Money, money, everywhere
But not a free agent to pay
-from The Rime of the Ancient Moneyball
Welcome to free agency 2018, where your favorite team is flush with cash and ready to splurge but soon will discover that, instead of window shopping on Rodeo Drive, they are in a convenience store the night before a snowstorm, just after a bread-and-milk panic.
Not only has the salary cap gone up another $10 million this season, to $177.2 million per team, but many teams have also rolled over cash from previous years into this year, giving them even more dough to roll around in. The NFL Players Association released a graphic showing each team's individual cap ceiling on Tuesday. The Browns, Jaguars, 49ers and Titans all have over $200 million to spend on salaries and bonuses this year, while the Buccaneers, Colts, Jets and Vikings have over $190 million.
Many of the teams with salary-cap bonus bucks also have payrolls only slightly higher than the average college-town coffee shop. So the Browns enter free agency with well over $100 million to play around with. A host of other teams have cash wads over $50 million. (All cap estimates courtesy OverTheCap.com unless otherwise noted). Let the spending spree begin!
Except that there's not much to spend all that money on.
This year's final franchise tag list includes Ezekiel Ansah, Le'Veon Bell, Demarcus Lawrence, Lamarcus Joyner and Jarvis Landry. In other words: all of the non-quarterbacks teams were really excited about, plus Jarvis Landry.
Flip through the free-agent catalogue, and it becomes clear that teams will soon be walking around with fistfuls of money and no one to throw them at.
Quarterbacks: There's Kirk Cousins, of course. Then there's Case Keenum, a 30-year-old fresh off a come-from-nowhere season whose current team—a quarterback-needy contender—won't be bidding for him. No way signing him to a massive deal backfires! There's also AJ McCarron, who is in the conversation because a) he was awarded free agency by an arbiter during a lull in the news cycle; and b) a coach who went 1-31 over the last two seasons vouches for him.
Running Backs: The big prizes are Carlos Hyde, the workhorse back who never quite works his way to 1,000 yards, and Dion Lewis, who you know full well will turn to golden dust and blow away the moment he leaves the enchanted zone surrounding Gillette Stadium.
Wide Receivers: If you love young big-name veterans who each had exactly one good NFL season, this is the year for you to grab an Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins or Terrelle Pryor. It's the ultimate free-agent money trap: pay for the tantalizing potential; get burned when you realize there's a reason these guys are on the market.
Tight Ends: Jimmy Graham is 31 years old, averaged 9.1 yards per catch last season, blocks like he's afraid to catch a germ and has spent his career disappointing the contenders who thought he was a missing piece of the Super Bowl puzzle. There's also Tyler Eifert, who has started two games in two years, and Trey Burton, who did that thing with the thing in the Super Bowl.
Offensive Linemen: Andrew Norwell is such prime hunk of hog molly that new Giants GM Dave Gettleman is likely to import him from Charlotte to East Rutherford before anyone else can make an offer. Nate Solder is a very good left tackle who is about to get paid like he's Orlando Pace after a dose of the Heart Shaped Herb.
Pass Rushers: With Tank Lawrence and Ziggy Ansah off the board, it's all 30-somethings and perma-prospects.
Defensive Tackles: Another group filled with 30-somethings and guys who were too unreliable for even the Jets.
Linebackers: Nigel Bradham can ball. But really? You've got $50 million-plus to spend, and you are looking at off-ball linebackers?
Secondary: There's some talent here, from Kyle Fuller to Kenny Vaccaro to the Malcolm Butler Mystery Box. But there is no Darrelle Revis in the bunch, especially not the current version of Darrelle Revis.
Specialists: A bunch of experienced kickers were about to hit the market before Adam Vinatieri, Matt Bryant and Graham Gano signed new deals. It's a testament to how thin this free-agent class is that teams were worried about getting their 40-year-old kickers poached.
All in all, this is a very weak group once you see through the quarterback camouflage at the top. And it arrives just as a bunch of teams who have been saving pennies for a rainy day all came to market at the same time.
Look for this extreme seller's market to have the following ramifications over the next few weeks:
Teams that appear to be "in good cap shape" with $10 million-$30 million to spend will be unable to keep up with the market for the handful of top players. Think of those teams as tourists in a midtown Manhattan bar with $50 in their pockets: that's enough to party all night back home, but they'll be lucky to come away from this free-agency period with a burger and a cocktail.
The Broncos are the highest-profile team impacted by cap inflation. Their $23 million in cap space sounds great until you realize that they are bidding against teams with $47 million (Vikings) to $90 million (Jets) for the top quarterbacks. Sure, they can clear more cap space. And you can take out a mortgage to afford that second round of drinks in Manhattan. It doesn't mean you should.
This is a great year to hit free agency for solid starters at positions where teams don't usually spend much money. Mid-tier players will sign top-tier contracts with teams just because they have to spend their money somewhere.
Lewis is a favorite to get a LeSean McCoy-plus contract, probably from a team incapable of replicating the offensive environment that made Lewis so special in New England.
Bradham and Burton will get signed at Super Bowl premium prices while Eagles GM Howie Roseman (who can out-Moneyball any Moneyballer) collects supplemental draft picks, lets the Eagles budget cool down a bit and, oh yeah, polishes the Lombardi Trophy.
The Giants will be bid out of the market for Justin Pugh by a team that will then wonder why it spent premium left tackle money for a very good guard.
Gonzo Prove-It Contracts
Look for the Robinson-Watkins contingent at wide receiver to sign short-term deals with lots of up-front cash, similar to the ones Pryor and Alshon Jeffery got last year, only bigger. The teams that sign them will enjoy the short-term commitments to receivers with injury histories/butterfingers/reliability issues. The players get a jolt of cash while gambling on themselves. This is essentially what the Dolphins are doing by tagging Landry, who would be catnip for teams trying to childproof their offenses for rookie quarterbacks if left on the open market.
Jets expatriate Muhammad Wilkerson is also a prime candidate for a one-year whopper, which may complicate his signing for the new Packers braintrust, who covet Wilkerson but can't compete with the big spenders and also have a quarterback to extend.
Franchise Tag Resentment
The sack-destitute Buccaneers and Colts would have parked armored cars full of dough in Lawrence's and Ansah's driveways if either hit the market. The Lions and Cowboys knew it, hence the franchise tags. The young pass-rushers know that they were denied epic paydays, which could lead to bad feelings and mysterious absences from offseason team activities.
It goes without saying that Bell will not report for work until 45 minutes before the Steelers season opener. And he'll still get 25 carries.
We've already seen Marcus Peters, Robert Quinn, Michael Bennett and Alec Ogletree change hands in the last few weeks. Expect more of the same in the early days of free agency as teams trade for better edge rushers than they can get on the market or in the draft (Quinn, Bennett) and contenders (Rams, Eagles) aggressively reshape their roster (or readjust their locker room culture) in ways that won’t be possible in this shallow talent pool.
What we won't see much of this season is what every team really strives for in free agency: an immediate-impact player signing a long-term deal that makes financial sense. It's another Unintended Consequence of Moneyball: Squirreling money away in search of the right free agent is a shrewd strategy until the whole league is doing it. The best tactic for this free-agent class is to have already aggressively identified, acquired and spent some of that excess cash on your most important players.
Boy, that Jimmy Garoppolo trade and contract keeps looking better and better, doesn't it?
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.