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An NFL Spending Boom Is Coming, Just Not Right Now

A lower salary cap meant a frugal free agency. But the league’s new media rights deals portend higher spending in the not-so-distant future.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The rising salary cap, NFL people once told me, was the biggest football story of the last decade in front offices. It changed the way teams were built and the way teams won. It is the reason salary cap hell never actually existed. It is the reason megatrades with huge cap implications happened more often. It is the reason the Saints were able to work salary cap miracles each spring. There was always money coming. The end of that era has arrived and that, too, is a big story. It’s also a more complicated one.

The football world will probably look back on this offseason as the beginning of a very weird era for team building. The salary cap declined this year for the first time since its implementation in 1994, after rising by roughly $10 million each of the seven previous years. The cap almost doubled from $102 million in 2006 until 2020, when it reached $198 million, more than triple the total from 2000. The fact that the cap fell by $16 million in 2021 is not a surprise—the league knew revenues would fall in 2020 due to COVID-19—but the decline dovetailed with the announcement of new television contracts, ensuring the biggest football spending spree in history in the coming years. Free agency is always about what’s happening next: Maybe that third receiver this team signed can become a no. 1 in the right system, etc. But rarely is it about what’s going to happen in three years.

This is why, in short, the offseason is getting so weird. It is not just that teams had to shed important veterans before free agency began last week, or that the wide receiver market cratered to the point that stars like JuJu Smith-Schuster settled for short-term, below-market deals to wait out this one-year cap decline; it is that the new TV money will shade almost every move going forward. The cap could have been $210 million this year, based on previous growth projections. Unfortunately for the players, it was far less than that. It’ll surge past that number easily within a few years. The TV deals are, over the course of 11 years, worth more than $113 billion. The current cap crisis will not last long.

First, a note on timing: The money is not flowing to players immediately. The financial shortfalls caused by COVID-19 will be spread over three years, which the players agreed to instead of a 35 percent pay cut last season, meaning the cap will probably rise slightly over the next two years and then explode. Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com said his “guess is our first real big spike year hits in 2024 with the cap probably in the range of $260 million. It should reach $300 million by 2027.” This means that any wishful thinking that this year’s bad deals won’t matter is misguided. They will. NBC Sports’ Peter King speculated this week that there could be a way next season for teams to have a “bank” to borrow from in future seasons, because “by 2023 lots of teams that pushed bigger 2021 deals than they could afford will need room desperately.” The ramifications of such a move are still murky. NFL teams are, like everyone else, just waiting for stimulus checks.

This weirdness has created winners and losers over the first week of free agency. If you’re a team hoping to get offensive linemen, you’re in luck: They are everywhere via trade and in the free agency pool. If you’re a star player at any position, you are likely fine as well. A handful of well-regarded wideouts settled for much less than they anticipated. The Bears had to shed a bunch of good players and have a confusing, incoherent roster. I guess that part is pretty normal.

Some strange realities developed, but none stranger than the Patriots spending the second-highest outlay of all time. It was obvious last week that Bill Belichick viewed this free-agent window as an opportunity. He is a coach who has changed his defense because he could find cheaper players playing different systems. He has found little edges in nearly every pocket of the sport. And he decided that spending big in free agency—something he’d done only a handful of times in recent years—was the value move. This was confirmed by owner Robert Kraft, who told King that the Patriots wanted to spend in part because it made sense. The Patriots had the third-most cap room and “instead of having 10 or 12 teams competing for most of the top players, there were only two or three. And in my 27 years as owner, I’ve never had to come up with so much capital before. … It’s like investing in the stock market. You take advantage of corrections and inefficiencies in the market when you can, and that’s what we did here.”

The Athletic’s Mike Lombardi compared Belichick to Warren Buffett when Buffett, during a period in 2019, “went against his normal trend of buying fair companies at great prices to buying great companies at fair prices.” In other words, Belichick is a value investor. Of course, the Patriots were a bad football team last year, Belichick hasn’t hit on many draft picks lately, and the team simply needs talent on its roster. Belichick pretty obviously hated coaching the 2020 Patriots and wanted to rinse the taste of it out of his mouth as soon as he could. If overspending accelerates that, he and Kraft are apparently fine with the cost. If you were to tell a time traveler from 2018 that one team paid Nelson Agholor the league minimum to get 896 yards, then another team agreed to pay him $26 million over two years, you’d assume the Patriots were the former and the Raiders were the latter. The fact that it’s flipped is highly unusual, but so is everything about this offseason. The aforementioned Raiders are also getting weird—they traded star lineman Rodney Hudson to Arizona, signed running back Kenyan Drake to a deal worth up to $14.5 million over two years, and on Monday signed center Andre James, who has made one career start, to a $12.5 million extension. These moves might be chalked up not to the weirdness of the offseason but to the weirdness of the Raiders.

There are teams who played it exactly right: The Giants smartly used their cap space to add wideout Kenny Golladay and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson; the Washington Football Team signed wideout Curtis Samuel and cornerback William Jackson III. Whether either team has the quarterback to be successful in 2021 remains the main question, but their rosters got better. Cleveland also spent wisely, plugging holes with talented second-contract guys like safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill.

I spent the weekend asking people in football about what’s going to happen with NFL spending, and I got wildly different answers. The only consensus is that spending will explode in the middle part of this decade and that players whom teams build around will be fine for now and very rich later. Trent Williams is worth the $23 million a year he received from the 49ers, considering the market for offensive tackles. Dak Prescott got market value for a current top-10 quarterback, and when he reaches free agency again post–cap spike, he might own JerryWorld. The question will be what happens with elite players who could sign in the next two years: If you are, say, Josh Allen, whose fifth-year option keeps him tied to Buffalo through 2022, do you hold out as long as possible to get close to that cap spike? Do teams sign players to deals in the next couple of years and simply account for the future cap spike by back-loading more of the money and keeping the cap number low in early years? One thing is certain: Patrick Mahomes, whose contract averages $45 million through 2031, will become a bargain sometime in the mid-2020s.

Spending dictates nearly everything about football. The lower rookie wage scale, which began with the 2011 draft, changed the sport nearly overnight. Instead of being some of the most highly paid players, highly drafted rookies were cheap and ludicrously valuable. Cam Newton, the top pick in 2011, made $22 million in his first NFL deal, less than half of the guaranteed money Sam Bradford got a year earlier as the top pick. This created a league in which teams wanted a lot of young players. As the cap rose, the NFL’s middle class began to rebound, and the best rosters featured a healthy mix of young players, solid veterans, and stars. For the time being, only two of those categories—the young players and the stars—are safe on NFL rosters.

How teams react to build their roster is the story of the NFL for the next three years. Ben Goessling of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that the Vikings are banking on future cap increases and “are one of the teams conducting their business in expectation of a higher cap in coming years” while trying to keep some of their core players going forward. Teams like the Packers face a looming cap crunch in 2022 if there isn’t a massive cap increase or a mechanism by which teams can get relief, such as the one King mentioned

Trying to learn lessons from NFL free agency can often be a futile exercise. If the NFL had true free agency—one without a franchise tag—we’d know more about how the league views all its players, positions, and more. Instead we learn more about how each player maximized their leverage and timing. But you can glean some things from the free-agent spending period, and right now, everything you see about this period indicates that teams are pulling in a lot of different directions. There is a lot of uncertainty of what the bridge to cap heaven looks like.