So, is this a free-agency preview? Great idea. Where were you last week when we needed one?
I was naively expecting at least some teams and major players to hold off their free-agent announcements until the official start of free agency. And also writing free-agency previews.
There are always premature free-agent signing announcements and foregone conclusions, but this year was unprecedented. As I write this, we know where a huge percentage of the top free agents will play next year, even though they don't technically become free agents until Tuesday afternoon.
Heck, I could write a free-agent "Winners and Losers" column right now, even though free agency hasn't started yet. While at it, I can give out draft grades.
Why did so many teams jump the gun this year?
The "open negotiation" period—that three-day window over the weekend during which the NFL officially looked the other way while general managers and agents had "discussions" that would not lead to "negotiations" or "offers" in a scenario that is completely "unrealistic"—is still relatively new. Last year, there was some toe-dipping when it came to finalizing and announcing agreements. This year, everyone cannonballed in.
Negotiations have always occurred for weeks before the official start of free agency, mind you. This year, the open window gave everyone the deniability to go from "roundabout contract discussion at the Scouting Combine" to "we are so close to a deal that it is OK to send a text to Chris Mortensen."
Last year, different teams may have been working at different speeds. Agents had more incentive to sit tight for a few hours until everyone was in the pool.
The deals are not official until Tuesday afternoon, right? So all of the stories that were reported over the weekend could evaporate?
The agreements become official once they are filed with the NFL. Contracts are signed after the league looks them over. As of now, absolutely no one is bound to anything, though as a practical matter, nearly all of them are going to happen as they've been announced.
There was talk Monday night that Frank Gore is having second thoughts about joining the Eagles.
Ian Rapoport @RapSheet
Free agent shocker: Frank Gore reconsiders potential/pending deal with the #Eagles, I’m told.2015-3-9 22:52:30
Jason La Canfora @JasonLaCanfora
Frank Gore is reaching out to Colts players to learn more about the organization. Vontae Davis - whose brother Gore played w/-among them2015-3-9 23:25:19
That's the built-in downside of so many early announcements: They can ward off potential suitors who arrived slightly late, which in 2015 free agency means "not quite early enough." Agents may start channeling Janet Jackson and singing "Let's Wait Awhile" when premature negotiations get really hot in the years to come.
Why give your client 48 hours to dwell on a public announcement (complete with media and social media pressures) when you can issue a "no comment" and see if the Colts come out of nowhere with an open checkbook?
Isn't negotiating before the window opens tampering? And isn't tampering very, very bad?
Did you ever hear the old granny expression "first babies are always a little early"?
It was a polite way for the matriarchs who maintained the moral fiber of their extended families to say, "Even I, an 84-year-old woman who sits in the front row for Sunday services, know that my sweet little granddaughter couldn't wait and started doing the horizontal howdy-do with her hot hunk of farm boy and got knocked up a few weeks before the wedding. But I am not going to make a silly fuss about it, because human nature is what it is, people will do what they want behind closed doors and no one gives a damn now that they are married."
Well, first $114 million contracts are always a little early. Deal with it.
Chris Mortensen @mortreport
Ndamukong Suh will sign with #Dolphins on Tuesday based off parameters around $114 million and $60 million guaranteed, per sources.2015-3-8 17:05:33
The NFL has threatened to investigate tampering incidents.
The league sent out a strongly worded memo. If tampering keeps up, it will be forced to send out another strongly worded memo.
The tampering rules are a speed limit. The "open window" increased the speed limit from 55 to 65. If some team starts doing 100 miles per hour—announcing at the combine that it plans to pursue another team's free agent, causing a public kerfuffle that can really foul up negotiations—then the NFL will act.
The Sunday announcements were an example of everyone on the highway pushing it up to 75. So Greg Aiello parked his cruiser in the median strip and flashed the lights.
