Curtis Martin is expected to retire
As the Super Bowl comes to an end, many hard-core NFL fans immediately begin to turn their sights to the free agency signing period in March as the next big hurdle for their teams. But the teams themselves immerse themselves in the pile of work that needs to be done prior to the official start of free agency (March 2nd this year). There are important roster decisions to be made that not only affect the football side of the organization, but also impact the business operation, and with significant increases in cap room this year, and some rule changes that create more flexibility under the cap, many teams are finding that the early work is substantial.
This year's salary cap number stands at $109 million, leaving teams with an average of $15 million in space. In fact, twelve teams started the offseason with at least $20 million in free cap room. The Jets are included in that group ($20.8 million), but trail some of the top teams in the early going -- SF ($37.5), TEN ($37), BUF ($33), ARI ($32.1), and NE ($26.9). The issue is that there aren't enough top tier players to command that kind of money. So the new trend in free agency (the cap figures to increase approximately $7 million per year over the next several years) will be geared more towards maintaining rosters than revamping them with high-priced free agents. We have seen this pattern taking shape already. With plenty of cap room, teams are signing their own free agents at a greater rate, which will dilute the free agency pool significantly come March.
Knowing that the few players who do come free will command big money, some teams will be quick to make use of the franchise tag this offseason as well. The Bengals were the first on the board, using their tag on free agent DE Justin Smith. New England has already tagged CB Asante Samuel, and Chicago has committed to OLB Lance Briggs. With more salary space, teams are able to absorb the cap hit of a one-year contract and can continue to negotiate a long term deal without having to worry about bringing in a new player through free agency or the draft to replace a top tier performer. If a team isn't certain they already have a player on the roster who can step up and fill the role, if the draft isn't deep at their position of concern, or if they don't feel there will be a player in free agency who can provide the same talent for less money (remember, we're expecting a diluted free agent talent pool this year), then tagging a top player is a good move, especially in the new era of free agency.
One thing we don't expect to see is the transition tag. After the fiasco that was the Steve Hutchinson signing last year, teams will be leery of leaving themselves open to second guessing. The franchise tag requires a player to be paid the average of the top five salaries at his position. The transition tag pays the average of the top ten players at his position. The franchise tag means that a team that might want to sign your player is going to have to compensate you with at least first- and third-round draft picks. For all practical purposes, a franchise tag retains the player. A transition tag, although less expensive, can really expose the club if another team wants the player. There is no draft compensation and the original club has the right only to match the offer the competing club submits. After Hutchinson received a transition tag instead of a franchise tag, the Vikings put a deal together that made it difficult for the Seahawks to match, and one of the best guards in the league was gone.
Once free agency does get underway, look for things to heat up quickly. With a smaller number of top tier players available, the active teams will look to jump on them quickly, with a bulk of signings coming in the first seven days, and at top dollar prices. Top interior linemen will get close to $6 million a year. Top corners could go between $7 million and $8 million a year. Top defensive ends should easily get $7 million. But the challenge will be defining who those top players are. Teams can't get caught up in the early feeding frenzy and sign second-tier players for top money if they miss out on the marquis names. In fact, look for cooler heads to prevail. Many of the teams with the most cap room and the least cap room, such as the Colts, Panthers, Ravens, Eagles, Chargers, Bengals, and Patriots, can be expected to sit out the first round of bidding.
With the increase in cap space, teams have also become more inclined to consider trade offers. We have seen an increase in trades over the last two offseasons, mostly because teams are better able to absorb bigger contracts and cap charges that result from uncharged bonus money. Changes in cap rules have allowed teams to prorate some cap charges from trades to the next season, which has made it easier to get deals done earlier in the offseason, rather than waiting until after June 1st.
We are looking for the 49ers and the Cardinals to be two of the most active teams in free agency this year. The Niners have $37 million in cap room, and with Mike Nolan at the helm, are looking to improve on the defensive side of the ball. Like San Francisco, the Cardinals have some weapons on offense and can immediately improve their chances in a wide open NFC West with better play on the defensive side of the ball. But with Ken Whisenhunt now running the show, look for Arizona to also be in the market for some top offensive line talent that will create more opportunities for Edgerrin James in the running game.
The Redskins, however, will not be players. With only $4.3 million under the cap and the failed experiments of '06 free agent signings WR Brandon Lloyd and S Adam Archuleta still fresh in their minds, owner Daniel Snyder and head coach Joe Gibbs figure to be a little gun-shy. Look for them to try and accumulate draft picks and add young talent to a strong core of players.
Free agency has historically shown quarterback, cornerback, wide receiver, defensive end and left tackle as the prime money positions. But as a result of the extra space under the cap, look for teams to be more willing to spend money on their own players at historically devalued positions like G and S, especially with the lack of a strong free agent class at positions like running back, where players like Dominic Rhodes, Correll Buckhalter, LaBrandon Toefield, and T.J. Duckett have not shown an ability to play the role of feature back, but can be valuable as part of a RB tandem, and at wide receiver, where possession receivers like Drew Bennett and Kevin Curtis are leading the pack due to the inconsistency of deep threats like Donte Stallworth and Ashley Lelie.
The Jets have just five free agents, and RT Anthony Clement is the only starter in the group. We expect some changes to the roster, and the expected retirement of RB Curtis Martin will create more cap room for a team that could be in the market for some offensive help and an impact player on defense. We will get into further depth on the Jets free agency options and those of their AFC East rivals in upcoming features.