Is There Any Merit to Dwight Freeney's Collusion Accusations Against NFL Owners?

Chris TrapassoAnalyst IMay 31, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 18:  Dwight Freeney #93 of the Indianapolis Colts warms up before a game with New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on November 18, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

It would be naive to think 32 mega-rich NFL owners would never collude in hopes of aiding each other financially .

New San Diego Chargers defender and former Indianapolis Colts star Dwight Freeney has made it clear—he doesn't want to be naive in regards to what the collective group of NFL owners are capable of.

In fact, some would now call him a conspiracy theorist. 

Said the three-time First Team All-Pro to Mike Freeman of CBS Sports:

I basically think the owners got together and decided not to spend the cash on free agents. I definitely think that's part of it. I think the owners made a pact. There's only 32 of them and none of them broke ranks. I think they all decided not to spend money.

But is Freeney onto something?

The following table shows the contracts signed by Pro Football Talk's top 30 free agents in 2012 and 2013 (players who re-signed with their teams were not included).

While the data doesn't tell the entire story, there was a noticeable drop in spending across the board. 

On average, PFT's top 30 free agents in 2012 received deals worth $27.26 million, with $12.3 million guaranteed and 3.72 years in length. The average signee was 27.1 years old.

This year, PFT's top 30 free agents signed contracts with new teams worth an average of only $21.29 million with $8.87 million guaranteed and 3.3 years in length. The average signee was 27.8 years old.

While the raw data would lend credence to the thought that Freeney is onto something, there's an assortment of external factors that are much more plausible explanations than collusion between 32 NFL owners when attempting to answer why spending decreased.

Most noticeably, there simply wasn't the same amount of elite-caliber players on the 2013 market as 2012. 

Peyton Manning's five-year, $96 million deal with upward of $60 million guaranteed and Mario Williams' six-year, $96 million contract with $50 million guaranteed certainly boosted 2012's averages.

Furthermore, the "top" free agent who signed with a new team in 2013 was, on average, almost a full year older than a "top" free agent signed in 2012. 

Typically, older players get less money than young players.

Logical, right? 

Beyond that, the salary cap increased by roughly $2 million from 2012 to 2013, which meant the majority of the league didn't have a ton of extra money to spend in this offseason.

Also, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, a perennial big spender, was hit with a $36 million cap penalty from the league—one that will be paid off in 2013 and 2014— for the way the team structured contracts during the uncapped offseason in 2010.

Snyder likely would have attempted to make yet another large free-agent splash this offseason if not for the massive penalty.

Lastly, the middle class is slowly, and rather quietly, getting smaller in the NFL. 

The culprit?

The collective bargaining agreement that went into effect following the 2011 lockout. 

Top rookies cost a fraction of what they did prior to 2011, and with more collegiate influence on the game today, coaches appear to be more willing to tailor their game plans to a player's specific athletic talents than in the past.

Coaches' job security is as tenuous as ever, therefore, they don't have nearly as much time to assert their steadfast philosophies and force players to learn and adapt. 

Now, the coaches are the ones adapting.

Because of that, teams aren't as willing to spend an exorbitant amount of money on, say, a six-year veteran when they know they can draft player at the same position or sign a "lower-level" free agent at a much cheaper price and, presumably, get similar results.

While many others may share Dwight Freeney's suspicion, there's simply a variety of more conceivable elements that better explain why spending has been down this latest free-agency period.