Another thing to keep in mind is that teams are allowed to negotiate with their own free agents, and announce contracts, whenever they want. Much of the weekend's early news was about re-signings: Randall Cobb, Marshawn Lynch, etc.
Adam Schefter @AdamSchefter
Randall Cobb back to Green Bay on a 4-year, $40 million deal, per source.2015-3-8 03:20:18
Marshawn Lynch agrees to three-year, $31 million deal http://t.co/6vun2XWd9G2015-3-6 23:47:15
It seems like a lot of major free agents decided to stay put this year. Why is that?
It's not just Cobb and Lynch. There's also Jerry Hughes, Devin McCourty, Brandon Flowers, Mark Ingram, Doug Free, David Harris, Rey Maualuga and Mark Sanchez, who may be Mark Sanchez but also happened to be the best available quarterback for any team that needed a spot-starter/mentor/veteran backup.
Many of these re-signings are examples of an obvious "great fit."
McCourty was so willing to be handcuffed to the Patriots that it was the football equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey. (That said, he got a pretty darn good deal.) Cobb recognized that the grass was not going to be greener with Derek Carr than it is with Aaron Rodgers. Hughes can thrive under Rex Ryan on a defense loaded with talent. Free is not going to find a better line than the one he is on.
None of these great fits would have mattered if the money did not add up. General managers get smarter about managing the salary cap every year. The way modern contracts are designed—with staggered signing and roster bonuses, careful attention to the number of phony-baloney years on the back end, and so on—keeps smart organizations from falling into cap purgatory, even if they are paying a premium for a franchise quarterback and have been competitive for years. Even Jerry Jones has gotten a little more logical, and frugal, when it comes time to dole out the cash.
Successful general managers hate to part ways with young core veterans. It's one thing to slough off an aging Vince Wilfork or A.J. Hawk but another thing to be forced by cap constraints to cut into the nucleus of future teams. Every time a successful franchise retains a McCourty or Cobb, it's a win for that franchise.
If teams are so smart these days, how come there were so many big-name cap cuts last week?
Ask the question in a different way: Why were there so many cap cuts last week, instead of on June 1?
The reason June 1 is such a big day for cuts is that if a team releases a player after that date, the team can prorate any dead money over two seasons. Dead money is any guaranteed money still owed to the player.
Let's use Reggie Bush as an example. The Lions still owed Bush about $3.5 million in guaranteed money, at least from an accounting standpoint; that "owed money" was really leftover signing bonus. The Lions, a team with some serious cap issues (which is why they got outbid for Suh, who was willing to re-sign), elected to release Bush immediately and eat that $3.5 million in cap space. If they waited until June, they could have eased the burden by spreading it out over two $1.75 million installments.
In the past, teams might find themselves in horrendous dead-money situations: the cap equivalent of suddenly getting stuck in revolving debt because you bought a snowmobile that broke down and an in-ground pool that is now an algae farm. The June 1 bloodletting was the only way those teams kept from getting so cap crippled that they could not compete.
Teams are now generally more prudent about managing their dead money. There will always be prorated bonuses hanging over beyond a player's period of usefulness, but teams are willing to incorporate a little dead money into their budgets, just as you are willing to incur interest payments, within reason, for a major purchase.
Teams are now more likely to release a player before the start of free agency, eat a digestible amount of cap space and keep their long-term financial situation reasonably healthy. Instead of June 1 cuts, we get late-February cuts.
The Patriots aren't picking up Darrelle Revis' option. Was his contract one of the modern, sensible ones?
Yes. The Patriots rented Revis for a year, using the second year of his contract as a file folder for his signing-bonus proration. They are taking a $5 million cap hit, but the Patriots are very tactical about absorbing dead-money hits.
Will Revis return to the Patriots?
Revis is now the king of a free-agent chessboard with no queens or rooks. The official scuttlebutt has the Jets making major offers while Revis considers giving the Patriots a Super Bowl discount.
