Free Agency Reminds us the NFL is a Young Man's Game

Today is March 11th, 2014, and two major events are merging in a semi-perfect storm.

First, it's the opening of free agency in the NFL. Names will be flying off the list to new teams while others wait. It's only a little bit like draft day because here, it's the "rich" that get what they want, and sometimes what they hadn't bargained for good or bad, and not in reverse order of their finish in the standings.

Oh - the other major event is that it's my 47th birthday. For you fans, your present is the wonderment of the wire whisk churning up league rosters. Good luck trying to keep track of it, even when the season starts. It's hard enough for us who are actually playing close attention to keep up, so my gift to you fans today is chaos.
Welcome to my life!

Every season, the names change but the basics stay the same, pretty much. No, there's no Peyton Manning free agency tour. No "surprise" visits from GMs...Manning doesn't like surprises and, in fact, didn't bother to meet with Pete Carroll on his "surprise" plane trip and visit two years ago.

Really makes you wonder how history might be different if Manning had become a Seahawk. Would that have guaranteed a Broncos' victory last month? I know. Ouch!

The now not-so-new CBA is in its third year as incoming rookies all get paid based solely on their draft position and not the Sam Bradford-style megacontracts that made no sense at all to pay to kids often not old enough to legally drink, but supposedly could be trusted to actually TRY to work after being guaranteed an eight-figure income.

Talk about a recipe for disaster...

No, the CBA has saved the NFL from itself. No longer do guys barely out of college - literally - make ten times the money grizzled veterans with 10 years of experience, sweat equity, blood, and likely multiple surgeries do.

That's all good for the overall psychology of the league and individual team chemistry, but it has also had a very predictable, if somewhat unintended, effect.

Demand for younger players has increased greatly. All else being equal, why invest in a bunch of proven 30 year olds and pay them double or triple what a younger incoming rookie will make? A rookie who is forced to play for you for four years at a salary known to all parties before the draft picks are even made sure helps the bottom line, and you get two or three (or even more) for the price of one veteran. Less "wear and tear" on the younger players; faster recovery and healing time - all the advantages of youth.

Since the average NFL career is still measured in months instead of decades and it's pretty common knowledge that skills at most positions tend to start to decline when a player hits that magic "30" age, the upside of getting younger becomes evident.

It's strange, but often in the world of economics and "state control" over any given economy, there IS that "Law of Unintended Consequences." We're seeing it now as people who had medical insurance and were happy with the coverage and premiums are being forced out of it and into this Obamacare debacle.

The analogy is a parallel one. In the NFL, the idea was to give rookies less money so that veterans who have earned their stripes could get paid more. So what went wrong?


Owners want the best of both worlds - they want cheap young labor as opposed to older, more experienced, and more expensive labor. In short, if you're not THE KEY GUY on your team's offense or defense, you're expendable.

The Carolina Panthers are feeling it right now with the outrage over Steve Smith's situation, but other teams are seeing it or have already seen it. Tampa Bay is looking to dump Darrelle Revis and his million-per-game contract. Chicago desperately wants out from under Julius Peppers and his $18 million contract. And every season we see veterans that still have "something left" but no upside remaining to give, and popular players at the same time, getting the boot.

Case in point last year - the Atlanta Falcons let DE John Abraham go even though they had little else as far as pass rushers went. They wound up making a risky move in signing Osi Umenyiora, who didn't live up to his billing.

If you're 30 or over but can still play and find yourself a free agent, you're probably not going to command the money you once did. Money and skills on the decline are usually the deadly combo that sends players into free agency with a few exceptions.

Without getting into the nuts and bolts of things, Greg Hardy is a prime example of "what a difference a few years makes."

He was a sixth-round pick, worked his way into the starting lineup, and his statistical output has increased each of his four seasons. Were he to have hit free agency, he would have been the most sought-after one BY FAR....but he'd be a huge exception. Why?

He's young at 26. He's shown by his play on the field that he's getting better with experience. A cash-strapped team (the Carolina Panthers) ponied up the cash to give him the "franchise" tag, meaning he'll make the average of the top-5 paid players at his position or about $11.3 million in 2014, but only for that one year.

He is a player that would have been signed to a long-term deal if the team's finances were in better shape. That's been covered, so I won't beat that up here. However, interestingly enough, a long-term contract would have softened Hardy's cap footprint for 2014 with the shenanigans in accounting they can pull to cut/defer/not count some of that money towards the salary cap.

David Gettleman decided not to do that - perhaps because of time constraints, but it is what it is for now.

Many of the free agents on the market this year come with big questions. Former NY Giant WR Hakeem Nicks has as much talent as about anyone but he can't stay healthy. Former Bronco wideout Eric Decker will likely be overpaid by whoever gets him, and he'll be a #2 WR probably forced into a #1 WR role, and that rarely works.

Look at Greg Jennings and his year in Minnesota - although poor QB play didn't help....and he had hit that 30 year old mark.

Michael Vick of Philly will probably look for a new team - and a reduced role. He's not the player he used to be pre-dog-years and is a turnover and a pulled hamstring away from a 6-week stint on the injury list.

