While you and I were paying the rent or mortgage, well-compensated men in suits were putting the NFL’s newfound revenue and salary cap space to good, and not so good, use. With a month gone and almost all of the premier free agents off the market, this is as good a time as any to count our blessings and recount the lessons forgotten every new league year.
We learned it’s great to be under 30 and talented. Regardless of why you’re a free agent – usually because of contract, injury or attitude concerns – there will almost always be a GM suckered by your athleticism, past accolades or statistics earned in an environment completely different than the one you’re about to enter. Got a Pro Bowl or two on your Pro-Football-Reference page? How about a double-digit touchdown or interception campaign? Welcome to the winner’s circle, son. Here’s $20 million (guaranteed for skill and injury, of course) for your time and energy on someone else's team.
It’s even better if you’re a cornerback or offensive tackle. The NCAA factory can’t turn those out fast enough.
As soon as Rodger Saffold, Brandon Albert, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis hit the market, it was every GM for himself. Never mind the fact that Saffold couldn’t stay on the field in recent years, nor the fact that the Chiefs desperately tried to dump Albert last offseason. Pay the man! And pay him handsomely! Let’s forget that only a year and a half ago, Talib nearly shot himself out of the league (literally) and then spent the second half of the 2013 season limping with a hip injury that he swears wasn’t real. And Revis … well, you know.
It’s a great time to be a free agent in the NFL. It’s always a great time to be a free agent in the NFL. Aging pass-rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen can command eight- and seven-figure paydays, respectively, while Michael Johnson and Everson Griffen, both members of the talented-and-under-30 club, can command even more based partly on the promise of youth.
And let’s not forget the NFL’s new glamour position.
Damn, it feels good to be a safety.
Did you see what T.J. Ward and even Donte Whitner pulled down this spring? I love me a big-hitting safety, but man that’s a lot of cheddar for a pair of guys who spend way more time in the box than they do backpedaling.
And let’s thank the Saints for reminding us of free agency’s biggest lesson – and greatest annual lie – salary cap space is as big or as small as you make it. Despite having among the least money to spend, New Orleans blew it out the box for Jairus Byrd (and all four ways to pronounce his name). The Byrd deal – and subsequent roster maneuverings by Mickey Loomis – proved what we fans and pundits always seem to forget by early March. Unless you’re the Cowboys, the salary cap isn’t a strict stop sign. It’s a fungible number that you can dance around and get creative with. If you have a player willing to play ball, you can fudge the numbers however you’d like to get that first year under the cap. Future years? Worry about when the TV money kicks in and the cap continues to rise under the previously-limiting CBA. And if that fails, restructure. You can always restructure. When the bill comes due, if you don’t have a ring to show for it, it’ll be probably be someone else’s problem anyway.
The truth is, free agency is a deep, deep body of water and the worst GMs get sucked in and never get out. The goods ones realize it’s best to dip your feet in ever-so-rarely. And the great ones usually spend most of free agency fishing on a yacht, lighting cigars with the $100 bills they didn’t give to the cornerback with attitude problems who was only going to the highest bidder anyway.
Those guys, the GMs who build teams that compete year-in and year-out, expend their resources, both financial and organizational, on cheap, controllable talent, mostly in the draft. They reward their own and create a sustainable culture instead of playing – and paying – for a three-year window.
I’m not sure if John Idzik is a great one. I don’t even know if he’s a good one. To be honest, we probably won’t know if he’s a bad one until it’s time to look for the next one. But I do know he’s a student of the game and he's got enough self-control to stick to the plan.
And if I’ve learned anything over the past 30 days? That’s the best thing your general manager can be.