With Revis, you should believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. I expect Revis to spend a few days weighing his options and seeing if teams such as the Colts, Bills or Falcons launch a bidding war.
I hope Revis does bounce around a little and weigh a dozen offers. He has to generate almost a whole league's worth of free-agent intrigue. He's been up to it in the past.
The Ndamukong Suh contract does not appear all that digestible: $114 million total with $60 million guaranteed over six years. The Dolphins will really be stuck if Suh turns into Albert Haynesworth.
Enough with the Albert Haynesworth talk. Every defensive tackle with a penalty habit and a huge contract is not going to turn into Albert Haynesworth. That's like comparing every rookie quarterback you think is overhyped to Ryan Leaf. It's not accurate, and it's not fair.
Fine. So what if Suh fades after a year or two? The Dolphins will be on the hook for a ton of money.
It's the same risk every team incurs when signing a player of Suh's magnitude: a quarterback who is not "elite" enough for talk-radio standards, a prima donna wide receiver, a "shutdown cornerback" who sometimes allows completions. Suh's reputation and public persona make it seem riskier. If a team is only willing to invest heavily in consensus superstar choir boys, that team isn't going to be very successful.
Let's wait and see how much of that $60 million is "fully guaranteed," as opposed to "guaranteed against injury." The details of the contract are not available yet, and there may be some dramatic inflation in that $60 million figure.
Considering the fact that the Dolphins were not rolling in cap space, I expect the Suh deal to be structured more like J.J. Watt's contract.
What's so special about the J.J. Watt deal, besides the fact that it is a $100 million contract?
Watt's initial signing bonus on his 2014 extension was $10 million. He also got $900,000 in guaranteed salary last year and a little under $10 million for this year.
That does not sound like a lot for the services of J.J. Watt, but here's the kicker: He will earn a $10 million roster bonus on the fifth day of the NFL year (next Monday), unless the Texans suddenly decide that he stinks and release him. With that roster bonus comes full guarantees for two more years and $21 million more in salary through 2017.
So in September, the Texans guaranteed $21 million to Watt. This year, they will guarantee an additional $31 million. For purposes of escrow, the staggered schedule kept Houston from having to stash away $51 million last year. For proration and cap purposes, the staggered bonuses allowed the team to decide when and to what part of the body the salary-cap punch was going to come.
The Texans dumped much of Watt's cap hit onto this season's ledger; his cap numbers will be manageable for the next several seasons, when they will theoretically be in the latter stages of building a contender around him.
The Dolphins may have done some similar juggling with Suh. They may also have just handed him some mammoth base salaries in 2016 and 2017. Miami can afford to stash some cash in escrow.
I didn't know I was applying for a real estate license when I clicked this article. What do you mean by "escrow"?
Any money a team guarantees to a player must either be handed to the player immediately or placed in an escrow account to legally ensure that the contract is funded.
Let's use Jets linebacker David Harris as an example. He just signed a three-year extension. The Jets fully guaranteed his salary for the first two years at $7.5 million per year. "Fully guaranteed" means he gets that money if he's injured, plays poorly or even if the team just decides to go in another direction.
That means the Jets organization is setting aside $15 million in cash money in an escrow account so it can fund Harris' weekly paychecks. That's actual green cash that is not available to them the next time they want to fork over a signing bonus.
Big deal. NFL owners are richer than Scrooge McDuck.
But they do not run their finances like Scrooge McDuck. Even Dan Snyder doesn't have a treasure room full of gold doubloons where he goes swan-diving in his free time.
Some franchises are well-funded enough to do whatever they want; if $90 million is in escrow, it's no big deal. Other franchises, particularly some of the older franchises that began as family businesses almost a century ago, don't keep that kind of extreme operating capital lying around. Beyond a certain point, delivering a huge bonus (most guaranteed NFL money comes in bonus form) becomes a strain on the finances.
The Dolphins did not have outstanding cap space this year, but their ownership group has deep pockets when it comes to dishing out cash.
