NFL free agency begins Tuesday, with cap at $133 million
NEW YORK — Let the bidding binges begin.
Armed with another $10 million or so to spend thanks to the increased salary cap, NFL teams dive into free agency on Tuesday. By the end of the week, most of the top prizes will be signed, to the tune of enough money to fund a small government.
The process will continue for months, with many of the real bargains not moving to new teams or rejoining their previous clubs until well after the early auctioning.
“Free agency in and of itself is an overpayment situation,” says former NFL executive Bill Polian, who built three Super Bowl teams and now is an analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM. “That’s why the union fought so hard to get it.
“These are essentially ‘B’ players whose agents are looking for ‘A’ money. Some situations teams are forced to deal with, and you have to bite the bullet and do it.’ “
While Polian makes the point that the really elite players don’t ever become available in free agency, the 2014 class is filled with former All-Pros and Pro Bowlers. They come in all sizes for all jobs, from pass rushers Jared Allen, Justin Tuck and Antonio Smith to running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Willis McGahee.
The crop is spiced by a deep class of wide receivers, from those just emerging as standouts (Julian Edelman, Golden Tate, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders) to those more established (Hakeem Nicks, James Jones, Santana Moss). Hardly a surprise, it is not filled with potential starting quarterbacks; the top names are Josh McCown, Matt Cassel and Michael Vick.
And, as former NFL executive Pat Kirwan, who was involved in the development of the free agency process more than two decades ago, points out, “Once some of these guys sign, there will be even more players out there who are available because teams have to cut guys to make room for the new ones they sign.”
For now, teams looking for coverage guys might be enticed by Alterraun Verner, who had a breakout season with the Titans and picked off five passes. Or by Aqib Talib, a shutdown cornerback when healthy, but who comes with some off-field baggage.
Clubs such as Miami, with massive holes on the offensive line, could target the likes of tackles Eugene Monroe, Jared Veldheer, Branden Albert or Michael Oher, guards Zane Beadles or Willie Colon, or center Brian de la Puente.
And don’t forget the franchised or transition players who could be had, with heavy compensation. Is All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham worth two first-round draft picks, plus however many dollar signs it takes to sign him away from New Orleans? Would Cleveland match any offers for Alex Mack, one of the best centers ever to reach free agency, albeit as a transition guy?
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson says. “I might like someone in a position group that Team B, C, D and E looked at two plays and didn’t fit their scheme, or didn’t fit them from a character standpoint — what have you — with the information their scouting departments are giving them at the end of the day.
“It’s a process and something you have to chip away every day just to have that overall picture in your mind to see if it meshes with what you, your head coach and all your staff kind of sees as our vision moving forward.”
Several teams have chosen to let key players test the waters, including the two Super Bowl participants.
NFL champion Seattle could lose such starters as Tate, cornerback Brandon Browner, tackle Breno Giacomini and defensive end Michael Bennett, plus placekicker Steven Hauschka. Possible departures from Denver are Decker, Beadles, cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey, DEs Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips, running back Knowshon Moreno and linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
Both franchises have said they want to keep as much cohesion as they can, something Polian finds wise.
“If your own players are quality and can help you win, then it is better off to pay them, I have always believed,” Polian says. “It’s better than what you can find in the market, and you know them better than you know a player from another team. It’s a player you know and believe in and who has no adjustment coming into your system. It is pretty seamless.”
Tailenders tend to not have those kind of players, though. They also often have tons of money available, exactly the case with Oakland, Cleveland and Jacksonville, all 4-12 in 2013. The Raiders have about $65 million on hand, the Jaguars have more than $59 million, and the Browns around $56 million.
Such deep pockets guarantee absolutely nothing, of course.
“Whether you have a little money or a lot, the dangers are the same, it’s just a question of degree,” Polian says. “You don’t know the player as well as the player coming out in the draft, and certainly not as well as your player.
“Football is not a seamless transition. Systems change, people have a difficult time adjusting to begin with, and then if they have a system change or technique change it is even worse. It may take him a year to get adjusted, and that is a year you lost and paid big money for.
“That said, there are some holes you have to fill on your club.”
Let the bidding binges begin.