NFL Free Agency Proverbs

by Eric Eager|February 22, 2024

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The 2023 NFL season is over, which means the 2024 NFL offseason is here. With the NFL Scouting Combine set to commence next weekend and free agency quick to follow, we wanted to write a companion article to last year’s piece on the NFL draft, which spelled out what the analytics community has learned over the past decade regarding the league’s premiere offseason event.  

In this article, we look at the broader time period that is the offseason (more specifically, free agency) and what we can glean from the sharpest research that has taken place about what teams should be doing with their next few months.  

As always, check out the SumerSports Show with former Falcons General Manager and current SumerSports executive Thomas Dimitroff and myself, which is available not only wherever you get your podcasts, but also on Sirius XM radio each Friday night on the Sirius XM NFL Channel. 

This list is meant to be instructive, but not necessarily exhaustive. For feedback, @SumerSports on X is a good place to start. 

Winning free agency rarely equates to actually winning.

This statement follows from simple logic. Free agency is a place where teams search to plug immediate holes on their roster. Teams that have substantial immediate needs are less likely to be contenders. Thus, teams that have to compete in the marketplace to make what appear to be big splash free agent signings are likely overpaying to fill in gaps with players for which we have almost complete information. Those gaps were likely going to keep them from being good in the first place anyway.  

Now, logic is only good so long as it fits within the confines of the world within which we are governed. We can go over anecdotes, but for every Orlando Brown Jr. we can cite a Tom Brady, so we need an empirical overview. Luckily, my former colleague Brad Spielberger of PFF did a study, using my WAR metric, to look at historical free agency spend and how that correlated with player, and ultimately team, success. Spielberger’s conclusion was: 

“At the end of the day, it’s exceedingly difficult to get good bang for your buck in NFL free agency. Whenever there are multiple suitors involved for a free agency player, odds are an overpay will be necessary for one team to get the deal done.” 

While the second part of the quote is largely the most important reason why free agency dollars do not yield the same surpluses that other monies do, there is another clue hidden in the data. This clue was not only evident in our analyses of PFF grades but also other player-level metrics to the point where it led the folks at Madden to coin the phrase “teams and schemes” as their process for putting a second set of eyes on players who changed teams and/or coaching staffs. Player performance is extremely sensitive to context and while free agency can sometimes be a place where sharp teams can project a misused player into stardom in their scheme (e.g., Visanthe Shiancoe), it’s often the other way around; teams are paying players for how their traits translated somewhere else.  

Free agency’s inability to drastically change the outlook of NFL teams leads to the following corollary to the proverb above: 

Salary cap space can be overrated.

This seems sacrilegious from a person who works for an analytics company that is charged with helping teams use salary cap space efficiently and who has specifically said that the cap is not fake.

Make no mistake, the cap is not fake.  

One only needs to look at the Saints, the Buccaneers, the Rams, or even the two-time defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in recent years to realize that the salary cap is affecting the moves teams can make. It’s just that the effects of the cap are asymmetric; the lack of cap space can hurt you more than a bevy of cap space can help you.  

And the reasons for this can be seen above. There isn’t a lot of value to be had in free agency. Most of the players who are available are playing non-premium positions like running back, linebacker, guard, center, safety, or special teams. Getting a great player here can obviously help your team, but not the same way getting a quarterback, pass catcher, left tackle, or pass rusher will help you. Furthermore, if one absolutely needs a player at one of the premium positions, the kinds of players a team generally gets in free agency are Kirk Cousins, Kenny Golladay, Riley Reiff, an aging Von Miller, Trumaine Johnson, etc. Competitively speaking, using cap dollars on players of this caliber is setting you back rather than giving you an edge over the competition.  

A sharp way to use this cap space is the emulate what Chicago did a season ago, which is what SumerSports CEO Thomas Dimitroff and I advised them to do at Super Bowl radio row: trade for players at premium positions. While this is often costly in terms of draft capital, it is better than settling for the quality of players above. In D.J. Moore and Montez Sweat, the Bears have largely overcome the reason they had so much cap room in the first place going into last year, which was that they didn’t have that many draft picks worth extending from the Ryan Pace era (and they traded some of them for Khalil Mack, too).  

