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Complacency in Free Agency Is Not Necessarily a Sign of Weakness

Spending sprees in March are usually a sign that an NFL team’s roster was woefully inadequate. What lessons can we learn from teams who’ve been quiet in the market?  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Enthusiastic participation in free agency shouldn’t always be considered a badge of honor. After all, a March spending spree is usually an indication that a team’s roster is woefully inadequate. The five highest-spending teams in free agency from 2017 to 2020—the Jaguars, Jets, Bills, Lions, and Browns—have a combined record of 125-194-1 during that span.

Yes, every year, there are savvy signings supporting Super Bowl contenders (see: 2020 Buccaneers), but inactivity can be a sign of strength this time of year. Consider the biggest spenders of the first two weeks of free agency: The Patriots, usually notoriously frugal, spent the second-highest outlay in league history. That Bill Belichick responded to last season’s 7-9 record by signing 13 players (and counting) from other teams speaks volumes about New England’s circumstances, but also about free agency leaguewide. The 49ers and the Cowboys, who went a combined 12-20 last season, are the highest-spending teams after New England so far. San Francisco, Miami, and Philadelphia also shook up the NFL draft landscape Friday with a series of trades. But the quiet teams deserve some focus. Let’s explore some of the reasons certain teams haven’t doled out big contracts.

In an Awkward Dance With Their Quarterback: The Green Bay Packers

The Packers are cash-strapped with only $3 million in salary cap space and an impending cap deficit in 2022, which explains why they haven’t added new players in free agency. Green Bay agreed to terms with running back Aaron Jones on a new four-year, $48 million deal (though realistically the guarantees are for two years and $20 million) before the legal tampering window opened and has since re-signed cornerback Kevin King (one year, $6 million) and tight end Marcedes Lewis (two years, $8 million), so it is keeping some homegrown players in the fold.

A quiet free agency is nothing new in Green Bay. Its former general manager, the late Ted Thompson, once went four years (2013 to 2016) without signing an unrestricted free agent from another team. A team of Tibetan monks couldn’t out-patient the Packers at the starting gates of a new league year.

The Packers were reportedly interested in receiver Will Fuller V, but he ended up signing a one-year, $10.6 million deal with the Dolphins.

It’s hard to feel too badly for the Packers, who had last season’s top-ranked offense, but a short-term, team-friendly deal like the one Fuller signed in Miami would have been a boon for Rodgers by giving him another receiving option other than Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, and Robert Tonyan who can get open when Davante Adams is double-covered.

But Green Bay also seems to be straddling the fence about—stop us if you’ve heard this before—whether to go all in on what could be one of Aaron Rodgers’s last years with the team. The easiest way to clear up cap space for a move like Fuller’s would have been to restructure either Rodgers’s or Adams’s contracts. According to NFL Network, Green Bay has discussed a contract extension for Rodgers that would free up cap space, though it’s not clear how much progress has been made on that front. If the Packers simply wanted to free up cap space this year, they could convert some of Rodgers’s base salary into a signing bonus automatically, without negotiation. Since they are negotiating, it seems the talks are more likely to delicately dance around how long the two sides want to commit to each other. If it feels like some version of this happens every offseason, it’s because it does. The Packers and Aaron Rodgers are that couple that’s great together, but always has to pick a fight to keep things interesting—yet, somehow, that’s why it works? Here’s hoping it works out for the best (and gives Jodie Foster something to root for).

Planning to Keep Everyone Together: The Indianapolis Colts

Since trading for quarterback Carson Wentz, the Colts have been quiet, despite beginning this free-agent period with $63.7 million in cap space, third most of any team.

They’ve made a few depth signings: Chargers offensive tackle Sam Tevi, Chargers edge rusher Isaac Rochell, and Browns defensive tackle Andrew Brown. Otherwise, they’ve re-signed only their own players—receiver T.Y. Hilton, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and running back Marlon Mack—all to one-year deals.

This isn’t out of character for general manager Chris Ballard, who tends to sit back and wait for the free-agent market to develop. Still, a closer look at the Colts’ roster reveals that the lack of spending is probably part of a plan to keep current players in line for extensions in-house. Guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Braden Smith, chosen by Indy in the first and second rounds, respectively, of the 2018 draft, are strong candidates for extensions next offseason, as is linebacker Darius Leonard.

Indianapolis is also likely to be paying Carson Wentz his $22 million salary in 2022, $15 million of which is already guaranteed, as well as carrying a $16 million cap charge for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. It’ll be in good shape to cut those checks by rolling over some cap space and whatever money it’s not spending will be earmarked for the future. The Colts are the kind of sound budgeters parents tell their kids to be—they balance their checkbooks and save for the future and have Excel spreadsheets, etc.

Maybe Missing the Forest for the Trees: The Baltimore Ravens

[Channels Oprah, though really, who can?] You get a compensatory draft pick! You get a compensatory draft pick! You get a compensatory draft pick!

