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Free agency stories to watch: John Elway, QB market, more

The first wave of NFL free agency ended late last week, a good thing because if it went on much longer, there would be no evidence left to indicate that Chip Kelly had once worked in Philadelphia.

The Eagles' makeover -- if you ever spoke to Kelly in the hallway and weren't named Sam Bradford, it's possible the Eagles were looking to move you -- was one of the more compelling storylines as the annual players' bazaar opened for business. But now that the first frenetic days are over, the biggest names are off the board and the largest checks in the mail, it is time to assess where the NFL goes from here. Below are five stories to watch:

1) The impact of the early cash explosion. Get used to the jaw-dropping contracts. When free agency opened, there was nearly $1 billion in salary cap space available league-wide. So we saw Jacksonville giving a one-year starter in Malik Jacksona $90 million contract, quarterback Brock Osweiler parlaying seven starts into $37 million guaranteed from the Texans and the New York Giants going against type with threeblockbusterdeals that included more than $100 million in guaranteed money to shore up their defense.

Granted, it was just a handful of teams that made the big splashes -- those were crickets you heard in Green Bay and Pittsburgh, for instance -- but when I asked one team's high-ranking personnel executive if he was surprised by the high number of big-ticket contracts, his reply was simple: "Not surprised. It happens every year."

Expect it to keep happening, because the salary cap is ballooning, just as the NFL Players Association anticipated it would when the collective bargaining agreement was settled five years ago. Then, there was concern that players had given up too much because the cap was flat. But now, with the money from lucrative television contracts flowing in, the cap is rising rapidly. In 2011, the first year of the new deal, the cap was $120 million per team. This year, it is $155.3 per team, $12 million more than it was last year and $22 million more than it was in 2014.

With that kind of cash in the system, and with minimum spending limits in place in the labor deal, these contracts will quickly become the new normal for elite players at premium positions -- or for something-less-than-elite-players at positions where there is desperate need -- and a continued rise in the cap offers a future cushion for teams that hand them out. Is the money deserved? A player's value is what the market will bear, and right now, the market can bear plenty.

2) John Elway's next move(s) -- whatever they are. Two years ago, the Denver Broncos were the undisputed winners of free agency, nabbing DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T. J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- all of whom were integral to the Broncos' Super Bowl championship this season -- in quick succession. The team's mini-exodus last week was fascinating to behold, although not entirely unexpected. Gone were Osweiler, Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, and running back C.J. Anderson may be next, if the Broncos decline to match an offer sheet from the Miami Dolphins by Tuesday.

Still unanswered is the most obvious and important question going into next season: What does John Elway have planned at quarterback? Trading for Mark Sanchez last week was, Elway said, the first move. Aside from the anxiety of the fan base, there is no real reason to rush to make the next one. A trade for Colin Kaepernick appeared to be imminent last week, only to cool over the last few days. Ryan Fitzpatrick? A fevered market hasn't developed for him, so there is no reason for Elway to resolve this issue quickly.

But even further down the road is the issue against which the Broncos' entire offseason is playing out: Von Miller's long-term contract. The Broncos' inability to complete one before free agency opened started all these dominoes falling, because the Broncos had to use the franchise tag on Miller, exposing Osweiler to free agency.

The gigantic contract given to Olivier Vernon by the Giants -- the richest ever given to a defensive end, to the tune of $52.5 million guaranteed on an $85 million deal -- suggests that the Broncos will have to break the bank for Miller, who wanted to be the highest paid non-quarterback in history even before he saw the outsized deals being handed out in free agency. That honor currently belongs to Ndamukong Suh, but even if Miller doesn't top the nearly $60 million in guaranteed money Suh got on a six-year, $114 million contract from the Dolphins last year, he's going to have to get more than Vernon.

Elway has shown impressive acumen in closing deals and making the right personnel moves with the Broncos. But this offseason, he has to find a new starting quarterback from a lackluster field -- much tougher than determining he didn't want Tim Tebow in 2012 and did want Peyton Manning -- and secure his defensive cornerstone as the market balloons around him. Elway has plenty of personal capital built up in Denver, but little more than a month after the Super Bowl, it feels as if the Broncos have fallen a step behind their biggest AFC rivals. There is plenty of time to catch up again, but with the annual league meeting beginning Sunday, Elway is sure to be the person everyone wants to hear from.

