Show me the money!
That’s the rallying cry of NFL free agents. But the cruelties of the open market mean that many Rod Tidwells shouting “Show me the money!” instead get shown the door. NFL free agency, like the NFL itself, remains very much survival of the fittest.
The NFL free agency period begins at 4 p.m. Eastern today. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers jumped the gun on the start time by signing Cincinnati Bengals defense end Michael Johnson, who logged just 3.5 sacks in 2013, to a five-year, 43.75 million deal. Beginning Saturday, teams had three days to contact and negotiate with free agents. The Johnson deal can’t be announced until 4 p.m.
With just $24 million of that contract guaranteed, Johnson demonstrates how winners in one year’s free agency become cap casualties just a few seasons later. Several players who enjoyed eight-figure annual salaries when they awoke today will fall asleep unemployed.
Teams must be in compliance with the salary cap by that 4 p.m. free agency signing start, so look for high-profile cuts from the Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, and other teams flirting with that money mark. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware, scheduled to make a $12.25 million base salary from the cash-strapped Cowboys, Bucaneer Darrelle Revis, on the books for a $16 million salary, Carolina Panther mainstay receiver Steve Smith, and New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork, coming of season-ending surgery and one of the last remaining Patriots from their string of Super Bowl wins, appear as prime candidates for restructured deals or outright releases. The Texans, tight on money despite a league-worst 2-14 2013 campaign, released starting tight end Owen Daniels Tuesday afternoon.
The salary cap increases from $123 million in 2013 to $133 million for the upcoming season. Teams must remain comfortably below the salary cap at the beginning of the league year, which starts today, because they must budget for an entire class of rookie players not yet on the roster. Bad accounting and poor planning will keep several teams almost entirely out of the market for untethered players.
The free-agent class appears strong at running back. Marquee names available include Knowshon Moreno, LeGarrette Blount, Ben Tate, Darren McFadden, and the aging Maurice Jones-Drew. Slimmer pickings appear at receiver; free agents include Seattle’s Golden Tate, New England’s Julian Edelman, Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders, and Denver’s Eric Decker. Teams have succeeded in keeping number-one receivers, like starting quarterbacks, under contract. The prized player available on the offensive line, and perhaps in the entire free agent class, is Pro Bowl tackle Branden Albert, who earned a franchise tag from Kansas City last season. Reports out of Miami suggest that Albert will guard Ryan Tannenhill’s blindside this fall.
Defensive players who look to pique early and intense interest include pass rushers Jared Allen of the Vikings and Justin Tuck of the Giants, who, going by Johnson’s monster deal based on minor sack totals, seek to cash in on a seller’s market at defensive end. Cardinal Karlos Dansby at linebacker, and cornerbacks Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, look for big pay days.
Among the teams able to make runs at elite free agents because of comfortable cap space are the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Jets. Funds not used toward the salary cap in one season can carry over to expand the cap in the following season, which explains why some teams save and other splurge in particular years. Several playoff teams, such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Indianapolis Colts, also appear well positioned to add standout players.
Players shout “Show me the money!” Frustrated fans, in places like Buffalo and Cleveland and Tennessee, shout “Show me the talent!” Free agency remains as much a time for elite players to grab some cash as it is for struggling franchises to make a splash.