Didn't the Patriots do something involving escrow recently?
Tom Brady allowed the Patriots to remove the full guarantee from his $8 million salary this year. That allowed the Patriots to take that money out of escrow and use it for McCourty and others. It's not exactly a high-risk move for Brady.
He helped the organization out, but the press clippings made it sound like he agreed to play simply for the love of the game and also discovered a new antibiotic. If the Patriots suddenly decide that Tom Brady stinks, however, they can release him and only have to pay the proration on his signing bonus!
Brady is not lying awake at night worrying about such things.
What about the Raiders? They should have cash and cap space! Why did they strike out on Suh and Cobb?
Oh, the poor Raiders. They could not get drunk on Bourbon Street with a fistful of $20s right now.
After years of futility, the Raiders have a hard time getting their message heard by top free agents. It's one thing for the Dolphins, who go 8-8 every year, to convince a guy like Suh to help them get over the hump (while living in sunny Florida and paying no state income taxes). It's another thing to convince a top player to join a team with 11 wins in three seasons and no winning seasons since 2002, when Cobb was 11 years old.
That said, the Raiders seem to be outflanked at every turn. They have a pitch that they should be able to get across: respected new coach (Jack Del Rio), respected new defensive coordinator (Ken Norton Jr.), Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and so on. The fact that the Raiders fall out of the running so quickly for so many top free agents tells me they are not getting that pitch across. Some general managers and executives just "do the dance" better than others.
At press time, the Raiders were not even favorites to sign Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton, who follows Del Rio from town to town like a really big puppy. Maybe some other team is overspending for Pot Roast, but he's the kind of pre-sold player who should have been quietly locked in already.
It sounds like there is a lot more to what has gone on in recent days than just inserting X dollars into the bank account of free agent Y to lure him to team Z.
Absolutely. I spoke to several former general managers for my article about pitching free agents. The goings on in front offices these days are hectic, complex and fluid. Cap situations around the league change suddenly, as does the market for a player, and everyone reacts to those changes dynamically.
Take Randall Cobb. His market value increased when Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas were franchised. The Packers' cap situation changed when they released A.J. Hawk. If teams interested in Cobb knew that Jeremy Maclin was in discussions with the Chiefs (Maclin was clearly interested in a "comfortable" situation, like returning to Andy Reid's ample bosom), that also would create increased demand.
The Cobb market shifted several times over the past few weeks. If the team that wanted Cobb also wanted Suh and, let's say, center Rodney Hudson (also moving targets with shifting demands), that team had a delicate juggling act on its hands.
Experience matters in NFL front offices, especially during hectic weekends like this one. An inexperienced executive and his staff can experience miscommunications, react too slowly, get caught negotiating with itself and so on.
You may notice that some of the least experienced front offices made some of the loudest moves over the last few days.
Are you referring to the Eagles and Bills?
Yes, and the Bears, 49ers and Jets.
Just to recap the front-office situations:
- Chip Kelly staged a mini-coup and wrenched Eagles personnel control away from Howie Roseman in the offseason.
- Hockey owner Terry Pegula purchased the Bills during the 2014 season; Doug Whaley remains the general manager, but the Bills are clearly doing business differently this season.
- The Bears hired Saints executive Ryan Pace as general manager. Pace is one of the youngest executives in the NFL at 37.
- Mike Maccagnan, a longtime company man for the Texans, is now the Jets general manager, though Woody Johnson still has his thumb in the pie crust.
- Trent Baalke is not a new general manager, but he has obviously become more powerful in San Francisco since Jim Harbaugh's departure.
So there are a lot of guys with new authority, and they are using it.
The Bills and Eagles orchestrated the LeSean McCoy-Kiko Alonso trade. The Bills also traded for Matt Cassel. The Bears and Jets engineered the Brandon Marshall trade.
