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Five Takeaways From 2019 NFL Free Agency’s Early Flurry of Action

What happens when teams have a surplus of cap space and not enough quality players to spend it on?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL’s 2019 free-agency period started with a flourish, as teams spent big to land their quarterback of the future, to bolster the back end of their defense, and to reunite with a few familiar faces. Let’s break down the five biggest takeaways from the recent flurry of action.

1. The frenzied start to NFL free agency is what happens when the league has a surplus of salary cap space and not enough elite players to spend it on. Some of the contract figures that were agreed to Monday may have been staggering, but they shouldn’t have been all that surprising given the circumstances. After the cap rose by more than $10 million for the sixth straight year (to $188 million) in 2019, there was more than a billion dollars floating around the market. Combine that type of money with the fact that five teams used the franchise tag on defensive linemen, depleting an already weak free-agent class, and the result is the Raiders paying Trent Brown the largest per-year average ever handed to an offensive lineman (four years, $66 million with $36.8 million guaranteed).

Along with Brown, five other players either set or tied the all-time mark for average annual value at their position: safety Landon Collins ($14 million per year from Washington), safety Tyrann Mathieu ($14 million per year from Kansas City), right tackle Ja’Wuan James ($13 million per year from Denver), center Mitch Morse ($11.1 million per year from Buffalo), and inside linebacker Kwon Alexander ($13.5 million per year from San Francisco). Those numbers can be misleading depending on the guaranteed figures in each contract, but even if most of the guaranteed money is packed into the first two years of these deals, they still represent market-setting agreements made with players who, for the most part, aren’t considered the class of their respective positions.

Spending like this is an inevitability when teams get their hands on this type of money. Brown was available for the equivalent of a fourth-round pick last offseason, but the moment he proved that he could be a viable left tackle for the Patriots—at age 25, no less—he was almost certain to break the bank upon hitting the market. Paying this sort of premium for solid but unspectacular players has rarely been a sound strategy in the NFL, but the money has to go somewhere. While the most aggressive teams in the market may come to regret a few of the deals agreed to on Monday, we shouldn’t be entirely shocked that they happened.

2. Despite lacking many suitors, Nick Foles still commanded a monster four-year, $88 million deal to take over as the Jaguars starting quarterback. Jacksonville was considered the favorite to land Foles coming into free agency, but some analysts theorized that a dearth of quarterback-needy teams around the league could prevent the Super Bowl LII MVP from cashing in during negotiations. Welp, that wasn’t the case. The 30-year-old quarterback received a whopping $50 million guaranteed from the Jags, the seventh-highest figure among QB contracts.

Divisional Round - Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints
Nick Foles
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Foles’s payday led people to wonder which other teams might have also been bidding to drive the price up so high. NFL Network’s Mike Garofolo posited that Jacksonville’s significant financial commitment might have been a signal to the rest of the locker room that Foles was the front office’s unquestioned choice at quarterback going into 2019. Yet it feels like that could have been accomplished with a slightly more modest deal, as long as the Jags didn’t elect to also bring in a highly drafted rookie quarterback.

The difference between $4 million or $5 million per year and $10 million or so guaranteed over the first three years of a contract may feel like splitting hairs when it comes to a franchise quarterback, but the moves Jacksonville made to free up the cap space for Foles points to the choices that teams have to weigh in these situations. Starting right tackle Jermey Parnell was set to count for only $6 million against the cap in 2019. In a season when Ja’Wuan James is set to make twice that much with Denver, that would’ve been a bargain for a reliable presence at tackle (even as Parnell prepares to turn 33). Yet Jacksonville cut Parnell last week—along with starting safety Tashaun Gipson and defensive tackle Malik Jackson—creating another hole that the team has to fill this offseason. If Foles plays well and transforms the Jags offense, no one will be lament the loss of a solid right tackle. The Foles deal just serves as a reminder that free-agent spending only becomes a problem when it prevents franchises from using that money elsewhere and harming their roster in the process.

