Thursday, March 12, 2015

Initial Reaction to the First Few Days of NFL FA

You certainly can't say it hasn't been an interesting week for NFL free agency. From the monster deals that were being handed out to certain players, to three trades that happened in about a 30-second span, there was plenty for NFL fans to discuss.

Trying to make sense of it all can be difficult, but here's a few of my thoughts regarding what transpired the first few days.

Don't blame players for trying to maximize their returns: Nobody should fault a player for wanting to get the most money possible out of a contract. The sudden retirements of Patrick Willis, Jake Locker, and Jason Worilds -- each with different reasons for calling it a career -- indicates that there is no telling when an NFL player's career comes to an end. And while people may argue that those are making millions of dollars are in a different position, the fact remains that few people would agree to take less money to stay with their current jobs unless they had good reason to believe that the extra money they could get elsewhere would be countered by a truly bad situation.

This is why I don't fault Julius Thomas for taking more money to play for the Jaguars. The Jaguars may not be a winning franchise right now, but they have a lot of young players and are just getting out of the mess left behind by the previous regime. Nor do I fault Darrelle Revis for maximizing his value as a player -- he's got his Super Bowl ring, and he knew that plenty of teams had lots of cap space to work with, so he used the latter factor to force the Patriots' hand regarding the option year the club ultimately declined, and then to get himself the best possible contract. And the deals for JT and Revis bring me to this.

Teams covet receivers and cornerbacks: The NFL Captain Obvious statement of the past few years is that this is a passing league, so receivers and cornerbacks are in demand -- the former to give quarterbacks reliable targets, and the latter to take away the shorter routes most passing teams utiliize frequently. This is particularly true this season, as the cap space multiple teams had available, plus the number of quality players available at the position, led to a players' market for both positions. It arguably started when Randall Cobb was given $10M per year to stay with the Packers, and it continued when Jeremy Maclin was given $11M per year to play with the Chiefs, who had no receivers with a touchdown last season. Regarding cornerbacks, there's Revis, Byron Maxwell and Kareem Jackson all cashing in on significant deals.

The lofty contracts for wide receivers will make it tougher for the Broncos and Cowboys to extend their franchised receivers, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant, because they can now start insisting on Calvin Johnson-type money. The same could apply to the Bengals, who have A.J. Green entering his rookie contract option year at $10M, but could easily ask for $16M per year as well. As for the cornerbacks, Jimmy Smith (entering his $6M rookie option year) now has leverage with any extension the Ravens want to give him. Prince Amakamura could have the same situation with the Giants.

The Saints are really leveraging their future: It's not surprising that the Saints traded Jimmy Graham, as they needed to alleviate their cap situation in 2015. The problem was that the player they added, center Max Unger, may have filled a need on the team, but they were left with a lot of dead money from Graham's deal, and the space freed up was less than what they will commit to Unger in 2015. Furthermore, they had to restructure multiple deals just to get underneath the cap, and release veterans such as Pierre Thomas and Curtis Lofton -- and at this point, they are still just $1.5M under the cap, leaving them with no space to sign players they draft.

And yet the Saints are still chasing after free agents, with their pursuit of Brandon Browner and reported interest in C.J. Spiller. The Saints are clearly still operating in "win now" mentality, despite posting losing records two of the past three seasons. It may be true that the NFC South was a weak division in 2014, but that doesn't mean it will remain so. There's nothing to indicate Carolina will regress, as many of the players who emerged down the stretch are younger players, and Atlanta is in position to bounce back if the defense can play better. Meanwhile, New Orleans will have to either cut or restructure more deals just to get space to sign its draft picks, all while structuring any deal for Browner or Spiller to push cap space down the road. And next year, Drew Brees enters the final year of his contract and counts for $27.4M against the cap. That could really force the Saints into tough decisions.

The Eagles are hard to figure out: I still maintain that the LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso swap was a good thing for Philadelphia. But now the Eagles have made a series of moves that really strike me as a perplexing way of doing busienss.

First, there's the quarterback situation. They re-signed Mark Sanchez to a two-year deal, which pretty much indicated he would be the starter in 2015, but with no guarantee that he would even be with the team next season. Signing him certainly could have opened the door for the Eagles to trade Nick Foles and then draft a quarterback they liked in this year's draft. Next thing you know, Foles is traded -- but for Sam Bradford, along with a swap of draft picks in which the Eagles gave up more than the Rams did. Never mind that Foles has more upside than Bradford at this point.

Follow that up with the Eagles flirting with Frank Gore, only for him to spurn the Eagles and sign with the Colts instead. Then the Eagles agree to terms with Ryan Mathews, but the same day they bring him in to finalize the deal, they instead agree to terms with DeMarco Murray. As of this writing, who knows if the Eagles will seriously commit to both Murray and Mathews, but it strikes me as strange how the Eagles are conducting business. Who really knows what to think about the way Chip Kelly is running things at this point.

Suh's contract structure is mind boggling: The Miami Dolphins didn't have much cap space to work with, so they had to be creative in how they worked out the contract they gave to Ndamukong Suh. This season, his cap number is a very reasonable $6.1M. But then look at 2016, at which point that cap number rises to $28.6M.

That's far higher than the 2015 cap number of $21.9M for JJ Watt, who enters the second year of his current contract with the Texans. More importantly, the Texans' cap situation wasn't tight entering 2015, so they didn't have to ask Watt to restructure. The Dolphins, on the other hand, will certainly pick up the option year on Ryan Tannehill's rookie deal or extend him, and either way, they'll be committing plenty of cap space to accommodate one or the other. Thus, Miami will again find itself needing wiggle room under the cap, and will no doubt ask Suh to restructure, thus forcing them to keep him around longer, even if he doesn't live up to expectations.

One can certainly debate whether or not Suh should have received a contract that made him the highest-paid defensive player in the game. But what the Dolphins are pretty much saying is they expect Suh to transform their defense the way Watt has transformed the Texans' defense. Suh is a talented player, and I don't expect him to just mail it in the way Albert Haynesworth did. But living up to that deal will be a tall task.

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