We're into the fifth week of free agency and the waters are fairly calm now. NFL teams are starting to shift their focus solely to the draft, which is exactly two weeks away.
That gives us in the media a chance to reflect broadly on what happened during the last four-plus weeks of signing shenanigans.
One thing that I kept thinking about as the frenzy progressed was how many free agents seemed to be settling for one-year "prove it" contracts, either with their original teams or elsewhere.
The salary cap saw an expected two percent increase from $120.6 million to $123 million this year, but that didn't cause the market to heat up. The cap is still climbing back from the pre-lockout era (it was also $123 million in 2009), and there's a widely held belief that it will remain in that basic range for several years to come.
Lucrative new television contracts kick in soon, but Daniel Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal reported last year that the money derived from those deals isn't expected to impact the cap in a substantial way until at least 2016:
"There is an overexcitement [among players] about the TV deals, which do not start at the higher levels and have to ramp up," former Packers executive and current ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt told Kaplan. "This is something that players will have to come to grips with, and agents and the union will need to be realistic on, with contract projections that this expected windfall in the rise in revenues is not happening any time soon."
Front offices certainly aren't handing out deals that indicate things will change in the short-term future.
Here's what Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told WSCR in Chicago in March (via SportsRadioInterviews.com):
"The biggest thing that a lot of people ended up doing is just kind of wading through the first two days of free agency and let all the high-priced players sign. And then you start to see the prices drop, and then what happened was people started signing to one-year deals. That's kind of going to be the trend for a while, it looks like, based on the way the salary cap is. And the money structure that a lot of guys are expecting these big deals, and right now only the elite guys are getting them. So everybody else is just going to have to [wait] for a year or two and then try to earn their next big paycheck."
Nine of the 10 players Rivera's Panthers have signed this offseason were inked to one-year contracts, with only Chase Blackburn getting a two-year deal. That encouraged me to do some digging.
I reviewed a sample of exactly 1,370 contracts handed out between 2007 and 2013, limiting said samples to a six-week period each offseason that began two weeks before free agency and ended four weeks after the start of the signing period.
Before I get to the results, a few quick notes:
- I didn't even look at 2010. There was no salary cap as the collective bargaining agreement was expiring and a lockout was looming. Contracts signed during that offseason wouldn't have helped this exercise. The 2009 signing period was also a bit of an anomaly because it was the "last capped year," but we were still two years removed from the work stoppage then, so I included it.
- The contracts reviewed in 2011 only covered a four-week period at the start of free agency, rather than the six-week overlapping period I used for the rest of the offseasons involved. That's because the lockout prevented teams from making moves until the new league year got underway on July 29 that summer.
- I call this a sampling and not a completely fool-proof review because a lot of contract terms weren't available in the locations I used to compile the data. My samples are still strong enough to achieve statistical significance, but at least 300 total signings have been excluded. Naturally, the further back in time I went, the more sparse the details became.
Now, what I found...
As you can see, Rivera was right. Even if some of the murkiness of the pre-lockout terms disappeared, it's safe to conclude that, since the lockout, one-year contracts have become significantly more common, while long-term deals have become significantly less common.
Between 2007 and 2009, I counted a total of 46 players that were signed to contracts that spanned six, seven or eight years. But since 2011, I was only able to identify 15 guys that signed deals spanning six years or more.
- Six-year deals have practically disappeared, while four- and five-year pacts have become less common in this specific offseason. Between 2009 and 2012, at least 16 percent of new contracts spanned four or five years, but that rate has dropped to 14 percent this year.
- Two- and three-year contracts haven't become significantly more or less common.
- A higher percentage of one-year contracts were handed out in 2011 than one-, two- and three-year contracts in 2007.
This is a league in which contracts aren't fully guaranteed in the first place, so a shift like this probably won't impact the game in a grand way. Essentially, teams are just being more honest about their lack of long-term confidence in their employees.
But we've always known that NFL players live year to year. And as long as the cap remains relatively flat, players will continue to reminded of that reality in the years to come.