3. A year after safeties had a hard time finding money in free agency, the best players at the position got paid big. Both Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu broke the bank with market-setting deals for safeties, and new Raiders safety Lamarcus Joyner wasn’t far behind (four years, around $42 million). Earl Thomas will likely shatter the $14 million AAV number set by Collins and Mathieu, but he was expected to get a massive deal no matter how the rest of the market shook out. The level of interest and competition behind the future Hall of Famer was far less certain.

Most of the safeties in last year’s free-agent market (such as Mathieu, Tre Boston, Eric Reid, and Kenny Vaccaro) were forced to take one-year deals when demand at the position dried up. Boston—who signed a $1.5 million deal with Arizona in July—told me that the lack of interest at the position was the result of NFL teams conspiring to avoid paying Reid because of his connection to Colin Kaepernick. All the money spent on the position early in this free-agent cycle only seems to support that theory. If it truly was a matter of value, then NFL decision-makers changed their mind on an entire position group in remarkably short order.

4. The 49ers’ market-setting deal for Kwon Alexander showed once again that they’re willing to pay a premium for the players they covet. Over the first two years of general manager John Lynch’s tenure in San Francisco, the organization has made a habit of blowing the supposed market for certain players out of the water. The Niners’ deals for linebacker Malcolm Smith, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and running back Jerick McKinnon were all considerably larger than anything those players were expected to get in free agency. This deal for Alexander is no different.

For the most part, San Francisco’s cap management has prevented these deals from hampering the roster long-term. Team president Paraag Marathe boasts a strong reputation for the way he handles the cap, and nearly all of the Niners’ larger contracts have most of the guaranteed money packed into the first two years. Even Jimmy Garoppolo’s five-year, $137.5 million megadeal has just $4.2 million in dead money remaining on it after this season. Depending on how the $27 million guaranteed in Alexander’s deal is structured, the Niners should have the option to move on from him with virtually no penalty after the 2020 season. Considering the amount of cap space that San Francisco still has to work with (it started with more than $66 million in projected room), the deal shouldn’t hamstring the team if it wants to make other moves next offseason.

The more pressing concern for Lynch and his front office is that the Niners don’t seem to have a cohesive plan for how they want to build their roster. San Francisco cut 2017 first-round pick Reuben Foster last November after he was arrested and charged with one count of first-degree misdemeanor domestic violence. While that left the team with a hole at linebacker, paying Alexander more money per season than Luke Kuechly (even if it’s just over the next two seasons) doesn’t feel like the right way to fill it. The Niners are also desperate for outside pass-rushing help and need more talent on the back end of their defense. If Alexander’s contract negatively impacts the Niners’ chances of pursuing Earl Thomas, then it’s already limited their ability to improve the defense.

5. The Lions seem intent on building Patriots Midwest—there’s just one problem with that approach. Detroit was among the most aggressive teams on the first day of the legal tampering period. After signing recently released wide receiver Danny Amendola to a one-year deal worth up to $5.8 million, the Lions shelled out huge contracts for slot cornerback Justin Coleman (four years, $36 million) and edge rusher Trey Flowers (five years at an expected $17 million annually). All three players spent time with the Pats organization (Amendola and Flowers as established starters, Coleman as a practice squad player). Head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn also come from the Bill Belichick pipeline, and it looks as though their plan is to bring the New England model to Michigan.

Divisional Round - Los Angeles Chargers v New England Patriots
Trey Flowers
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The hiccup in that approach is that by paying the sticker price for players in free agency, they’re already betraying Belichick’s model. It’s no accident that the Patriots decided to forego an extension for Flowers and trade for Michael Bennett, who should provide similar production at less than half the price. Flowers is an ascendant player who could put up better pass-rush numbers outside of New England (where he was asked to fill a multitude of roles within the defense), but Belichick always has been hesitant to overpay for edge rushers. In recent years, he’s been willing to pay big money at only one defensive position: cornerback—and not a slot corner like the Lions just paid for in Coleman.

None of the deals that Detroit handed out Monday is particularly onerous, and it has to be acknowledged that not every team has the greatest QB of all time making a below-average salary and a culture that inspires players to take less just to get in the building. But guys like Quinn and Patricia who are so familiar with the Patriots’ system should know that the champs of early free agency rarely go on to win much else.