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How to Spend Smart in NFL Free Agency

There’s still value to be had in a market with soaring price tags. The key is targeting specific positions — and skill sets.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

If the initial wave of NFL free-agent agreements is any indication, there likely won’t be many bargains in this offseason’s market. The expanding salary cap has left the league flush with cash, and given that more than half of the teams entered the “legal tampering” period with at least $20 million in available cap space, the price tags for some players are getting out of hand in a hurry.

As is the case in most years, teams that sit back and wait in free agency should be able to find value in the middle tiers. But that, too, is growing complicated with so many franchises having piles of money to spend. For front-office types seeking to get the most bang for their buck, the key to navigating a pricey landscape could be as much about targeting the right spots on the depth chart as it is about targeting the right guys.

Ronald Leary (Getty Images)
Ronald Leary (Getty Images)

A position that should set off a flurry of spending over the course of the next few days — and that provides an interesting window into the trends of the past few years — is offensive guard. As many as four of them (T.J. Lang, Kevin Zeitler, Larry Warford, and Ronald Leary) could secure deals worth at least $8 million per season, meaning that each should come away with a contract near the top of the market at the position. All four boast impressive résumés, and they should be helped by the fact that teams that have shelled out similar deals to free-agent guards in recent years have been rewarded.

Last March, Kelechi Osemele (Raiders) and Brandon Brooks (Eagles) both cashed in during free agency. Osemele’s deal (five years for $58.5 million, with $25.4 million guaranteed) set a new bar for the position, while Brooks got a five-year, $40 million deal that’s nearly identical to the one the Cardinals gave Mike Iupati in 2015. Osemele and Brooks were excellent for their respective teams during the first year of their contracts, and although Iupati is more limited, he’s been worth his sticker price for Arizona throughout the majority of his two seasons there.

In the draft and free agency, guard is a position that’s historically been marginalized. It’s been rare to see one taken very high in the first round (in the past 10 years, four have gone in the first 16 picks, compared with 26 offensive tackles) or paid huge dollars on the open market, as the mind-set around the league has been that offensive linemen who don’t have to deal with game-wrecking edge rushers are relatively easy to find. As the league has changed, though, that line of thinking — and the corresponding price for interior offensive linemen — has begun to change with it. With so many defenses moving stud pass rushers inside in nickel situations, and with interior defensive linemen like Miami’s Ndamukong Suh and Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox getting deals that rival those of any edge rusher, the guys blocking them have become more important than ever. At most positions, complete players like Zeitler and promising 25-year-olds like Warford would never be allowed to hit free agency. But even as the going rate for guards has evolved, the way that teams clamor to retain them hasn’t.

That’s how guys with Osemele’s monster skill set hit the market, and the availability of stars like him isn’t the only reason that offensive linemen have been worthwhile investments of late. Iupati’s signing in 2015 marked the second year in a row that Arizona doled out big free-agent money for an offensive lineman. A year earlier, the Cardinals handed former Raiders left tackle Jared Veldheer a five-year, $35 million deal to protect quarterback Carson Palmer’s blind side. Veldheer was never going to be Joe Thomas or Tyron Smith, but he’s been a decidedly above-average option that left the offense with no reason to worry about a pivotal position along its line.

Tennessee made a similar move last offseason with the signing of former Texans center Ben Jones. Like left tackle had been for the Cardinals, center had turned into a wasteland for the Titans. Their inability to find an answer played a major role in torpedoing their entire offense. And while any team would love to land a stud in free agency, like the Falcons did by inking center Alex Mack, a steady option like Jones can often be enough. Jones signed a four-year deal worth $17.5 million; the Titans ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA in 2016 after finishing last the season before.

The importance of finding functional pieces to fill out an offensive line can’t be overemphasized. A team can operate with a void at one wide receiver spot or even at running back. Maintaining an efficient offense with a glaring hole (or two) along the line is different. That’s why center J.C. Tretter, the Packers backup last fall, should command a deal in the range of what Jones got. It’s also why a marriage between someone like Andrew Whitworth, the 35-year-old left tackle who has played for the Bengals his entire career, and the Vikings would appear to make so much sense. For Minnesota, finding even a temporary solution at that position should be far more attractive than relying on the nightmarish rotation it used last season.