The 49ers let Frank Gore go to the Eagles, signed Darnell Dockett and are trying to squelch Colin Kaepernick rumors, which happen to also involve the Eagles. Based on the news of Patrick Willis' sudden retirement, there is a general sense that all gee-golly heck has broken loose in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, the Patriots calmly lock up McCourty and the Packers keep Cobb. Are you saying that the teams with new power structures are making lots of bad moves?
Teams with new power structures may not be reading the market as efficiently as they should be.
McCoy's new five-year contract is a good example. McCoy grumbled about the trade, and presto! A five-year, $40 million contract appeared. There was no reason for the Bills to swoop in and mollify McCoy with so much money so quickly.
The McCoy deal is bigger than the extension the Chiefs used to assuage Jamaal Charles last summer. Why not wait until the snow melts, have Rex Ryan take McCoy out for wings or spiedies and see if Shady changes his mind before committing serious guaranteed cash?
The Jets overpaid to retain David Harris; they did not have to guarantee so much money for a second-tier player at a replaceable position.
The Eagles overspent on Byron Maxwell, and potentially subbing Gore for McCoy is a mixed-message move: They'd get much older and only slightly cheaper at running back. Both Gore and Maxwell had excellent games against the Eagles last year; fasten them to the acquisition of Oregon alum Alonso, and it gives the impression of a head coach making personnel decisions by the seat of his pants instead of through careful scouting.
Not all of the news is doom and gloom. The Bears got Pernell McPhee for a fair price: $16 million guaranteed, according to The Baltimore Sun, is not a lot for a player many thought would get marquee pass-rusher money. The Brandon Marshall trade has sound internal logic on both sides. It's not like the Eagles are acquiring useless players.
Don't be surprised, though, if more experienced front offices start their bargain hunting later this week.
Bargain hunting for whom? What "bargains" are left?
The NFL rushing leader that everyone has decided is washed up, even though he is coming off his best season and just turned 27 years old?
Yes, that's the guy. Keep in mind that 27 is old for a workhorse running back (as opposed to situational backs, who last longer). Running back years are like boy band years. Murray is only five months older than McCoy, but we have no problem talking about him like he played in the same backfield as Ron Jaworski.
When the Bills traded for McCoy, did it take a Murray suitor off the market?
Probably. On the flip side, McCoy's $40 million extension proves that some teams are still willing to pay for a running back with mileage.
Marshawn Lynch's two-year contract extension is also food for thought, for Murray and any future running back in a similar situation. The future of running back contracts may be a "get paid as you go" scenario. Teams will be willing to give a big bonus, then add an extra year for proration purposes, but the end-of-contract event horizon at a position where players suddenly go from superstar to unemployable will never be more than two or three years down the road.
It doesn't sound like Murray is even getting three-year offers right now.
It's still early. Heck, free agency hasn't started yet! Lots of teams are in the process of pivoting from Plan A to Plan B right now.
It's crazy to think of the NFL's leading rusher as a Plan B free agent (especially if you are old enough to remember the real Plan B free agents), but running backs are prioritized behind most other positions these days, by most organizations.
Besides Murray and Revis, who is even left on the market?
At press time, C.J. Spiller and Ryan Mathews were with Murray on the Boulevard of Broken Running Back Dreams.
Julius Thomas appears to be headed to the Jaguars, per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus, leaving only Jordan Cameron among top tight ends without an official contract at press time. There are tons of useful second-tier tight ends out there if you are an Owen Daniels or Jermaine Gresham fan. The Raiders reportedly like Gresham, according to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports, who really should not be that hard to get.
Bryan Bulaga and Mike Iupati lead an offensive line class that was not very impressive to begin with. When Iupati leaves the 49ers, he may have to shut out the lights.
Brian Orakpo leads a chipped-and-dented class of leftover pass-rushers. Orakpo is high on the Falcons' target list, according to Dianna Marie Russini of NBC4 in D.C.
