The 25th anniversary of almost anything usually is a big deal, but I suspect there won’t be much of a celebration this time. In fact, few people would remember that the NFL’s salary cap will reach the quarter-century mark this month. Nor would they realize that the cap has exploded from a modest $34.6 million in 1994 to $188.2 million this year — more than a five-fold increase.
But the introduction of that unique financial mechanism — which was agreed to during extensive collective-bargaining agreement negotiations between former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw — is one of the most important moments in pro football history. In fact, it’s one of the most significant developments in professional sports.
The NFL was first, but the NBA and NHL also use some form of a salary-cap system, and for the NFL, the result has been a period of relative labor harmony with very few work stoppages.
The NFL hasn’t had a single missed regular-season game since the introduction of the salary cap, and even with another lockout looming after the 2020 season, there already is precedent for an eventual settlement. When the NFL locked out the players in 2011, an agreement was reached in August, with only the annual preseason Hall of Fame game canceled.
As the NFL’s league year begins Wednesday with the start of unrestricted free agency, there is only a modest sense of expectation with the Class of 2019. With only a handful of recognizable names at the top of the list, look for teams to act quickly on the premier players, leaving second- and third-tier free agents hoping for the best after the initial wave of spending.
One other important factor to consider: Although several teams have a wealth of salary-cap space — including the Jets, Colts, Browns and Bills, all of whom have more than $73 million in cap room — there might not be the kind of spending spree seen in other years.
One reason is the lack of big-time players available. Another is the possibility of the lockout two years hence; some owners aren’t anxious to dole out significant signing bonuses because of the labor uncertainty. The Bills could be an exception, given their dalliance with disgruntled Steelers receiver Antonio Brown before a potential trade deal fell through. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see a more muted market once the top players are picked up, such as running back Le’Veon Bell, quarterback Nick Foles, safeties Earl Thomas, Landon Collins and Tyrann Mathieu, and defensive end Trey Flowers.
Throw in the fact that several of the most sought-after free agents heading into the offseason are no longer free. Many teams used the franchise tag to essentially retain the contract rights of big-time pass rushers such as Demarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Jadeveon Clowney and Frank Clark.
Don’t forget, too, that trades will factor into player movement, and already have. The Broncos will officially acquire quarterback Joe Flacco from the Ravens on Wednesday, quarterback Case Keenum will go from the Broncos to the Redskins, and the Giants will send defensive end Olivier Vernon to the Browns in exchange for guard Kevin Zeitler. Defensive end Michael Bennett will go from the Eagles to the Patriots and Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert will be sent to the Cardinals.
As teams prepare for what figures to be an active offseason, all avenues of player acquisition will be considered. That includes next month’s draft, which offers a promising cross-section of prospects, particularly on the defensive line, edge rusher, tight end and wide receiver.
“We have to use every means to build our team that we can, whether that’s the draft, free agency, undrafted free agency, looking at prospective trades,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said. “All the different tools that we have that the league office lets us build our team, we’ll consider it.”
The Ravens acted quickly on another front, re-signing highly regarded tight end Nick Boyle, who would have been a heavily recruited player in free agency if he had hit the open market. Linebacker C.J. Mosely, Baltimore’s highly productive linebacker, could be a prime free-agent target, although Baltimore is hopeful of re-signing him.
This could be a franchise-defining free-agency period for the Jaguars, who have been linked to free agent Nick Foles. Two years after he helped the Eagles to their first Super Bowl championship in place of the injured Carson Wentz, Foles could supplant underachieving former first-round quarterback Blake Bortles. Jaguars coach Doug Marrone wouldn’t openly discuss Foles at last week’s NFL Scouting Combine, but he did acknowledge that he prefers a veteran quarterback.
“The quarterback usually drives the boat,” Marrone said. “I like it where the quarterback knows more and everyone else has to catch up to the quarterback. I think that’s what keeps people on their toes. If you are waiting for the quarterback to catch up to everyone else on offense, then you are not going to progress the way you want to.”
Lions general manager Bob Quinn subscribes to an all-of-the-above mentality when it comes to roster-building.
“You’ve got to blend it, just like we talk about draft and free agency,” he said. “It really comes down to what guys are available to you, what guys you think as a system fit and what guys that you know. That’s something that we talk about internally with myself, with the coaches, with our cap guy. So it’s an ongoing conversation that really, there’s not one right answer to it.”
Let the signings begin, although two words of advice to those who plan to follow the action: Don’t blink.
This will happen very quickly. In fact, the big names could be gone in a matter of hours.
The NFL's top free agents:
1. Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers. Forced his way out of Pittsburgh by holding out the entire 2018 season. One of the most talented runners in recent years, although it’s uncertain whether there will be any effects of a year off.
2. Nick Foles, QB, Eagles. Philadelphia granted Foles his wish by not forcing him to remain with the Eagles. Has been linked to the Jaguars, who are in desperate need of an upgrade at quarterback.
3. Trey Flowers, DE, Patriots. A highly versatile lineman who was very productive in Bill Belichick’s defense. Can rush the passer as well as drop back in coverage.
4. Earl Thomas, S, Seahawks. Thomas had an acrimonious relationship toward the end in Seattle, but when he’s healthy, he has great range and excellent tackling ability.
5. Landon Collins, S, Giants. Coming off a shoulder injury that required surgery, Collins had hoped to remain with the Giants his entire career. Somewhat limited range in pass coverage but a tremendous asset in the right scheme.
6. Matt Paradis, C, Broncos. Had a leg injury that shortened his 2018 season, but Paradis is one of the smartest, most effective centers in the game.
7. Trent Brown, OT, Patriots. After being traded from San Francisco to New England, Brown proved a reliable replacement for Nate Solder, who signed with the Giants.
8. Tyrann Mathieu, S, Texans. The “Honey Badger” signed a one-year “prove it” deal with Houston after being released by the Cardinals last year. A ball-hawking safety who will command plenty of attention in free agency.
9. Anthony Barr, LB, Vikings. A solid outside linebacker who improved over time in Minnesota.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Ravens. Very sure tackler who has had at least 100 tackles in four of his first five NFL seasons.