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The NFL Free Agent Market Seems Crazy; It's Actually Just Broken

Everybody going on about how inflated contracts are in free agency is forgetting the fact that the market is rigged.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Let's set the scene for the opening day of NFL free agency. The basic reaction to most signings will be something like:

"This is too expensive."

"Why would you pay a running back this kind of money?"

"Isn't this just duplicating our strengths?"

"Isn't $13 million a year too much for a quarterback with no history of NFL success?"

But the game beyond the game here is a little more complex. NFL free agency comes with an inherent selection bias. Because the franchise tag has stayed reasonable, and because NFL teams can shift around cap numbers whenever they'd like, truly great players rarely hit free agency.


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When they do get there, they get there because they're injured, or the team that had them had concerns about their play moving forward. It's the reason why "top upcoming free agents" lists in the NFL are completely useless in January. Six of the top seven guys on a list from drew the franchise tag. Eight of ten drew some sort of tag, including Olivier Vernon's transition tag. There was never a prayer that Von Miller would hit unrestricted free agency. Kirk Cousins wasn't allowed to hit free agency—and I think there's still reason to doubt he's a good quarterback. The only reason Ndamukong Suh was allowed to walk last year was because it was almost impossible for the Lions to tag him up further with his contract.

At the same time, talent-poor teams are stuck. The NFL salary cap works against everybody but the top tier of free agents. (Although several bad-to-mediocre players have managed to masquerade as top-tier free agents.) Teams that are good have a built-in helping hand in keeping their own free agents because the money you get for leaving usually isn't that much better. It's how the Packers got Randall Cobb to leave money on the table. It's how, this year, the Panthers were able to bring Charles Johnson back after they released him. It's not only the money, it's also the opportunity. Playing on a good unit or team can increase long-term earning power by making the player's stats and tape look better. A receiver may make $2 million a year more to watch Ty Detmer bounce passes at his feet, but after that he's not a top guy. And, for injured players—and every NFL player is injured to some extent—continuity with a training staff can go a long way.


This man will gladly take your money. Photo: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports.

Additionally, in a league where everything is "Not For Long," it's rare to sign a free agent from another team and expect him to be an above-average four-year starter. Players get hurt. Free agents who enter the market at 26 lose steps by 29. For every Johnathan Joseph success story, there are four Nnamdi Asmoughas and O.J. Atogwes.

So I think the proper way to look at free agency for talent-poor teams is as a short-term talent market. The money is irrelevant. Yes, you heard me, for cap-space flush teams, the contract amount is about as meaningful as points on Whose Line Is It Anyway?

Take the rumored acquisition of Malik Jackson by Jacksonville. In practice, there's no way Jackson is "worth" $85 million in a fair NFL.

Malik Jackson: $85.5M, $10M sign bonus, $42M gted, salaries $8M (gtd), $13.5M (gtd), $14.5M (gtd injury at signing), $13M, $13.75M, $13.75M

— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL)March 9, 2016

But Jackson is probably the most talented free agent available this offseason. Had Denver not had Miller, Jackson would've been a strong candidate to be franchised. The Jaguars had to pay Jackson an appreciable amount more than Denver would have to reel him in. And it doesn't actually matter, because the Jaguars have been operating a cap-space deficit for years. They have to hit a salary floor. It may be real money for Jackson, but it's more like Monopoly money for the Jags. They would have to spend it either way.


Look, over the next few days, you're going to be tempted to balk at some contract figures. For teams that are close to the cap, it makes some sense to scrutinize big contracts. Those teams are paying for performance improvements on a short-term basis, but can still get bit on the back end of a deal.

But for a team like Jacksonville, or for Oakland reportedly bringing in Kelechi Osemele, the money doesn't even begin to matter.

Kelechi Osemele gets $25.4M fully guaranteed on his 5-year, $58.5M deal with — Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero)March 9, 2016

For talent-poor, cap-space-laden teams, there's little incentive to be rational actors when it comes to players' perceived value around the league. They can either improve a position or not. They can either spend the money on the few good players out there or spread it around a bunch of one-year deals.

Is it awkward for the good-but-not excellent class of free agency to make most of the money in the NFL? Absolutely. But this is a natural outgrowth of the system the NFL—and, in fairness, the players' union that negotiated and agreed to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement—has created. When you cut the field of difference-making players and increase the dollars available, it's only natural that most of the money goes to the few who actually make it to free agency.