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In N.F.L. Free Agency, Your Team Either Goes Broke or Stinks

G.M.s will have to work extra hard to add talent in a salary cap-crunched 2021. It’s still a bad way for most teams to improve.

Welcome to the start of N.F.L. free agency, one of the most exciting events of the league’s off-season.

Many teams are either flat broke (read: no cap space) or so far from contention that splurging on big-name talent is more likely to hurt than help them. Several of the most coveted free agents were pulled from the market at the last minute. The reports of massive dollar figures doled out in new contracts over the next few weeks will mostly be accounting metafiction, not real money. And the best transactions will inevitably be the ones teams avoid making.

Are you excited yet?

Free agency officially begins on March 17, but thanks to a “legal tampering period” that begins two days before then, many of the splashiest transactions are announced several days early, making free agency an event that essentially ends before it begins. The N.F.L. instituted the window back in 2016, permitting teams to open talks with other teams’ soon-to-be-free agents a few days early. General managers and agents no longer wink and pretend that they negotiated eight-figure, multiyear contracts seconds after the start of the new league year. Now, they wink and pretend that they negotiated those contracts seconds after the start of the tampering period.

This year’s overspending binge promises to be more chaotic than usual due to a rare dip in the N.F.L.’s 2021 salary cap. Each year’s cap is directly tied to the previous year’s league revenues, which partially include gate receipts that of course declined precipitously in 2020 because of pandemic restrictions. The salary cap dipped from $198.2 million in 2020 to anticipated $182.5 million this year. It would have fallen further if the league and the N.F.L. Players Association had not negotiated a sort of relief bill to spread 2020’s losses over multiple years; otherwise, some teams would have been forced to field teams consisting of guaranteed-salary quarterbacks surrounded by groundskeepers and equipment managers.

This year’s cap crunch arrived just as the balloon payments came due for many teams that overspent in pursuit of past Super Bowls, forcing those teams to both cut veterans and resort to imaginative bookkeeping to achieve cap compliance. For example, the New Orleans Saints restructured Drew Brees’s contract in early February, even though Brees is expected to retire. The Pittsburgh Steelers restructured Ben Roethlisberger’s contract last week to make ends meet, even though Roethlisberger probably should retire. The Philadelphia Eagles incurred a $33 million cap hit when they traded quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts in February. To get back under the cap, the team is attempting to perform the budget equivalent of ripping the copper wiring out the walls to sell for gas money.

All the accounting sorcery in the multiverse won’t free enough cap space to make the Eagles, Steelers or Saints serious participants in free agency. Meanwhile, the ever-woeful Jacksonville Jaguars (an estimated $72 million under the cap, as of this writing) and the Jets ($67 million) have the most money to spend this year, as they do every few years, which neatly illustrates the folly of trying to build a quality football team via free agency.

Some legitimate contenders appear to have money to spend, but again: it’s inadvisable to believe any of the numbers associated with N.F.L. free agency. The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered the week with about $12 million in cap space, and are reportedly planning to clear more by extending Tom Brady’s contract until he’s nearly eligible to join the AARP. The Buccaneers then re-signed linebacker Lavonte David and applied the franchise tag to receiver Chris Godwin, temporarily placing them back in the red before they could address other in-house free agents like the pass rusher Shaquil Barrett or tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett, right, headlines a deep pool of pass rushing free agents. The Buccaneers entered the week with about $12 million in cap space on their ledger, and are reportedly planning to clear more by extending Tom Brady’s contract
Jason Behnken/Associated Press

The Dallas Cowboys also appeared to have a cap surplus until the moment quarterback Dak Prescott’s new contract was announced Monday. Often, a team’s full bank account is just a sign that the bills haven’t been paid yet.

Godwin and Chicago Bears receiver Allen Robinson were among the best players available before each received the dreaded franchise tag, a speed bump on the free market that allows teams to retain the rights to some would-be free agents for one year at a high-but-tightly-regulated salary. For Godwin, the franchise tag at least guarantees him a chance to catch passes from Brady and could perhaps mean a return to the Super Bowl. Robinson will be stuck celebrating the Bears’ 71st consecutive season of trying to replace Sid Luckman at quarterback.

Even without Robinson and Godwin, there’s a free-agent talent glut at receiver, including up-and-comers Kenny Golladay, Curtis Samuel and JuJu Smith-Schuster; veterans like Larry Fitzgerald, T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green, and many others. Barrett headlines a deep pool of pass rushers along with Melvin Ingram, Bud Dupree, and Justin Houston. There are more quality players at these positions than solvent potential employers, and the free-agent ranks are growing because teams are still shedding salaries. For example, the Seattle Seahawks released pass rusher Carlos Dunlap on Monday, adding another job applicant to an already crowded field.

Supply and demand dictates that shrewd organizations will be able to sign quality players at deep discounts once the initial spending spree for big names like Barrett subsides. That is how the New England Patriots successfully operated from the dawn of the 21st century through last year’s signing of quarterback Cam Newton. The Jets are bound to figure out the secret one of these decades.

The dollar values of the contracts that will be announced next week are widely known to be the most imaginary numbers in all of free agency. N.F.L. contracts are typically bloated with non-guaranteed back-end money that provides bragging rights for players and agents and proration lodestones for cap alchemists. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy signed a reported four-year, $51 million contract with the Miami Dolphins last March. The team released him last week after one year, paying him about $15.5 million. Van Noy is now yet another veteran pass rusher seeking work.

As Brady and the Buccaneers illustrated last season, a judicious big-name signing or two can truly help a team that’s already stacked. Still, the best approach to free agency is typically to avoid it. In addition to bargain hunting for leftovers, successful franchises sign core players to extensions before they reach the market, then let veterans who have peaked sign elsewhere in exchange for the compensatory draft picks the N.F.L. doles out in its quest for perfect competitive balance.

Organizations that overspend during this time of year end up trapped in a binge-and-purge cycle of cutting past losses to make room for their next round of mistakes. For fans of teams like the Jets and Jaguars, who have endured years of misplaced spring hope, a quiet free agency period would be a truly exciting free agency period.

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