This is becoming the year of the short-term deal. And it makes all the sense in the world.
Sure, many of the contracts, as always, are cloaked in the veil of five or six years, but this offseason in particular market forces are providing acute incentives to structure deals in a way to allow for maximum flexibility for both club and player after a year or two. Remember, the cap stayed static this year, which won't be happening again for quite some time (especially with the new TV contracts providing significant revenue in 2013 and 2014).
Then factor in that teams also will have to start spending 90 percent to the cap in 2013, which will force some lesser-spending franchises to make more moves in future years, whether re-signing their own player or purchasing others ... or both. Then, two of the heaviest spending teams traditionally (Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins) were stripped of a combined $46 million in cap space just before the start of the free-agency period.
So outside factors conspired to put a squeeze on some teams. (While Washington certainly has been active, it hasn't been to the Vincent Jackson/Carl Nicks heights some expected the 'Skins to reach prior to the cap penalties.) Also, some of the more intriguing young talent in this free-agent class is coming off recent injuries (like safety LaRon Landry and defensive lineman Jason Jones). Come 2014, for instance, the cap could be more than $135 million and some of these free agents will still only be 27 years old or so. Thus, you have the makings of some shorter-term deals.
We've also seen some early deals include language for voidable years, with players having the capability to opt out, and teams having the right to buy years back. Again, that speaks to the expanding cap and spending yet to come, as well as some of the concerns with how certain players will fare in terms of health and production.
Adam Carriker is one of those young free agents. He just played out his rookie deal and had some injury concerns earlier in his career. His new, four-year, $20 million contract with Washington could actually end up being a one-year, $3.7M deal. Carriker has a period of time around the Super Bowl next year to buy his way out of the final three years of the deal by paying $1 million back to the Redskins. If he has another strong season and if the free-agent class next year ends up being as mundane as some expect, it just might make sense to go ahead and hit the market again with the cap on the rise.
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Josh Morgan, a talented youngster who hasn't been able to stay on the field enough recently, went ahead and did a two-year deal worth $6 million per with Washington. This was a very deep receiver class, so that might've cost Morgan some money. But with the prices on receivers skyrocketing in general, Morgan can get another bite at the apple in a couple years. He'll still be 28 and could face less competition with a higher cap. (The Redskins also saved cap space by doing a five-year deal that voids to two years, allowing them to spread out the proration of the signing bonus for cap purposes.) Even the Redskins' five-year, $42.5 million contract with Pierre Garcon could end up being a two-year deal if it doesn't work out.
Meanwhile, Robert Meachem's four-year deal with the San Diego Chargers, should it not work out for any reason over the long haul, could end up being two years, $14 million. Jeremy Mincey's four-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars could play out similarly, with an $8 million signing bonus, a $1 million guaranteed 2012 base salary and a $1.5 million base in 2013 before the salaries start to rise. With flexibility for both sides, this could end up being two years and just over $10 million.
Teams with massive cap space, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, used that to their advantage, as well. Tampa gave receiver Vincent Jackson$26 million guaranteed, with all of it coming in the first two years of the deal. That means the Bucs don't have any future proration to deal with -- the bigger cap hits come right away, and as the cap rises in future years the Bucs will have even more space. After that $26 million payout between 2012-2013, Jackson's base salaries are $10 million, $9.8 million and $9.8 million -- easy to handle for a No. 1 receiver with the cap going up. This is also insurance should any of Jackson's off-field issues resurface; after Year 2, he is essentially on a series of three one-year, $10 million deals (very similar to the structure of Brandon Marshall's contract in that regard).
Likewise, the Bucs tied up the guaranteed money for OG Carl Nicks and CB Eric Wright in guaranteed salaries, rather than bonuses that are spread around for years to come. It's an intelligent approach, given the Bucs' cap situation. And frankly, it's something teams that were flush against this year's stagnant cap could not execute.
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What remains to be seen is how some other smaller-market teams with robust cap space will divvy it up, and how they'll get their spending up over the next few years. More than likely, it will come through a series of extensions for their own players, though given that, it seems strange the Cincinnati Bengals would let a few decent defensive linemen walk away to AFC foes. Kansas City, Jacksonville and Denver have yet to really take advantage of excessive cap space (though we know the Broncos would love to lavish it upon Peyton Manning).
In all, it's a good time to gamble on yourself, especially if you're a young player with a few warts or facing a soft market. Agent David Canter put it best after his client, Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai, signed a two-year extension a year after being franchised: "He becomes unrestricted when the new TV money pops in 2014." This straightforward sentiment has really set the tone for free agency in 2012.