INDIANAPOLIS -- Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell understands the business of free agency well enough by now: The best players normally don't make it there, and if they do, you need to ask 'Why?' The rest are probably going to be quick fixes and a large percentage will be creeping towards 30, where the production arc sharply declines.
"The nature of free agency is -- you're going to overpay," Caldwell said here Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "You want a player? You're going to have to overpay to get him, and that's just the nature of the beast. There's a talent pool, and this year there's a large pool of money, especially in North Florida."
He finds himself in an interesting position. The Jaguars are one of six teams -- Giants, Rams, 49ers, Raiders and Bears -- that have more than $50 million available to spend this offseason on free agency, no matter how good the market ends up being. Only five teams -- the Bills, Colts, Saints, Dolphins and Cowboys -- will have less than $10 million available before cuts. The cap is expected to rise significantly again this offseason, and teams might have an extra $10-15 million than the year before, even after two consecutive years of increases.
Of the top 99 prospective free agents, many of the most coveted names will be locked away by the teams that drafted them. Muhammad Wilkerson (Jets), Von Miller (Broncos), Alshon Jeffery (Bears) and Josh Norman (Panthers) are all favorites to return. The same goes for Eric Berry in Kansas City, and Kirk Cousins in Washington. The tool belt possessed by general managers includes the franchise tag; a crucial avenue to keep homegrown talent from the lure of bigger cities or more competitive clubs.
The atmosphere leaves talented players still able to hit the open market, though not many that would be considered elite at the position. With the influx of cash, though, they will demand elite prices. Joked one NFC executive: "They're all looking for J.J. Watt money." (Watt signed a six-year, $100 million extension in 2014).
The situation brings a fascinating philosophical look at salary-cap space into the foreground. In the past, a treasure trove of space was seen as an example of organizational savvy and thrifty spending. But now, especially with a steadily increasing cap, it could mean something else entirely. Rarely do teams who "win" the offseason and spend lavishly on players 25 and older, find sustainable success. This year will be no different.
"I don't think it's hard," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said, when asked if it's difficult to manage cap space in the current environment. "I think what it is -- if you plan out three or four years at a time and you have an understanding of the makeup and those specific players, I don't think it's hard to manage the cap. I don't believe that's true."
Dorsey spent nearly three decades in Green Bay as a player, scout and personnel executive. There, he earned a graduate-level education in how to draft and develop. Current general manager Ted Thompson is historically averse to free agency, even if that might change in 2016.
But draft and develop isn't as easy as it seems. Since 2007, Giants general manager Jerry Reese has only signed three drafted players (and Victor Cruz, who was undrafted) to second contracts. Two of those were running back Ahmad Bradshaw and left tackle Will Beatty, who was cut just a few weeks ago. Only long snapper Zak DeOssie remains on the roster.
So what does a general manager with money do this offseason? Theoretically, the "best" available free agents after franchise tags and long-term deals in the exclusive negotiation period, could be Broncos defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, Chargers safety Eric Weddle and Bears running back Matt Forte, though several talent evaluators are mixed on the safety market and Weddle's ceiling in particular.
"Whoever makes it to the market, makes it to the market," Reese said. "We have a little bit of money to spend this time, and we'll try to spend it wisely on the players that make it there. I'm sure they'll be plenty of players who don't make it, teams like to keep their best players. But whoever is out there, we'll try our best to try and get some of the best players available."
Added Caldwell: "The risk comes in to the type of contracts you give. The contract structure is important so you can minimize risk. You don't mind paying them if they're playing. So you can minimize risk to a degree with the contract as long as you realize it's not a long-term fix."
So for now, absent of the massive pressures of free agency and ownership's desire to sell a winning team to the fans, everyone's plan heading into this massively confusing time is to have a plan. Be careful, spend wisely and don't take risks.
Then reality hits, and we end up with a new set of teams in the same place next year looking to plug holes during a frantic -- and nearly impossible -- time to do so.