3) Where the QB market goes now. The second tier of quarterbacks may have to wait a while until all the musical chairs stop being filled. Osweiler was considered the best quarterback on the market -- that tells you something, considering he's only had seven career starts -- and that leaves Fitzpatrick, Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III waiting, like kids hoping to be picked for the kickball team. A fevered market hasn't developed, and after that first frenzy of free agency, you get the sense that teams are engaging in a more sober analysis of their options.

Teams rarely panic the way fans do when there is no obvious starting quarterback on the roster early in the offseason. Training camps don't open until late July and the real work of free agency is done not in those first few hours but in the weeks to come.

The most intriguing member of this group is Kaepernick, who asked for a trade from San Francisco. Kaepernick would seem to be the perfect fit for Chip Kelly's offense and it would be fascinating to see if Kelly could rehabilitate Kaepernick's career in San Francisco, although he might also slot nicely into Gary Kubiak's system of bootlegs and rollouts in Denver. Kaepernick was thought to be on the radars of the Broncos and Browns. But reports have indicated the Niners want a second-round draft pick in a trade, with Cleveland, at least, only wanting to surrender a third, while the Broncos have deemed Kaepernick worthy of a fourth-round pick. And so the stalemate goes on. It still feels like the most likely outcome is that the Jets and Fitzpatrick will find a middle ground in the chasm between their determination of Fitzpatrick's value, but Jets fans, used to uncertainty at quarterback, should probably settle in for a little more nail-biting.

4) The NFL futures of Greg Hardy and Johnny Manziel. A year ago this week, the Dallas Cowboys signed Greg Hardy to a one-year deal that brought criticism to the team and nowhere near enough sacks to justify the signing. Hardy is a free agent now, and it's a good time to wonder to what degree Hardy's behavior with the Cowboys and the troubling behavior of Johnny Manziel will limit their career options this offseason.

Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett clearly had no use for Hardy by the end of a season filled with distraction-worthy lateness, ill-advised public comments and only occasional production. Before he missed much of the 2014 season while the league grappled with his domestic violence case, Hardy was a pivotal pass rusher with the Panthers. Now he has been dumped by a team that went on to the Super Bowl without him and by another team that was not moved to keep him despite its desperation for a pass rush. Still, someone will eventually sign Hardy, especially because he is likely to come cheap and perhaps with the type of pay-as-you-go contract that would give a team the flexibility to release him quickly if he proves again to be more trouble than he is worth.

That may not be the case for Manziel, at least for a while. Even in a league hungry for quarterbacks, Manziel has not shown the skill, desire or self-awareness that any team would want in its franchise face. Recent photos and videos of Manziel partying while his career in Cleveland burned to the ground -- and while he waits to learn whether he'll be charged by a grand jury after Dallas police investigated a domestic violence allegation -- raise difficult questions about Manziel's overall well-being, underscored by public statements by his father and his former agent expressing concern for his future health. In talking to three personnel executives, none of them expect a team to touch Manziel unless and until there is much greater clarity on his health. And even then, one noted, he simply might not be good enough for a team to take on so much baggage at the position where a team can least afford it.

5) The peripatetic free agency of left tackle Russell Okung. Okung's story may be a cautionary tale that agents will be telling for years. Viable 28-year-old left tackles, even those recovering from injury, don't often remain on the open market this long. Okung, who spent the past six seasons with the Seahawks, is representing himself, and it's fair to wonder how much money and opportunity he has cost himself because he could not participate in the two-day early negotiating window (teams are only allowed to contact agents of prospective free agents, not the players themselves). That means Okung's free agency got off to a late start, missing that short window when free agency opened with the big-dollar contracts flying. He has visited the Giants, Lions and Steelers. It's hard to imagine Okung won't be a starting left tackle by the time the season begins, but he will almost certainly be an unintentional bargain at one of the game's most important positions.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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