salary except for his $870,000 league minimum into signing bonus. $9.304 million of cap room would be created. Another season with nagging injuries in 2015 could lead to Johnson’s departure next year because his 2016 cap number would go from $24.008 million to $26.334 million with this maneuver.
Charles Johnson (DE)-Carolina Panthers: $20.02 Million
Being almost $13 million under the cap puts the Panthers in their best position financially since Dave Gettleman became general manager in January 2013. The Panthers won’t be “shopping at the dollar store” in free agency but restructuring the six-year, $76 million contract Johnson signed in 2011 for a third straight year may be necessary to buy at Nordstrom. Because more than half of Johnson’s cap number is bonus proration, a maximum of $4.44 million in cap space can be gained unless Gettleman is willing to add up to three voidable years to help with the bonus proration and create additional cap room. He has put voidable years in contracts before when doing restructures.
Alex Smith (QB)-Kansas City Chiefs: $15.6 Million
There’s a faction of Chiefs fans that would love to see the team part ways with Alex Smith. He isn’t going anywhere for awhile. $11 million of his $11.9 million 2015 base salary was fully guaranteed when he signed his four-year, $68 million contract extension last August. The remaining $900,000 of his 2015 base salary and his entire $14.1 million 2016 base salary are fully guaranteed on the third day of the upcoming league year (March 12).
The Chiefs have right around $4.1 million of cap space after releasing wide receivers Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins. More work needs to be done to accommodate restricted free agent tenders and Justin Houston’s expected franchise tag (approximately $13 million). $8.175 million of cap room can be created by converting $10.9 million of Smith’s $11.9 million 2015 base salary into signing bonus.
Colin Kaepernick (QB)-San Francisco 49ers: $15,265,753
The 49ers have slightly over $3.3 million of cap space. The 49ers will need more cap room if keeping a majority of the team’s 15 impending unrestricted free agent is a part of the plan. Kaepernick has the highest 2015 cap number on the team. The 49ers can create $7.724 million in 2015 cap space if Kaepernick’s entire 2015 salary except for his $745,000 league minimum is converted into signing bonus. Kaepernick’s 2015 cap number would drop to $7,541,753. His 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 cap numbers would each increase by $1.931 million under this scenario.
Richard Sherman (CB)-Seattle Seahawks: $12.2 Million
Extensions for quarterback Russell Wilson and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner shouldn’t take up a majority of Seattle’s almost $19 million of cap space, which factors in restricted free agent tenders. A cushion can be created by lowering Sherman’s $10 million 2015 base salary to $750,000 through a salary conversion. $6,937,500 of cap room can be generated by this move.
LeSean McCoy (RB)-Philadelphia Eagles: $11.95 Million
McCoy is willing to restructure his contract if approached by the Eagles but isn’t interested in cutting his $10.25 million 2015 salary. His numbers are large for a running back. Adrian Peterson is the only other ball carrier with a double digit salary or cap number in 2015. The Minnesota Vikings running back has a $15.4 million cap number and is scheduled to make $13 million. Since the Eagles have almost $19 million in cap space and have other options for additional cap room, like Trent Cole, it may not be necessary to adjust McCoy’s contract. $6 million of cap room can be created by converting $9 million of McCoy’s $9.75 million base salary into signing bonus. His 2016 cap number would go from $8.85 million to $11.85 million.
Follow me on twitter: @corryjoel
Email me: jccorry@gmail.com
Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.

What to expect in free agency

Free Agency officially begins on March 10 this year. It is impossible to predict what will happen once the gates open but looking at last year will at least provide some hints as to what is likely to occur.
Free agents can be placed in two groups. The first is the largest and consists of restricted and unrestricted free agents whose contracts have expired. The second group is players who have been released or otherwise terminated with their prior team having no claim on them. This second group is not part of the “official” free agent process so the March 10 date does not apply. This article does not differentiate between the two groups except where noted.
What can we learn from the 2014 free agent process and the following 2014 season?
 
FREE AGENTS ARE OF MODEST IMPORANTANCE IN BUILDING A TEAM
The combination of both the free agent groups and the handful of trades that take place accounted for about 135,000 plays from scrimmage, or 18% of all 2014 scrimmage plays. (Rookie undrafted free agent signings are not included in this category, but are in the rookie numbers presented below.) Here is how the 2014 free agent signings fit into the big picture, with the players column representing the number of players who played at least one play from scrimmage in 2014.

As always, though, numbers do not tell the whole story. The Broncos added three quality defensive starters through free agency. The Patriots solidified their defensive backfield by adding Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Patrick Chung. The Seahawks, on the other hand, only added Kevin Williams to its defensive line. Williams was significant even though he who played only about half the defensive snaps. More about the Seahawks later.
 
