Free agency started with a bang, to say the least. That's because the average NFL team had $19.8 million of available salary-cap space when free agency began Friday and could be aggressive.
In the first 36 hours of free agency, 22 of my top 50 free agents had new contracts. That always makes you wonder when the deals were really struck, but be that as it may, the first few days of free agency taught us a few things about the 2009 business season.
1. Who's next?
As I look at my free-agent board and cross off the likes of Albert Haynesworth, Bart Scott, Jason Brown, Antonio Smith and others, it's time to re-adjust my list. Here are the players I expect to be signed in the next few days to a week: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Kurt Warner, Ray Lewis, Derrick Ward, Bryant McFadden, Nate Washington, Matt Birk, Khalif Barnes, Jabari Greer, Jermaine Phillips and Leigh Bodden.
This group of players will try to work off deals done in the first three days of free agency, but they must be careful not to price themselves out of the market or expect teams to see them in the same light as the first wave of signees.
2. Free-agency signings reflect draft-class weaknesses
Right after NFL executives and coaches returned from an intense week at the combine in Indianapolis, the free-agency period started. Early free-agent signings might point to the positions that teams believe are lacking in the 2009 draft class.
The contracts signed by Scott, Jonathan Vilma, Takeo Spikes, Michael Boley and even Keith Brooking tells me the linebacker talent pool in the draft is suspect. The guard population in the draft also is a concern to NFL teams as Chris Kemoeatu, Brandon Moore and Derrick Dockery all cashed in right away in free agency.
3. Market pricing
The guaranteed money that free-agent cornerbacks have received so far seems out of whack: Nnamdi Asomugha ($28.5 million from the Oakland Raiders), Kelvin Hayden ($22.5 million from the Indianapolis Colts), DeAngelo Hall ($22.5 million from the Washington Redskins) and Domonique Foxworth ($16.5 million from the Baltimore Ravens). Not too long ago, Foxworth and Hall were shown the door by teams. I can only wonder what McFadden -- and even Greer and Bodden -- expect to get in the coming days.
The best deal signed so far has to be the Eagles' contract with Joselio Hanson. Here's an up-and-coming player who only received $6.4 million of guaranteed money in a five-year deal to be Philadelphia's nickel cornerback.
How about the price of "wave" defensive tackles? A "wave" tackle isn't a full-time starter but a player who should be on the field for close to half the snaps in a game and, on some occasions, one-third of the plays. Rocky Bernard signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the New York Giants to be a "wave" tackle.
Finally, signing a quality backup quarterback has a $2 million price tag, if you're lucky (Jon Kitna to the Dallas Cowboys). Signing a quarterback who will be given a chance to compete for the starting job with no guarantee that he will win it is a $3 million-per-year investment (Sage Rosenfels to the Minnesota Vikings). For anything less than these benchmarks, you get a guy who holds a clipboard and can't win if asked to play.
4. The ripple effect
Every contract affects other contracts. Jared Allen's six-year, $74 million deal with the Vikings last year had an effect on Haynesworth's seven-year, $100 million deal with the Redskins this year. The Haynesworth deal, with $41 million guaranteed in the first three years, affects what Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers now expects to get. More importantly, as one NFL general manager who was sick over hearing what Haynesworth received said, "This deal is a problem for the Patriots signing Vince Wilfork and for the Ravens ever getting an extension with Haloti Ngata."
Keep in mind that the franchise tag for defensive tackles (the average of the top five at the position) is $6.058 million. Haynesworth will see closer to $14 million per year in the next three.
5. Trades are up and not over
Trades have been on a steady-but-slow incline over the past few years because teams have had the salary-cap space to take on a big contract. Equally as important, the team trading the player has also had the cap space to take on any debt the trade might cause.
Trading quarterback Matt Cassel gave the New England Patriots an immediate $14.6 million salary-cap relief, but the Kansas City Chiefs had the space ($49 million) to handle the cap charge. We have seen tight end Kellen Winslow traded from the Cleveland Browns to Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rosenfels from the Houston Texans to Minnesota, cornerback Lito Sheppard from Philadelphia to the New York Jets and Kitna for cornerback Anthony Henry as the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys struck a deal.
Trading will be more commonplace this year, and we could see up to 12 trades involving veteran players before the draft next month.
6. Not the correct message
The economy is bad right now, and the amount of boasting about the size of contracts signed in the first few days of free agency sends a bad message to NFL fans. I have received numerous e-mails from fans who are concerned the NFL is getting away from them and that they won't have the resources to bring a family of four to a game this year.
Granted, some of the contract numbers being thrown around are inflated, but it's becoming harder to accept that football players are worth even the real money they are making. In 2009, a 53-man roster must fit under a $127 million salary cap. Do the math, and that's $2.44 million per player. Fans need to see ticket prices reduced, not raised, to cover the problems that some of these contracts will cause.
7. Keeping stars at the right price
Both players should return to their former teams with good contracts, but neither club used a franchise tag or threw crazy money at their aging star before free agency started. They let the open market establish the players' value. Lewis didn't wind up with any major offers, and the Ravens really don't have to go much higher than their original proposal to retain the Pro Bowl linebacker's services.
Warner wants more than the $10 million per year that the Cardinals reportedly have on the table, but unless he can bring another team's offer back to Arizona, he won't get it. Teams shouldn't negotiate against themselves and must be prepared to walk away if someone throws too much money at a player.
Warner is still trying to drum up an offer closer to $14 million per year, but I'd be shocked if any team comes close to the deal that Arizona has on the table. The Chiefs were believed to be a possible landing spot for Warner, but the Cassel deal eliminated that option. Kerry Collins' two-year, $15 million contract to remain with the Tennessee Titans also affects Warner's value. A two-year, $20 million contract looks a lot stronger now than it did yesterday.