The same Atlanta Falcons that gave up Abraham for Osi also traded older RBs when they released Michael Turner to pick up Steven Jackson. He didn't work out so well either.

It looks like there's risk on both sides, then. Pick up a veteran and his decline could begin in his first year with the new team. Pick up a youngster, and he may never reach his potential.

What's the difference?

Once again - follow the money.

Rookies cost a fraction of veterans - which was a direct result of the CBA - but with ANY new player - young or old - there is a certain risk. Maybe he doesn't fit the scheme as well as he might. Maybe skills decline. Perhaps he's not a fit for the locker room. The biggest risk for rookies is probably the unknown factor in general and maturity level....but then there's not the "declining skill" issue.

All else being equal, teams are willing to spend less money for younger, less experienced players but knowing those same players don't have all the dings and pings those battle-scarred veterans have.

Since cash is king, younger players have wound up being even MORE sought-after than ever.

Oh - there's one other reason "big" free agents often go to also-ran teams. The best NFL franchises have the biggest chunks of their rosters acquired through the draft or as a UFA after the draft as rookies...for instance, Gettleman was with the Giants when they found an undrafted WR you may have heard of.

His name is Victor Cruz.

The best teams build from within, controlling costs and evening talent out across positions as the higher-ups continually attempt to master, yet never do quite fully succeed, at mixing and balancing the outgoing, older, higher-priced and more developed talent while keeping a good influx of young, cheaper and healthier players while using free agency to help supplement their core talent.

It's those also-rans that go looking for their star players in the FA market.

Want another illustration? Mike Wallance and the Miami Dolphins. Need I REALLY say more? They paid through the nose for him, didn't improve their offensive line, and "BullyGate" got rid of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. They weren't willing to come to terms with the Chiefs in draft pick compensation for Branden Albert, but will very likely sign him this year out of desperation, need, and to help keep Ryan Tannehill upright.

Maybe this year, Tannehill will actually be able to throw the ball to Wallace. Time will tell.

Perhaps you may want to look at the teams with the MOST money to spend this offseason. None of the top five were playoff teams last year and have been among the worst teams in the NFL over the past decade or so.

Cleveland, the Jets, Oakland, Jacksonville, and Minnesota are those top-five cap-friendly teams. Coincidence? I think NOT!

Cap issues or not, Gettleman is looking to build through the draft. It's also no coincidence the New England Patriots had been known to horde draft picks while being a perennial playoff team. The two things are not a coincidence.

Of course, you actually have to HIT on most of those picks, unlike say the Cleveland Browns drafting the overly underwhelming and overhyped RB from Alabama, Trent Richardson, while suckering the Colts into giving up their first-round pick in return.

In effect, they gave up a #3 overall for Indy's late first this year, while the Browns figured out Richardson is indeed an average at BEST RB. Poor drafting is part of the issue, and guess what - many of the teams active in free agency are those teams that draft poorly.

That should make logical sense...they've gotta get their talent from someplace if they aren't from the draft - right?

While a free agent gets a new lease on life and actually gets better is rare, it's not so rare to draft a kid in the top few rounds and get a very good starter for at least the next four years...until his rookie capped contract runs out and he can go out and make real money, that is. And the team that developed him could let him just go and consider the time spent there a bargain for the price paid for him.

What's the worst case there? They lose a talented, budding star but go back in the draft to replace him...perhaps even with the compensatory pick(s) they get from the team that signs him. If your organization can draft well, everything points to success. It's that simple.

However, it's a trick you can't miss on much at all and expect to be in the playoffs every year. Along with that CBA/rookie wage scale, the scouting department can now even more so make or break a franchise. As long as they can find the talent and the talent they need is there to be had cheaply in the draft, they'll continue to have a leg up on other teams.

Here's the "rub:" Before the current CBA when you went into free agency, you gave up (compensatory) draft picks. Today, you give up draft picks AND cap room. That's the flip side that people don't really think about but is right there for all to see.

That's why a guy like TE Jimmy Graham isn't going anyplace - the price is TWO first-round draft picks for him. As NFL Network's Charlie Casserly says, the idea is if you grab him, you're giving up very, very late first-round picks because you plan on being in the Super Bowl or a perennial playoff contender at least, so THAT "hit" isn't quite so bad considering the player you are getting and have a lot more data on. However, if things don't work out and you draft say before 20th or so, you really set your team back several years at least. Huge gamble.

Is it any wonder that Carolina has risen in the Rivera Era after all? With their top picks being Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, and Star Lotulelei the past three seasons, I'd say the Panthers are on the right track.

Gettleman and Rivera have worked together to make the Panthers into the team they are today. Imperfect, yes....needy in a few areas still? Absolutely. But the core pieces are there.

As we've seen, the NFL rerally IS a young man's game. Maurice Jones-Drew is talked about as being washed age 28 or 29. The New England Patriots have most of their starters on defense over the age of 30 and need to get a lot younger. Can they do that AND stockpile draft picks? Time to put up or shut up and start fleshing out the 2014 roster...and each of the 32 teams better have several contingency plans in place.

Abby Hoffman had it right - never trust anyone over 30.

Now, the real work begins.