THERE WILL BE PLENTY OF EARLY SIGNINGS
A lot of early signings can be anticipated when the free agency period does begin. In 2014 more than half the players either signed with a new team or resigned with their old team within three weeks. Over one-third of the 139 players who changed teams in the first three weeks did so in the FIRST TWO DAYS of free agency. Also, there is a tendency to focus on the high salary contracts with long duration but those are really not the majority. The 139 early signings can be broken down by contract length as follows:

 
RELATIVELY FEW FREE AGENTS PROVIDE MOST OF THE IMPACT
Focusing on veteran players that changed teams and saw the field, there were a total of 401 players signed in free agency or acquired in trades that participated in at least one play from scrimmage in 2014. The 111 players who participated in 500 or more scrimmage plays accounted for over 65% of all scrimmage plays by free agents. The 98 players who participated in between 200 and 499 scrimmage plays accounted for an additional 24-25% of the scrimmage plays. This means that slightly more than half the 401 players participated in about 90% of the scrimmage plays. This is summarized below:


THERE ARE MANY MORE ONE-YEAR CONTRACTS THAN ANY OTHER CONTRACT LENGTH

The above player groupings can be broken down by contract length. This table shows that 2014 free agents who signed one-year contracts are most prevalent.

 
SOME PLAYING POSITIONS SEEM TO BE MORE HIGHLY VALUE IN FREE AGENCY
Are there differences by playing position? Sure there are. The differences are shown in the following table. Two things jumped out at me. First, is the small number of running backs that are involved in scrimmage plays with a new team. Second, offensive linemen, wide receivers, defensive linemen and defensive backs represented over 80% of the total plays from scrimmage from 2014 free agents.

 
SIGNING FREE AGENTS IS NOT A PANCEA: LOSING FREE AGENTS IS NOT A TRAGEDY
It is difficult to draw any conclusions by team because the situation often changes from one year to the next. Some teams do have a definite strategy regarding retention versus chasing free agents (as discussed in an earlier article), but most use free agency to plug holes. The next two tables show the teams with the fewest and then the most scrimmage plays from 2014 free agents.

The final table summarizes scrimmage plays from (1) 2014 free agents signed, (2) 2014 free agents lost and (3) the net difference for each NFL team. Better teams tend to lose players simply because they have better players or because of a change in the environment (new coach, dissatisfaction with team management, etc.).

The Seahawks are impressive because they lost a number of players who moved on to become starters for others, signed very few free agents and still remained successful. Six Seahawks (Brandon Browner, Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, Breno Giacomini, Clinton McDonald and Golden Tate) were lost in free agency and went to start for other teams. Plus, Percy Harvin was traded in mid-season and TE Zach Miller and DT Brandon Mebane were lost to injury. Kudos to the Seahawks front office as they managed the loss of these players with virtually no free agent signings and moved on to the Super Bowl.
The Tampa Bay Bucs are at the other end of the spectrum. The Bucs had both the highest number of 2014 scrimmage plays signed and lost. Their off-season activities looked promising as only Darrelle Revis shaped up as a significant loss and Alterraun Verner was signed in free agency to mitigate that loss. The Bucs added Anthony Collins, Evan-Dietrich Smith and Logan Mankins (through trade) to their offensive line while cutting ties with Jeremy Zuttah (trade), Ted Larsen and Donald Penn. Josh McCown was brought into play quarterback after a good 2013 season for the Bears but was just cut by the Bucs after a disappointing season. They also added Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald to bolster their defensive line. The new offensive linemen did not live up to expectations and Michael Johnson bordered on being terrible. The net result was that the Bucs suffered a significant net downgrade through free agency.
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Are players better off under the new franchise tag methodology?

