This might go down as one of the richest NFL offseasons in recent memory, but we will remember it not for the huge long-term deals doled out, but the affordable one-year ones signed by some big names. They are the "prove-it" deals, and they are here to stay.
Long-term NFL contracts are not guaranteed. Ask Darrelle Revis, DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers, three players released last month in the middle of big deals signed in years past.
Everyone in the NFL is like the rest of us: day to day and year to year. Now, players, agents and organization decision-makers are coming to grips with it. These contracts put players in a position to earn the big money they missed out on this offseason, while teams get an athlete motivated to earn his next big payday all over again.
Which player who signed a one-year, prove-it deal will have the biggest 2014 campaign?
That two-part statement alone is why we see more one-year deals, and not just with players competing for a roster spot.
Big names like Hakeem Nicks, 26, B.J. Raji, 27, and Knowshon Moreno, 26, are signing one-year, prove-it deals despite the fact they should be smack-dab in their physical prime.
Count Jeremy Maclin as one of them too. He signed a one-year deal in late February before free agency even started.
"Here's the thing: I don't think it's a one-year deal," Maclin told ESPN.com's Pat Sheridan. "I believe the two sides can come together and, with all we're going to go through this season, we can get something [long term] done."
Coming off reconstructive knee surgery, Maclin didn't like the contract numbers he was envisioning long-term. He was willing to take the $3.5 million guaranteed now, according to Spotrac.com, and prove his health and productivity in 2014. It could set him up for one of those Monopoly-money deals next winter.
Neither Maclin nor the Eagles were forcing the issue here. Both sides knew exactly what they were doing. Maclin had options. The Eagles have to love the idea of a motivated veteran receiver out to prove he deserves big money next year.
Maclin told Sheridan he and his agent did their due diligence to make an informed decision.
You look at everything around the league. You look at receiver depth, you look at quarterbacks, you look at cap room, you look at everything. That's what you have to do. My agent provided me with a lot of information.
Maclin signed that deal while DeSean Jackson was still a Philadelphia Eagle too. With Jackson subsequently released, more offensive onus will fall on Maclin. He can have a big contract year with an emerging Nick Foles calling the shots in a fast-paced Chip Kelly system.
The former New York Giant, Nicks, has the same idea. He found one of the burgeoning superstar quarterbacks in Andrew Luck to team up with on a prove-it deal. Indianapolis seems like a perfect place to make up for the struggles he had in a contract year last season in New York.
It was a chance the Colts are willing to take as well. Chuck Pagano told Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star:
There's only one football. When you have great competitors and great players like we have, they all want the rock at the same time. They all certainly know you only have one football. It's a great situation that we have getting those guys back, getting Dwayne (Allen) back, Ahmad (Bradshaw), Vick (Ballard), Reggie (Wayne) and then adding Hakeem. It's a great situation. ...
... (Nicks has) big, big hands, can make huge plays, physical guy. Everybody is going to get up in your face and play bump and run and make it hard for you to get off the line of scrimmage. He gives you a big physical presence. He'll do a great job against press coverage.
Nicks has a second chance at a contract year—and to prove he can be a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown receiver again. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has wanted that for the past few years, as he told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News:
The production continued to be not what it was a couple of years ago. I want everybody to know we wish Hakeem nothing but success, a return to the player that we really do believe and know that he is. Maybe this is something that had to take place for Hakeem. Maybe he will deal with exactly where he is and once again return to the quality of player that he is.
Like Nicks, defensive lineman Raji is coming off a disappointing year. He signed a one-year, prove-it deal with the Green Bay Packers and got a promise to move back to the nose tackle position, which is where he once had his most success. Head coach Mike McCarthy told ESPN.com's Jason Wilde:
My conversation with B.J. is that I want to keep him over center, keep him in the A gap more and tailor things more to his specific skill set and cut him loose. I think B.J. will do a good job. If you look at the package B.J. was used in the past, I think we can do a lot less of that, if any, and keep him over the center where he's closer to the football and can be a more impactful player. ...
... He felt he did what he was asked to do. I've had a number of conversations with B.J. He's a young man we drafted, we brought him into our program. He's had success. (In recent years) he's been asked to do things a little differently, and I think it's a process we need to get him back over center.
The one-year deals this winter were not limited to players coming off injury, such as Maclin, or down years like Nicks and Raji. The 26-year-old Moreno was coming off a career year with the AFC champion Denver Broncos, rushing for a career-high 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns and adding 60 receptions for 548 yards and three more scores.
Moreno was fifth in the NFL with 1,586 yards from scrimmage. Still, he could muster a mere one-year, $3 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. As many as 90 free agents got more money in contracts this winter.
Moreno told Chris Perkins of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
I don't feel any pressure to go out, because it's a one-year deal, to do anything spectacular. I'm just going to go out and make sure I'm working hard and competing...I'm not expecting anything.
It is the law of supply and demand at work at the running back position. Numbers there just don't mean as much to teams. Moreno understands it, as do Maclin, Nicks and the dozens of others that signed one-year, prove-it deals this offseason. Both sides understand the benefits of these circumstances.
After all, getting a long-term deal means nothing if you're going to wind up getting released the next year like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did with Revis last month. All deals are really about the guaranteed money, as CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora writes, and teams like to leave themselves an out:
As more teams are staying away from doling out huge upfront money and adopting more of a "pay-as-you-go" philosophy to their contract structure, it makes it increasingly easy to jettison players without major cap ramifications.
The proof is in the numbers. Below are more than 90 one-year deals signed in free agency this winter:
* Maclin signed before free agency began. His contract data is from Spotrac.com. All other data is from OverTheCap.com. (We added Henry Melton's four-year contract in there because just $1 million of it is guaranteed as he is coming off reconstructive knee surgery.)
Not all of those deals above are one-year, prove-it types, of course—as some players there are merely hangers-on.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 guys who can star in a contract season, playing on their one-year, prove-it deals signed this winter:
- WR Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
- WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts
- CB Walter Thurmond, New York Giants
- LB Brandon Spikes, Buffalo Bills
- DT B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers
- RB Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
- CB Antonio Cromartie, Arizona Cardinals
- RB Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
- WR Mario Manningham, New York Giants
- G Willie Colon, New York Jets
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.