Spotting some early free agency trends
How will teams respond to having more money to spend this offseason? John Clayton previews a new era of free agency.
A $109 million salary cap gives general managers and coaches spending riches beyond belief. For most teams with $20 million to $30 million of salary cap room, it's a cap that isn't a cap.
In fact, there's actually more money to spend than there are players to spend it on. Will teams be excessive or frugal? History teaches us coaches and general managers always spend owners' money. Baseball's latest free agency period proved that. Pitchers considered third or fourth in rotations watched their salaries jump to $10 million a year or more.
What will be the trends in the NFL this offseason?
1. Waiting for a better wave: Watch for the top teams to skip free agency's expensive first wave. The Colts, Patriots, Bengals, Chargers, Eagles, Ravens, Panthers and others probably will sit out the big spending. Their money will go into re-signings. Fans might be antsy if their home teams don't go big into free agency, but spending in free agency doesn't necessary translate into victories. The Colts won a Super Bowl by adding only kicker Adam Vinatieri, who signed for $2.4 million a year. The Chargers added only safety Marlon McCree and backup tight end Aaron Shea and won 14 games. The Patriots went to the AFC Championship Game and their net gain out of free agency was Reche Caldwell, who made $900,000 last year.
2. No time to waste: The big spending will go quickly. Expect most of the top players to be signed between March 2 and March 9. Already, agents for top players are getting feelers from teams. With most positions being only two to four players deep, agents for those players are being recruited. Meetings at next week's combine in Indianapolis already are being booked. Top interior linemen will get close to $6 million a year. Top corners could go between $7 million and $8 million a year. Top defensive ends should easily get $7 million. The key for all teams is identifying the top group and not slipping average players into the top pay scale.
3. More teams playing tag? With those prices in mind, more teams will use the franchise tag. It's better to keep an unhappy franchise player for a year than lose him to free agency. The Bengals were the first team to give the franchise tag by keeping defensive end Justin Smith. Defensive end Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis), cornerback Asante Samuel (New England), kicker Josh Brown (Seattle), linebacker Lance Briggs (Chicago), defensive end Charles Grant (New Orleans) and defensive tackle Cory Redding (Detroit) are the main candidates. I'd be surprised if the Ravens didn't franchise linebacker Adalius Thomas. Players don't like the franchise tag. If a long-term deal isn't reached by March 15, the player usually holds out until the start of the regular season or works out a deal to report in time by not being tagged the next year. In this market, though, there is no way to replace a top player at a position cheaply. It's cheaper to keep a player for a year than lose him if no deal can be worked out.
4. Trades becoming the trend? If teams are less active in free agency, they might be more active in the trade market. We saw that last year. Trades escalated slightly, and a rule change helped matters. After June 1, teams that trade players have to account for only the existing signing bonus proration in the cap. Excess proration would count the next season. Teams close to the salary cap have an easier ability to make a trade. But with teams having so much cap room, teams will be more willing to take all the cap hits now. The Saints did a great job with that last year. They made numerous trades. Even though they have $9 million of dead money in 2007, they have $21 million of cap room. Usually third-year players heading toward the end of their rookie contracts are the most likely to be traded if they aren't starting for the team that drafted them. Financially, a lot of the traded players are considered bargains, and if they have multiple years left on their contracts, they are truly bargains.
5. New coaches must proceed with caution:It will be interesting watching the seven teams with new head coaches. Normally, new head coaches change between 20 and 30 players during the first year on the job. In this market, it's dangerous to make that many changes. The replacement player might not be as good as the departed player, so head coaches have to be cautious in bringing in their own players.
6. Niners on the prowl: The team to watch in free agency is the 49ers. They have $37 million of cap room and the desire to get better on defense. Expect them to sign two top defensive players.
7. Different approach for Redskins' Snyder? Even though this would be Dan Snyder's type of market, watch for a change in the Redskins' strategy. Snyder and Joe Gibbs are starting to realize the dangers of free agency. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and safety Adam Archuleta didn't work out last year. Plus, it's becoming harder and harder to get players in the restricted free agency market. The Redskins will be shopping their first-round pick at the combine with the idea of moving down and getting more draft picks. They will dabble in free agency but not as aggressively as in the past.
8. New premium positions: The biggest change in free agency is how priorities will change in the new era of new money. The cap is $109 million this year and expected to go up $7 million a year over the next couple of seasons. Free agency has taught us the prime money positions are quarterback, cornerback, wide receiver, defensive end and left tackle. The positions devalued have been guard, safety, fullback and tight end. Because teams don't like to overpay guards and safeties, those will be the positions of impact -- believe it or not -- in this new era of free agency. Guard Steve Hutchinson got $7 million to go to Minnesota. Eric Steinbach of the Bengals, Kris Dielman of the Chargers and Derrick Dockery of the Redskins are considered guards who could have an impact on an offensive line. Also watch for centers Andre Gurode (Cowboys) and Shaun O'Hara (Giants) to stay with their teams for around $4 million a year in deals that could get done in the next two weeks.
9. RBs sharing the wealth: This running back market is a little bit funky. Most of the free-agent backs -- Dominic Rhodes of the Colts, Chris Brown of the Titans, LaBrandon Toefield of the Jaguars, Correll Buckhalter of the Eagles and T.J. Duckett of the Redskins -- haven't convinced teams they are good enough to be feature backs. But these are valuable 1-A type of backs who fit the trend of going to a shared backfield. Their costs will set the market for how two-back offenses can operate financially. The Ravens also are expected to cut Jamal Lewis, and his market will be interesting to watch. Ahman Green probably will re-sign with the Packers.
10. Few big catches: It's not a star-studded receiver market. The Lions are expected to go after Rams receiver Kevin Curtis after giving Mike Furrey a three-year, $9.25 million contract. The Titans don't want to lose wide receiver Drew Bennett, but he's a deceptive possession receiver who will draw a lot of interest. For speed, there are Ashley Lelie of the Falcons and Donte' Stallworth of the Eagles.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.