A lot of what the Ravens have done, as usual, is smart and savvy. They let their top two edge rushers, Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, walk as free agents to New England and Las Vegas, respectively. The deals each player got from those teams make it likely the Ravens will receive at least two fourth-round compensatory draft selections.

The Ravens also signed guard Kevin Zeitler to a three-year, $22.5 million deal that won’t count against them in the compensatory formula, since Zeitler was cut by the Giants. That’s also a great contract in a year when interior linemen got paid.

The thing is, the offseason is largely about figuring out where the roster holes are and plugging them. It’s been fairly obvious since last season (arguably longer than that) that the Ravens need to upgrade their receiving group. So far, they’ve signed Sammy Watkins for one year and $6 million.

Baltimore had tried to sign other free-agent receivers; it’d offered JuJu Smith-Schuster a one-year contract worth up to $9 million, according to the NFL Network, and made a strong, multiyear offer to T.Y. Hilton, according to ESPN. Both players decided to re-sign with their current teams, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.

Watkins could make the impact they need, and there’s always the draft, but Baltimore and Jackson need better production in the passing game. The Ravens can remain the solid, run-first offense that they are without continuing to rank no. 1 in rushing but no. 32 in passing, as they did last season. It’s one thing to not make any blunders in free agency, but if Watkins isn’t a difference-maker for the offense, Baltimore may wind up feeling it played things too conservatively.

Hello? Do Something?: The Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals should be doing everything they can to get better while Joe Burrow is on his rookie deal, and it’s not clear they are.

Cincinnati lost its two best defensive players in defensive end Carl Lawson and cornerback William Jackson III. The Bengals’ biggest outlay was adding edge rusher Trey Hendrickson, who tied for second with Aaron Donald in the NFL behind T.J. Watt with 13.5 sacks as an edge rusher last season, but never had more than 4.5 in any of his three seasons prior. They also added defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, plus cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie, and should get some bonus points for snatching former Brown Ogunjobi and former Steeler Hilton from division rivals, but it’s hard to see that they’ve improved much.

On offense, the only unrestricted free agent from another team the Bengals have brought in so far is offensive tackle Riley Reiff. It’s a good deal at one year and $7.5 million, but it’s underwhelming—and borderline malpractice—given their offensive line gave up 48 sacks last season.

The Bengals still have $22.7 million in cap room. It’ll be hard to understand if they don’t use some of that to address their glaring weakness.

Stuck in the Middle With You: The Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta has a new coaching staff led by Arthur Smith and new front office led by general manager Terry Fontenot, plus a roster that is talented, but is aging out of its prime years. They have a still-good-but-35-year-old quarterback in Matt Ryan, plus the no. 4 pick. It is genuinely difficult to figure out their best course of action: If they stick with Ryan, they should probably shop the no. 4 pick since they wouldn’t be able to maximize the value of one of the top rookie quarterbacks. Yet if they stick with Ryan, the hope would be to play well enough to avoid picking that high again in the near future—making this year the best opportunity to secure Ryan’s successor. It gets cyclical. Fontenot knows what he’s doing, but it’s easy to see how someone could be paralyzed by indecision in this situation. No wonder Atlanta’s free agency has been slow.

The inactivity is in part due to cap constraints, but Atlanta’s moves so far straddle competing needs to stay competitive now and plan for the future. Atlanta traded for blocking tight end Lee Smith and signed safety Erik Harris (one year, $1.35 million) and linebacker Brandon Copeland (one year, $1.04 million). More significantly, the Falcons restructured Ryan’s contract two weeks ago in such a way that parting with him this year would trigger a $65 million—not a typo—dead cap charge this year and that doing so next year would put $40.5 million in dead money on the books. Not happening.

If that’s a real commitment to Ryan, there has to be some consideration given to trading the no. 4 pick and trying to build up the team around him. Still, it’s an agonizing decision to actively part with a selection that could be used on a franchise passer. Atlanta’s books so far make it seem like the team hasn’t figured out which way it’ll move.

Bargain Shopping With Aplomb: The Denver Broncos

The Broncos have put on a quiet clinic this free agency. Denver kept its own by placing the franchise tag on Justin Simmons and then signing him to a long-term deal, then re-signing defensive tackle Shelby Harris. They declined safety Kareem Jackson’s option, let him explore free agency, then wound up re-signing him for one year and $5 million—half of what he would have made on the option.

The Broncos didn’t make overly splashy moves on the open market, but they were smart, targeted, and value-oriented. Getting cornerbacks Ronald Darby for three years and $30 million and Kyle Fuller (who will reunite with his former coach Vic Fangio) for one year and $9.5 million are brilliant moves that reshape Denver’s secondary for the better following A.J. Bouye’s release. It’s the platonic ideal of a set of free-agency moves: not extravagant, but potentially impactful.