Nick Fairley and Knighton top the defensive tackle board with Suh gone. The Lions will now push to retain Fairley. Vince Wilfork is also out there.
There are lots of capable linebackers, such as Mason Foster and Brandon Spikes, to choose from. Foster is probably the best of the bunch. If you need a linebacker of this caliber and cannot find and develop him through the draft, you have problems that free agency probably will not fix.
Tramon Williams and Buster Skrine lead the cornerbacks who are left on the board. The Eagles were front-runners for Williams at press time, per . Skrine will be a great pickup for a team that needs a pesky No. 2 cornerback but a horrible one for a team trying to convince itself it is getting Joe Haden by spending extra money. Antonio Cromartie is available for a one-year rental.
The safeties are like the linebackers. Antrel Rolle brings championship experience but more talk than goods at this point in his career. Tyvon Branch gave the best years of his life to the Raiders and has missed most of the last two seasons with ankle and foot injuries.
Why do you think we spent so much time talking about the players who already signed, and the business of free agency in general?
There are a handful of players on the market right now who can help a contender or make a real difference for a rebuilding team in search of traction: Murray and the backs, Torrey Smith and some of the tight ends, Fairley if he moves, Skrine perhaps, Orakpo, maybe someone like Branch if he passes a physical.
After that, there are lots of guys successful franchises generally do not acquire through free agency. You don't want to use free agency to pick rummage through starting interior offensive linemen or linebackers unless you have one specific hole that you are trying to fill.
That doesn't mean Henry Melton, Trent Cole, C.J. Mosley, Pierre Thomas and others are valueless. But a huge percentage of the players who are left will generate mini-headlines over the next week then settle in as role players who do little to affect the win-loss column once the season starts.
You mentioned Wilfork. There are lots of older veterans like him on the market who were cut to clear cap space. Will they fetch interest?
Wilfork is a nose tackle, and nose tackles can be useful as 25-snap rotation players. A playoff team might splurge on Wilfork, figuring that he's worth it if he causes some 3rd-and-1 stuffs. He can also waive Super Bowl rings in rookies' faces to remind them to pay attention during meetings; Wilfork has a rep as a leader, and that will matter.
The situation is different at other positions. A fourth or fifth wide receiver who does not contribute on special teams cannot make a roster. That's bad news for Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Nate Washington, Hakeem Nicks and all the other well-known veteran receivers on the market.
It doesn't help that there are so many of them. If a team is worried it may need a veteran receiver as an insurance policy, that team may feel comfortable waiting and grabbing whoever is left.
The same problem faces Reggie Bush, DeAngelo Williams and most of the other veteran running backs who were released in recent weeks. A team looking for a committee back is more likely to sign Shane Vereen or Roy Helu, players who comes with low expectations and can play a special teams role, than try to slurp the marrow out of Bush's career.
This was supposed to be one of the best free-agent classes ever. What happened?
The franchise tag happened. Lots of re-signings happened. And the Suh story was a major anticlimax: No drama, no nationwide tour, just officially unofficial news breaking on a Sunday afternoon.
You sound disappointed.
Imagine if all of the NCAA tournament bracket news started leaking out Wednesday afternoon. By Friday, you not only know that Kentucky is the No. 1 seed in the Southeast, but you know the other top seeds, two-thirds of the bubble teams, and so on.
Free-Agency Tuesday has the potential to be almost as fun as the NCAA selection show and more fun than the draft. I was pumped to be writing like a madman into the wee hours Tuesday night. Instead, I will be hammering down free-agent nails.
But as usual, the NFL comes out a winner. NFL news dominated the sports world's attention all of last week: the franchise tags, Peyton Manning's return, the McCoy trade, Lynch's deal, the Marshall trade and finally the Suh news and all other signings.
This year will make us push our free-agent speculation back even further next year. Even the NFL's enforced nothing-is-going-on periods are now crammed with intrigue. The league hates all the "tampering" and premature announcements all the way to the bank.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.