Offensive linemen aren’t the only values to be found on the market, though, even one in which dollar figures are soaring to new heights. At several other positions, including wide receiver, the challenge for teams is determining which skill sets to target — and how much those skill sets are worth.

Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery is expected to be the most expensive pass catcher on the 2017 market. He stands 6-foot-3 and 218 pounds, but at times he seems even bigger. He’s a force on contested throws and a threat in high-leverage situations (on third downs and near the goal line), exactly the type of receiver who can make a quarterback look better than he is. Still, he has concerns. He’s missed 17 games in five NFL seasons, and even that number doesn’t fully speak to his overall health concerns. There have been plenty of stretches since 2012 during which he has played through injury, and his history of lower-body ailments should worry any team considering giving him top-of-the-market money.

DeSean Jackson (Getty Images)
DeSean Jackson (Getty Images)

Former Washington receiver DeSean Jackson is probably second on most free-agent wideout lists, with a likely asking price around $12 million per season. Jackson’s speed makes him a game-altering weapon capable of devastating a defense at any moment, but he also turns 31 in December and hasn’t caught more than 56 passes in a season since 2013. While Jackson’s brand of usefulness to an offense makes that statistic less worrisome than it would be for other wideouts, it also raises an interesting point: If Jackson’s value is largely derived from his ability to take the top off a defense, then maybe there’s a way for teams to add that element — albeit a lesser version of it — in a player without the profile or price tag.

The first name that comes to mind in that regard is Kenny Stills, who the Dolphins will re-sign to a four-year, $32 million deal. That may not be that much less than Jackson goes for, but Stills is also six years younger and about to enter the prime of his career. Recently cut Torrey Smith could be another option who will likely be available for less than Jackson and wouldn’t count against a team in the calculation for compensatory picks a season from now.

Every spring, it seems like there are also players near the bottom of the free-agent hierarchy who can fill clearly defined roles and contribute. Last season, we saw that with two receivers who played in the Super Bowl. The Patriots and Falcons found steals in down-the-field options Chris Hogan and Taylor Gabriel, who provided distinct elements to their respective offenses on deals that barely registered when they were signed.

As free agency ramps up, this type of approach — trying to find undervalued players with specific but limited abilities — is how teams can come away with moves that they love. Former Cowboys pass-catching back Lance Dunbar didn’t get much work last season with Ezekiel Elliott eating up most of the snaps, but he was a terror two years ago before tearing the ACL in his left knee. Dunbar won’t get mentioned alongside the other big-name running backs on the market, but he could be a difference-maker who’s available at a significantly cheaper price. The same can probably be said of Vikings slot corner Captain Munnerlyn. His defined role inside may diminish his appeal for a number of franchises, but given the way the game has changed, third cornerbacks have essentially become starters. If Munnerlyn can be had for $5 million per year with the majority of that deal being guaranteed in his age-29 and age-30 seasons, that’s roughly half the price of what guys like former Patriots corner Logan Ryan could get this offseason.

For every skill set worth seeking out, there’s also a skill set teams should be wary of in the coming days. This crop of free agents is full of big-bodied nose tackles who specialize in taking up space and stuffing the run. Dontari Poe, Brandon Williams, and Johnathan Hankins all fit this mold, and teams will be asked to decide just how much their type of talent is worth. There’s a chance that the deal the Giants gave Damon Harrison last offseason — five years with $24 million guaranteed — will only complicate the issue. Harrison is the league’s premier run-stuffing nose tackle, and he flashed as a pass rusher more often last season than he did at any point during his time with the Jets. If teams are going to fork over eight-digit salaries for Williams or Poe, they’ll pay more than what New York did to acquire a lesser player.

These are the sorts of conversations — and ultimately, decisions — that front offices will be forced to make. The robust cap landscape has set the stage for a free-agent frenzy, but whether it’s pursuing specific positions or chasing specific skill sets, there are still smart ways for teams to spend. The question is how much logic will matter with so much money floating around.