Worst NFL free-agent pool ever won't stop desperate teams from diving in wallets first
Why so few impact free agents? Smart teams are drafting well and locking up their good young players
NFL free agency is fool's gold. Always has been. Always will be.
Now more than ever. Forever and forever.
I've been singing this chorus and preaching this sermon for roughly a decade now, and nothing has changed. Except, well, the free-agency classes grow shallower and shallower. The number of true impact players available plummets and plummets. The number of ill-advised contracts grows steeper and steeper. The chasm between the supply of truly significant players on the open market vs. the demand for such players grows deeper and deeper.
When it comes to team building, you can say your prayers and swallow your vitamins and eat your Wheaties and hold your nose and write those massive checks, but in the NFL, less than nothing is guaranteed (not even the contracts). And the plight of the would-be big spender is getting only more bleak.
Year after year, I feel as if I proclaim that this is, unequivocally, the weakest free-agent class ever, and year after year I am proven wrong. Because there is always another pot of would-bes, could-bes, never-weres and maybes who prove me wrong and show that they are actually less efficient and valuable than the free-agent class that proceeded them.
So why should this year be any different? Well, let me give you a heads-up: This year won't be any different.
In fact, with the salary cap now rising at a rapid rate and about to jump roughly $15 million, and with all teams now forced to spend at least 89 percent of the cap, and with this collective-bargaining agreement no longer sneaking up on anyone, and with the franchise and transition tags still in place, and with rookie-contract wages now so concrete and finite that players on their first deals are steals ... well, the rules (through incentives) encourage extending your own young players now more than ever.
The best players get new deals after their third or fourth years (as will be the case with guys like Odell Beckham Jr. this offseason), and the also-ran teams are left to pick through the leftovers of the weaker drafting teams.
Welcome to Darwinism, NFL style.
There are no more adjustments to be made regarding how this CBA operates. Everyone is five years into these rules now and understands exactly how the various workplace stipulations function. There is no excuse for losing premier talent to free agency, by and large, unless your roster is truly overwhelmed with young studs, and even then if you are as proactive as you should be in identifying your top candidates for extensions, then you will still prosper under this CBA.
Therefore, before we look forward, let us all look back.
The heaviest spender in free agency in 2016, Giants GM Jerry Reese, kept his job by pouring hundreds of millions of free-agent dollars into his roster, but he had no 2016 playoff victories to show for it, and still has many holes to fill. Of the final remaining playoff teams, the Super Bowl champion Patriots signed restricted free-agent receiver Chris Hogan -- whom Buffalo could have kept had they spent a few hundred thousand more to put a second-round tender on -- and Chris Long, who was cut by the inept Rams. The Steelers did basically nothing, as usual, and the Packers re-signed a few of their players. The Falcons signed a new center (Alex Mack) and a possession receiver in Mohamed Sanu. But the teams most often involved in the final two weekends of NFL football (New England, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Green Bay) basically eschew free agency and focus on retaining their own.
By the time late February arrives, and players like Le'Veon Bell of Pittsburgh, Kirk Cousins of Washington, Chandler Jones of Arizona, Dont'a Hightower of New England, Terrelle Pryor of Cleveland, Kawann Short of Carolina, A.J. Bouye of Houston, Dontari Poe and/or Eric Berry of Kansas City are all off the market with the franchise tag or new deals, this already bereft market of impact players will look even more challenged than it does now.
Which explains why desperate teams go to desperate measures, and why guys like Brock Osweiler get $37 million guaranteed, and why malfunctioning owners will be chasing around another group of lacking free agents with open checkbooks and damning smiles again this March.
Don't get me wrong here -- this crop of players stinks even if it weren't getting cherry picked by the teams that currently hold these players' rights. But after the fact, it will be the least exciting free-agent class since the mid-1990s. It's downright perilous once you factor in the top talent that clearly will not be leaving its existing team. This is like trolling for guppies, by and large, which is why stalwarts like Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang and linebacker Nick Perry -- while not exactly household names -- are in line for some of the biggest paydays of 2017. And the Cardinals -- who will keep Jones, undoubtedly, but could lose defensive lineman Calais Campbell and defensive back Tony Jefferson -- stand to lose the most of any team in the NFL as others chase their players in earnest.
As always, teams will be spending big money and crossing their fingers.
Can Jason Pierre-Paul get it done on a long-term deal in the aftermath of his 2015 fireworks disaster? Does DeMarcus Ware have anything left in the tank despite empirical evidence he probably does not? (Ditto for Julius Peppers.) But considering how few pass rushers are ever available on the open market, and the steep price the Giants paid for the rare young one who pops free (Olivier Vernon a year ago), you know someone will bid high for their services.
Can Alshon Jeffery stay healthy over any real period of time? Are DeSean Jackson's bouts of selfishness enough to counter his ability to break a game open with an 80-yard bomb at a moment's notice? Is there a team out there that somehow opted not to watch the film of Adrian Peterson's last eight games before he got hurt this season -- it's painful, and he gained only 2.5 yards per carry -- who then decides to spend more than like $3 million guaranteed to sign him? (Yeah, there will be, this league is nothing if not inefficient).
Someone will break the bank for Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, feeling like he will be the true pass rushing ace of this uber-limited class over time. Another team will figure Dre Kirkpatrick will live up to his pre-draft billing once he leaves Cincinnati (probably not). If the Bengals let Kevin Zeitler hit the market, he will cash in, but the team that signs him had best already have a competitive line in place given the position he plays, and, again ... well, those truly top-echelon teams abstain from big free-agent deals for players not already homegrown. And if you are looking for a young receiver with a pedigree to suggest he could do anything at the NFL level at all, you are left with hopes and scraps after Pryor (whom the Browns have no excuse not to franchise even though they drafted five receivers a year ago).
As far as edge players, maybe you kid yourself into thinking Dion Jordan can stay off the league's perpetually suspended list (and that he can actually play), or that Charles Johnson has much left at age 30. Personally, I would rather take a chance that Lorenzo Alexander -- an exemplary human being and longtime special-teams stalwart who emerged as a pass rushing beast for the Bills in 2016 -- can duplicate his improbable breakout. If you are looking for a corner who can actually cover, you had better go all out to sign the Rams' Trumaine Johnson the way the Giants signed former Rams corner Janoris Jenkins a year ago, because the class of corners is ridiculously weak beyond him and Bouye.
Frankly, this is without a doubt the most suspect, unproven, and most likely inept group of free agents I have seen since the post-Plan-B free-agency era, and it might not even be close. Yeah, some team will do very well with under-the-radar finds like Rams running back/return specialist Benny Cunningham and Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but that's not exactly the kind of "sexy" signings that get fans churning and get the message boards humming.
But particularly in times like these, those are the very players I would be approaching, as there are far more misses than hits lurking out there in the free-agent waters in 2017, and beyond. So avoid this plague, do the right thing, and pray to the NFL gods that your general manager doesn't get lurked into thinking there is some quick fix out there in 2017. Because there is not.
Explore trades whenever possible. Look for bargains and fits on the waiver wire. And stay away from the first week of free agency, because the risks invariably outweigh the rewards.
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