NFL teams can retain the rights to one of its impending free agents with the use of a non-exclusive or an exclusive franchise tag during a two week window beginning on February 16. The designation period ends on March 2.
The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) changed how non-exclusive franchise tags are determined. Since its inception in 1993, a franchise tag number had been an average of the five largest salaries in the prior year at a player’s position or 120% of the prior year’s salary of the player, whichever was greater. For franchise tag purposes, salary means a player’s salary cap number, excluding workout bonuses.
The 120 percent and five largest salaries provisions remain intact but the formula component is now calculated over a five year period that’s tied to a percentage of the overall salary cap. More specifically, the number for each position is determined by taking the sum of the non-exclusive franchise tags for the previous five seasons and dividing by the sum of the salary caps for the previous five seasons (an average of the 2009 and 2011 salary caps are used for the uncapped 2010 season in the calculations). The resulting percentage is then multiplied by the actual salary cap for the upcoming league year.
This non-exclusive tag allows the player to negotiate with other NFL teams but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first round picks as compensation from the signing team.
Under the exclusive franchise tag, a player will receive a one year offer from his team that is the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free agent signing period of the current year has ended (April 24 for 2015) or 120 percent of his prior year’s salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.
Teams also have the option to use a transition tag instead of a franchise tag. The transition tag operates similarly to the non-exclusive franchise tag, except it is based on the average of the top ten salaries at a player’s position. Teams have the same matching rights as with franchise tags but do not receive any draft choice compensation. The transition tag had essentially become obsolete. It made a comeback last year with the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers becoming the first teams to use it since 2008.
It’s almost a certainty that Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston and Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas will be franchised if they don’t sign new deals with their respective clubs before the end of the designation period. The Detroit Lions haven’t ruled out franchising defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. His franchise tag number is $26.87 million, which is based off of 120 percent of his 2014 cap number. Since Suh’s number is same whether it’s the exclusive or non-exclusive version, the Lions would probably opt for the exclusive version to prevent him from negotiating with other teams. Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty and New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul are other non-exclusive franchise tag possibilities.
The franchise tenders can’t be finalized until the 2015 salary cap is set in late February or early March. NFL teams were informed at a league meeting on December 9 that the 2015 salary cap is preliminarily projected to be between $138.6 million and $141.8 million. The actual salary cap in 2014 was 5.3 percent higher than the preliminary projections this time last year. The expectation is for the salary cap to once again exceed initial projections.
CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason LaCanfora was the first to report the expected salary cap percentages each franchise tag last October. I have independently verified that his figures are correct. The chart below contains the non-exclusive franchise numbers if the 2015 salary cap is $142 million and their percentage of cap. For comparison purposes, I have also included what the franchise tenders would have been for 2015 under the old method of calculation.

2015 2015 2015 Projected vs. Old
Position Salary Cap % Projected Old Method % Difference
Cornerback 9.125% $12,958,000 $10,620,000 22%
Defensive End 10.339% $14,681,000 $13,177,000 11.4%
Defensive Tackle 7.812% $11,093,000 $14,943,000 -25.8%
Linebacker 9.209% $13,077,000 $10,967,000 19.2%
Offensive Line 9.034% $12,828,000 $11,174,000 14.8%
Punter/Kicker 2.88% $4,089,000 $3,850,000 6.2%
Quarterback 12.942% $18,378,000 $18,611,000 -1.3%
Running Back 7.643% $10,853,000 $9,483,000 14.4%
Safety 6.713% $9,532,000 $9,484,000 0.5%
Tight End 5.825% $8,272,000 $7,468,000 10.8%
Wide Receiver 8.949% $12,708,000 $14,147,000 -10.2%
Note: Projections assume 2015 salary cap is $142 million.

 
The NFLPA is gaining a small measure of vindication in 2015 for the criticism received for agreeing to change the calculation of the non-exclusive franchise designations. Franchise players are going to be better off with the new methodology than under old methodology for the first time since the change was implemented. The franchise tag numbers will be 3.67 percent higher collectively under the new formula with a $142 million 2015 salary cap.
A record twenty-one players were franchised in 2012, including six kickers and punters, in the first year of with the new method of calculation when there was almost a 20 percent drop in the franchise tags from 2011. The franchise numbers were approximately 18 percent higher collectively under the old formula in both 2012 and 2013. The difference dropped to 2.18 percent in 2014 because of the significant increase in the salary cap.
Defensive tackle, quarterback and wide receiver are the only positions that would be better off with the old method of calculation. The discrepancy in the defensive tackle number under the two methodologies is due to Suh and Gerald McCoy having the NFL’s largest cap numbers in 2014. McCoy’s cap number increased to over $21 million when he signed a six-year, $95.2 million contract extension (worth up to $98 million through incentives) last October to become the NFL’s highest paid interior defensive lineman.
There was greater year-to-year variance with franchise tag numbers with the system under the previous CBAs. For example, the wide receiver number would have gone from $11.826 million in 2013 to $9.731 million in 2014 to $14.147 million for 2015 with the old methodology. None of the franchise tags numbers at the eleven different positions have decreased in a year under the new method of calculation after the initial rollback in 2012.
The good thing for players is franchise tag numbers being higher under the new methodology than with the old methodology should continue as long as there is at least modest salary cap growth annually. Most players aren’t happy when given a franchise player designation because it hinders their ability to gain long term security. The tag is essentially a high salaried one-year “prove it” deal where players incur the risk of serious injury and poor performance again after already playing out their contracts. There may be fewer players dealing with franchise tags in the future because teams should become more judicious in using the designation as it gets more cost prohibitive.
Follow me on twitter: @corryjoel
Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.