As the NFL continues to grow as a business entity across the world, more revenue will stream in from sources that are trying to get a piece of the pie. Fans continue to pack stadiums and spend countless hours and dollars into the fandom of their favorite teams. It’s a great time to be a fan of the NFL.
But it is even better to be a player on the verge of financial reward for his services. The 2016 offseason will be more fruitful for free agents than ever before based on the early action that has already gone down. Contract extensions and new free-agent deals will be massive as the league is flush with cap space.
According to Spotrac, 22 teams are slated to enter the offseason with more than $20 million in cap space. This is before veteran cuts are made, which means even more money will be made available for spending. 2011 was the last time more than 10 teams had more than $20 million, but there were only 12 with that amount.
In that same time frame, the salary cap has risen from $120 million to $143 million in 2015. The 2016 final cap number helps illustrate how drastic the growth continues to be. Although we don’t know that exact number, ESPN’s Adam Schefter (via ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky) reported the cap will be between $150 million and $153.4 million.
The 125 percent growth in five years is terrific from the business aspect for franchises and players alike. The $10 million jump alone for 2016 is the largest growth we’ve seen since the new collective bargaining agreement was signed.
According to Chris Isidore of CNN Money, the NFL was on pace to set another record for revenue this past season. That projection came before the 2015 season even started. It’s easy to see why the cap continues to grow as the revenue pours in.
The league posted nearly $1 billion in profit in 2014 despite multiple off-field scandals. New television deals and swelling sponsorship contracts continue to rise between 5 to 8 percent per year, per Isidore. That figure will grow even larger as the NFL expands its international footprint.
Four would-be free agents have already taken advantage of the upcoming influx of spending by signing big contract extensions. It’s abnormal for a player to take a contract right before free agency unless he feels he's getting fair market value. At best, there is a very slight discount given to the incumbent team.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe, Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz and Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry all signed top-of-the-market deals for their positions. Kelce’s deal wasn’t surprising, as he signed a five-year, $46.8 million contract. This deal had the second-highest value for any tight end in football, which seems perfect for his standing in the league.
Wolfe’s four-year, $36.7 million was a little rich since he is now being paid as a top-10 defensive end, but it made sense. He is an ascending talent, and Denver had to retain at least one of him and Malik Jackson, who is another free-agent defensive end. Locking in Wolfe may have been a slight overpay based on old contracts, but it is palatable and not damaging for the long term.
The Ertz and Curry deals specifically were eye-opening for what this offseason may bring. Ertz benefited from former head coach Chip Kelly’s system en route to logging the seventh-most productive season for a tight end last year. New head coach Doug Pederson worked with Kelce in Kansas City, but there is a massive difference between the production of him and Ertz.
Ertz’s five-year, $42.5 million extension made him the fourth-highest-paid player at the position. While the team is betting on him improving, this is a bold move by the Eagles. See below for comparable contracts given to similar talents in recent years:
|Top Tight End Contracts Since 2014|
|Player||Team Signed With||Age At Signing||Year Signed||Years||Total Value||Annual Average||Guaranteed Money|
|Travis Kelce||Kansas City Chiefs||26||2016||5||$46,842,000||$9,368,400||$20,017,000|
|Julius Thomas||Jacksonville Jaguars||26||2015||5||$46,000,000||$9,200,000||$24,000,000|
|Zach Ertz||Philadelphia Eagles||25||2016||5||$42,500,000||$8,500,000||$21,000,000|
|Jimmy Graham||New Orleans Saints||27||2014||4||$40,000,000||$10,000,000||$20,900,000|
|Charles Clay||Buffalo Bills||25||2015||5||$38,000,000||$7,600,000||$24,500,000|
|Kyle Rudolph||Minnesota Vikings||25||2014||5||$36,500,000||$7,300,000||$18,500,000|
|Dennis Pitta||Baltimore Ravens||28||2014||5||$32,000,000||$6,400,000||$16,000,000|
|Greg Olsen||Carolina Panthers||28||2015||3||$22,500,000||$7,500,000||$12,000,000|
There’s no doubt the value is rising for players in similar talent tiers. Ertz is probably not 15 percent better than Greg Olsen and Charles Clay, but his contract partially reflects the salary-cap jump. We’re going to see that happen across the board as unrestricted free agents become available on March 15.
Depending on which free agents receive a franchise tag to keep them from open negotiations, the 2016 free-agency class could be strong. See the table below for a list of the top 10 free agents:
|Top-10 2016 Unrestricted Free Agents|
|Von Miller||Denver Broncos||OLB|
|Josh Norman||Carolina Panthers||CB|
|Eric Berry||Kansas City Chiefs||SAF|
|Muhammad Wilkerson||N.Y. Jets||DE|
|Cordy Glenn||Buffalo Bills||LT|
|Sean Smith||Kansas City Chiefs||CB|
|Alshon Jeffery||Chicago Bears||WR|
|Eric Weddle||San Diego Chargers||FS|
|Mitchell Schwartz||Cleveland Browns||RT|
|Trumaine Johnson||Los Angeles Rams||CB|
Several elite free agents may have the chance to shake the NFL’s landscape if given the chance to field offers. While free agency isn’t the way to build the foundation of a winning team, the right supplementation is important. The Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos are an excellent example of this strategy.
Teams that are looking to re-sign these top talents must be willing to reset the contract market. Veterans who are several seasons into their contracts will eventually want to top what is done this offseason. It becomes cyclical as more money is available and the generations of talent rise and fall.
The potential unrestricted free agents who benefit the most from the growing cap may be the mid-tier players. Curry is a great example of this already. With just 16.5 sacks in four seasons, he cashed in with a five-year, $47.25 million deal. He’ll average $9.45 million throughout the contract, with $23 million guaranteed.
This will be a historical offseason if fringe starters and rotational pieces continue getting that type of payday. Time will tell whether these contracts will be assets or albatross.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.