As the NFL’s 2017 League Year opens, we here at PowerHouse and our Members and broader community are whipped into a frenzy. We’re in the midst of preparing for the NFL Draft, now just seven weeks away, but we’re taking a break from that work to focus on the veterans whose contracts are expiring and who will be on the market for anyone to sign.
Before we dive into some thoughts on free agency, a little housekeeping: We have updated all NFL player contracts through the transactions of February 28th. We are aware of only a dozen or so players who have any issues at all with their contracts, in most cases these are simply updates that have not populated on OvertheCap.com yet.
If you see any players that you believe have incorrect contract information, please post on the Forum or send us feedback. Our contracts are not updated in real time, so we’re not going to have the free agent signings “live,” or even close to it, as they occur.
It’s important to keep that in mind as you sign players for your own team if you are running a virtual NFL team here on PowerHouseGM.com, or you may end up with some nasty surprises. You are responsible for your own compliance with the cap, and it’s easy to run into trouble at this time of year. As you sign players, check their contracts, and if they haven’t been updated, familiarize yourself with their reported terms. Know that those values will drop into your salary cap structure as we make updates on our side, and poor planning could put your team over the cap when that happens!
As always, sincere thanks to Jason Fitzgerald of OvertheCap.com for all the hard work and deep knowledge he brings to what he does.
Speaking of Jason and OTC, he recently published the book “Crunching Numbers: An Inside Look at the Salary Cap and Negotiating Player Contracts,” co-written with Vijay Natarajan (link is to Amazon listing.) I have my copy, but confess to not having started it yet due to the Combine and other “business season” distractions. Flipping through it, it looks excellent, and I think it would make a valuable addition to all of our libraries.
Thoughts on Free Agency
Some fans are confused by exactly what is happening when free agency starts. Why are some players able to sign before the start of free agency, while others announce deals ahead of 4pm on March 9th?
There are two main things that happen on this date at 4pm. It’s the start of the new “League Year,” which is, more than anything, an accounting event, and is defined in the current CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement.)
First, the NFL turns the page, officially, from the 2016 season to the 2017 season. That means all the final accounting is done on what players were paid by teams in 2016, and where the teams stand vs. the salary cap. That final accounting drives adjustments to each team’s salary cap for the 2017 season - for example, unused cap room from 2016 can carry over to create more cap room in 2017.
Second, player contracts that conclude in 2016 officially expire at 4pm. Basically, if you were under contract to play for my team in 2016, you still work for me until 4pm today. After that, you do not have a contract, and you can sign with any team for 2017 and beyond, unless factors like years of service or franchise tags apply.
This is why you’ll see some players sign contracts prior to the official start to free agency. Players can re-sign with their current teams at any time, forgoing their right to test the market in free agency. You’ll see teams lock up players to long term deals in February, as the Steelers did with Antonio Brown (whose previous contract was not yet set to expire) on February 27th.
Other players are released prior to their contracts actually expiring, making them free agents who don’t have to wait for the new League Year. An example of this is former Miami DT Earl Mitchell. The Dolphins released Mitchell on February 16th, and he signed as a free agent with San Francisco on February 24th.
As the new League Year starts, trades agreed-upon, and in many cases announced, previously can become official. Since we were technically still in 2016, teams were still barred from making trades dating back to the trade deadline in November. So, the handshake deals can now become official deals, and teams are free to complete trades until the 2017 deadline this fall. Dwayne Allen becomes a Patriot, Brandon Albert becomes a Jaguar, and Julius Thomas becomes a Dolphin.
If you’re running a virtual NFL team here on PowerHouseGM.com, you might wonder why trades don’t show up in your timeline on the dates they are announced, and this is the reason - our data provider (correctly) does not publish trades until they are finalized.
The Free Agency Free-for-All
By far, the spending spree that marks the opening of free agency is the piece of this that glues fans to NFL Network. Typically, the biggest names drop first, and we often hear of deals consummated during the “legal tampering” days preceding the official start of free agency. After a few days, the activity typically slows down.
There is no question that the best players are normally “overpaid” by most measures. But, are you really overpaying if the player you bring in is the difference-maker that gets you to the playoffs or puts you in position to win a title? That’s the question that GMs must answer as they put pen to paper.
When a free agency spending splurge works well, it can plug holes and solve problems. The Giants took a major leap in 2016, bringing in Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, and Janoris Jenkins, and re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul, committing nearly $115M in guaranteed money to four players. There’s no question it was a high-risk move, but in this case it paid off, as the Giants made the playoffs due in no small part to their much-improved defense.
But, when it doesn’t work… it’s ugly. Philadelphia’s 2011 signing of CB Nnamdi Asomugha to a 5-year, $60M deal comes to mind (remember, the cap back in 2011 was much lower than it is today, so that was a big number.) When it doesn’t work, you still have the problem you had before, but now you have a lot of money tied up in an unproductive player, as it appears the Texans have now with QB Brock Osweiler.
One of the biggest factors leading to busts in free agency is overly aggressive projection. It’s extremely risky to look at a player who broke out on another team and draw the conclusion that not only will they continue to improve, but they will do so potentially in a different system than the one they enjoyed success in the first place.
GMs must also be cognizant of where their teams stand in the big picture as they approach free agency. Are they one or two pieces away from contending for a championship? If so, perhaps a prudent big name will make the difference. The Patriots are about to sign CB Stephon Gilmore to a very lucrative contract that might not make sense for a team not in their rather enviable position. A team that is just building might be better-served to add younger players on the upswing for more modest prices in free agency.
“Let the buyer beware” absolutely applies in NFL free agency. The excitement of a plum signing can quickly fade if a player doesn’t succeed, and a contract can look very different a couple of years in than it does before the ink dries.
NFL teams don’t “win” in free agency. That’s what the games are for. Free agency, exciting as it is, is only one important step in the grander scheme of building a powerhouse NFL roster.
A Final Note
One of the lead stories of the 2017 free agency period, unfortunately, is the absence of Redskins’ GM Scott McCloughan. His past personal issues while in San Francisco and Seattle have been well-documented, and we won’t get into them here, nor are we making any assumptions as to the reasons for his absence.
That said, while I’ve never met him personally, but all accounts are that he’s a good guy. Here’s hoping that everything works out for him. The Redskins will have to deal with it, but hopefully they have their organizational structure, philosophy, and strategy in place to maintain consistency and keep their young and improving team on track.