Trying to Make Sense of NFL Free Agency
What is happening in NFL free agency? Like with every free agency period, there are some head-scratchingly large contracts. There has been a shocking trend each year with teams giving long-term and high-money contracts to players who have had one good year (like the Raiders did with Trent Brown, making him the highest paid tackle in NFL history despite only one good year with the Patriots – a team known for grooming offensive linemen and a quarterback with a famously quick release) or even one good game (oh hey there, Matt Flynn, who got a three year, $26 million deal from the Seahawks before losing the starting job to 3rd-round pick Russell Wilson ). Linebacker C. J. Mosely, recently of the NFL-best defense of the Baltimore Ravens just signed with the Jets for five years and $85 million, with $51 million guaranteed. Yes, he signed for $17 million per year, which is more than Tom Brady ($15 million average annual value), Todd Gurley ($14.375 million AAV), or Julio Jones ($14, 251, 209 AAV)- all players who impact the game much more than any linebacker. Don’t get me started on what the quarterback market is like.
The top five highest-paid players in the NFL are quarterbacks, and that makes sense. No player is more influential or has more of an impact and therefore should be the highest paid. But the quarterbacks on the list make very little sense, with the exception of Aaron Rodgers who has a Super Bowl to his credit and makes an NFL-best $33.5 million. Matt Ryan has an MVP to his name, as well as the biggest collapse in a Super Bowl ever and makes $30 million per year. Kirk “4-25 against teams with a winning record” Cousins makes $28 million per year for the Vikings to continue to lose against good teams. Jimmy Garoppolo makes $27.5 million, and Matthew Stafford makes $27 million. None of those players, with the exception of Rodgers, leads his team to the playoffs year after year. Now I know that Jimmy G has a lot of experience with the Patriots, and he did win several games in a row which led to his massive contract, but is he worth how much he’s making based on just a few wins?
Free agency is out of control. Now I have no issue with good players making a lot of money- that’s what gets backsides in seats, jersey sales, and all the things that drive revenue for their respective teams. Giving an okay player a massive contract for an outlier season is just crazy. So many times we see it happen, especially with quarterbacks. That’s why you see players like Antonio Brown, who had zero guaranteed dollars left on his contract and wanted a new deal and a player like Le’Veon Bell, who wanted to be paid a fair market value based not only on his skill set, but also looking at what other players who aren’t as good as he is were making. Running backs in the NFL tend to have short careers, especially ones who are used as much as Bell, and he wants to be paid commensurate with what he can give, and for how long he can play at an elite level.
This is why, as infuriating as it is for me to say, that the Patriots have seen the continued success that they have. So many times they have gotten rid of a player, or allowed a player to test free agency. Many Patriot fans forget that Julian Edelman was allowed to test free agency, and only the Giants gave him a meeting, but he left without an offer and returned to New England. Edelman ranks 465th through 2018 among all NFL players after earning $26.5 million over ten years. Yes, the very same Julian Edelman who just passed Jerry Rice for most postseason receptions of all time as he garnered a Super Bowl MVP award has made less in his career than Kirk Cousins made this season. Think about that. They also tend to trade away players who seem to have a huge upside.
Do you remember after the 2014 season when Robert Kraft said that the Patriots couldn’t afford to bring back Darrelle Revis because they had to pay Jaime Collins, Chandler Jones and Donta Hightower? Patriots fans were so excited to have an elite defense to take the pressure of their aging quarterback. How did that work out? Hightower got a 4-year, $35.5 million deal. Jones was traded to Arizona and Collins was traded to Cleveland, where they both starred. Did it matter? Nope. Because they still had Tom Brady, who covers up a lot of deficiencies. Plus, they drafted Trey Flowers, who became a force. They just let him walk to old friend Matt Patricia and the Lions for $16-17 million per year. The Patriots brought in Michael Bennett through a trade with Philadelphia who is seven years older, and although he makes much less, he has already publicly stated that he wants a raise. Also, let it be known that Bennett has a pending court case for pushing a paraplegic woman at the Super Bowl a couple of years back while Flowers never said anything publicly- he just showed up and played, leading the team in sacks, QB pressures and forced fumbles and was especially good against the run. Will it matter? Probably not. They’ll cruise through the division like they always do because the division never seems to improve, win 12-13 games and get a bye week like they usually do.
So what is it that sets the Patriots apart from other teams when it comes to free agency that’s allowed them to have sustainable success for two decades or so? The obvious answer is that they make Tom Brady their highest-paid player, as he should be, but he also understands that to win you need talent, and talent costs money, and if he was making twice as much as anyone else, then there is less money available for other players. Aside from that, he (like most high-profile athletes) has so many endorsement deals that what he doesn’t make from his contracts he more than makes up for in shoe deals, book deals, etc. I’ve never understood why more players don’t do this. If players were really as concerned with winning as they say they are, you could easily put together a squad of superstars who were willing to put aside their egos and make a relatively moderate amount of money (compared to their contemporaries) and just put together a juggernaut of a team.
It’s never going to happen though. We’ll continue to see insane deals given to mediocre players, or players trying to outdo each other. “Oh Player X got $18 million per year? Well, I think I’m better than he is, so I want $18.5 million per year, that’ll show everyone.” While I understand that athletes can’t do what they do forever and I am on board with them trying to get as much as they can, it’s on the coaches, owners and general managers to be better at what they do when it comes to evaluating talent and handing out contracts. Perhaps if NFL teams actually honored the entire contracts that they handed out, instead of front-loading deals in order to be able to get out from under players they no longer deemed worthy of a place on the team, or necessary to the continued success of the franchise, we’d see more reasonable deals. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything ever changing, but I suppose time will tell.