To me, free agency in the NFL is about one thing and one thing only: cash money. Regret usually follows those spending sprees, but it comes later, like when Albert Haynesworth gets his first chance to refuse spring workouts. Free agent money baths are hard to find this season. In fact, players are getting squeezed, with the notable exception of Jeff Ireland's money bomb in the opening hours of free agency.
So why the squeeze?
1. Flat cap - It's a relatively flat cap anyway, going up to $123 million this year from just under $121 million the year before. With the exception of a handful of teams, most of the league has been protected from itself by a lack of cap space to chase free agents with.
The teams with ample cap space used it up quickly. Miami started out with $31 million to work with, and promptly gave Mike Wallace more than his fair share of it. The Browns had more cap room than any team, until they saw Paul Kruger's 15.5 sacks and figured that was worth $41 million over five years. Desmond Bryant got $34 million. Colts owner Jim Irsay decided to buy a whole new team, turning $40 million in cap space into seven new contracts.
2. Big spenders silenced - You know what's really missing from this year's free agency period? Dan Synder and Jerry Jones. The NFL emasculated America's favorite stereotypical team owners with hefty penalties for spending too much money during the uncapped 2010 season (somehow the league maintains with a straight face there was no collusion that year, and it got a judge to say it too).
The Redskins got hit with a $36 million penalty, distributed equally between this season and last. They were able to make some moves last year, but GM Bruce Allen is finding it to be far more restrictive in year two. Head coach Mike Shanahan noted the limitations of the penalty the day before free agency started. From the NFL Network:
"I think if you go on any football team and you take a look at $18 million or $36 million, you'll take off the best, maybe, six seven players on each team."
The Cowboys have yet to sign a free agent, even after restructuring a long list of contracts earlier this month. Washington made its first move on Thursday, signing offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood, at a time when Jake Long, Sebastian Vollmer and the most Redskins-like free agent of all, Andre Smith, were still available.
3. Market glut - There are a handful of positions loaded with free agent talent. The list of cornerbacks would have caused an avalanche of $100 million deals in any other year. In 2013, teams are taking their time with names like Nnamdi Asomugha. Hell, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie only got a one year deal. The same thing is happening at safety and offensive tackle.
4. Middle class decline - I wrote about this phenomenon a week ago. Teams are getting smarter about scouting. The top picks in the draft are cheaper than they used to be, and team's don't miss on prospects like they once did. Coaches are finding ways to fit players into their systems, rather than trying to force players into unfamiliar roles that take time to learn. Draft picks from every round are being counted on as plug-and-play players, from starting quarterbacks to special teamers.
You can add smarter spending under this same broad category. Look no further than the extraordinary restraint teams are showing with wide receivers. Greg Jennings still hasn't found a job. Wes Welker said yes to Denver's two-year, $12 million deal, just a year after making more than $9 million on the franchise tag. Miami spent big to land Mike Wallace, but more patient teams can take a chance on Tavon Austin or even Ryan Swope in the draft for a total contract that will cost less than one year of what Wallace will.
When you get past the uppermost echelon of free agent players, the differences are subtle. The fifth-best free agent receiver isn't much different from a player ranked ninth on a team's free agent list, but the latter player is available at much more favorable rate.
Teams are still buying when it comes to free agency; they're just being much smarter about it. The Colts and Eagles, for example, have been among the league's busiest teams so far. The contracts those teams have handed out have been mostly pretty reasonable deals for mid-level starters with some upside whose deals will not hamper the front office in the years to come.
Free agency in 2014 could end up looking a lot like free agency in 2013, with the cap expected to stay in the same ballpark as this year's. The NFL's popularity is likely to push revenues up again next year, just enough to add a little extra cap space when the final number gets hammered out in the spring.
Owners got a pretty sweet deal under the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011, the one that came about as the result of a lockout. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if players saw into the future. Then again, maybe they did, which is why the labor battled ended how it did. What you're seeing this week is just one part of the long-term results.
Keep your eye on the cap decision in 2015, when the revenue pool increases from the new television deals. While the league and the union have differing opinions of what the cap will grow to starting that year, my guess is that teams and players will see a significant bump.
At that point, will teams start spending again like they did in the later part of the previous decade? Time will tell. Taking the shackles off Jones and Synder ought to at least make it feel a little more like old times, but the rest of the league's owners might be inclined to keep their faith in the scouts and cap guys changing the way free agency looks.