Why Thomas Dimitroff Thinks Bears’ GM Ryan Poles Should Trade No. 1 Pick for a Premier Player – NBC Chicago 

Another reason salary cap space is overrated is in the next proverb: 

The salary cap can be manipulated to make an individual move or any small number of moves, but its long-term effects are real.

The reason that people think the salary cap is fake is that every year at this time there are teams, usually the Saints, that are tens of millions of dollars over the cap only to become cap compliant by the deadline, even to the point where they can make deals for players to seemingly help their team. This is due to the abundance of instruments that are available to them to push money into future years.  

One of the first ones, which I detailed in the article below, is cutting players after June 1st, or now with a post-June 1st designation, which takes dead money associated with prorated bonuses and splits it over two years. For example, the Broncos may cut Russell Wilson before the fifth day of the 2024 league year with a post-June 1 designation, which means that the Broncos can spread out the carnage of the remaining liabilities of his signing bonus over two years, instead of accelerating it to 2024 alone. 

Examining Post-June 1st Cuts | SumerSports 

Sometimes a team needs cap relief, but wants to (or must due to the amount of dead cap left on their deal) keep a player around despite a hefty cap hit. This can be done through a restructure, which usually converts salary into a bonus, and prorates it over the rest of the contract, or over five years, whichever is shorter. For example, if a player has a paragraph 5 salary of $25 million in 2024, converting such money into a bonus over five years will create $20 million of cap space, seemingly out of thin air. If a team doesn’t have five years to spread the money over, they can add what are called void years to the deal, which are dummy years that teams use to stash prorated bonus money into the future. 

Contract Restructures Explained | SumerSports 

Now, this isn’t a panacea, as once a player’s deal voids, the bill is due, and all of the remaining prorated money is accelerated onto the team’s cap. This is a relatively new phenomenon, one that the Bucs had to deal with with Mike Evans and Baker Mayfield recently. Thus, what used to be something of a relief, a player or set of players’ contracts expiring, now often comes with dead cap as a parting shot.  

One final point about void years: they have curbed the asymmetry between player and team when it comes to non-franchise tag short-term deals. One of the bigger misconceptions surrounding the canonical fully guaranteed contract in NFL history, the three-year, $87-million deal doled out to Kirk Cousins by Minnesota, was that the shortness of the deal balanced the risk that Cousins was simply a product of Washington’s strong supporting cast and would fail to work out in Minnesota.  

In reality, the shortness of the deal gave the Vikings very little in the way of flexibility, allowing Cousins’ brass to repeatedly belly up to the table for additional extensions when he simply (and arguably) played up to the value of the deal as a means of cap relief for the purple. With void years becoming more popular, current Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah has been able to maintain the short-term nature of Cousins’ deals while keeping some cap flexibility to maintain a roster that has competed for playoff berths the last few years. 

Void Years Explained | SumerSports 

Cash and cap are not the same thing.

This is something that has come into the forefront of our discussion because of the great work of OverTheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald, PFF’s Brad Spielberger, and Jack Duffin, a Browns fan who has a very good grasp of the salary cap and writes for 247Sports.com. Crudely, cash spending is the amount of money that comes out of the owner’s pocket each season, which over a four-year period must amount to 89% of the salary cap to prevent teams from hoarding money. Cap spending is what is accounted for vis-à-vis the salary cap. For example, the above $25 million P5 salary converted to a signing bonus is a $25 million cash expense either way while being a $5 million cap charge spread over five years when converted to a bonus.  

Duffin is a Browns fan, which is apt, since Cleveland is one of the teams that generally spends more cash than cap and prorates into future seasons. Duffin lays out in the article below that such approaches are sustainable given ownership is willing to pony up the cash in the form of these bonuses and the cap goes up each year.  

Understanding The Cleveland Browns Spending Philosophy & Why It Is Sustainable (247sports.com) 

That last part is not even all that necessary, but it does provide the theoretical edge for the Clevelands and the Philadelphias of the world, since a dollar spent today and accounted for later costs less than one spent and accounted for today, relative to the cap.  

The fact that some teams spend more cash than cap makes what Kansas City has done, winning two Super Bowls with an expensive quarterback while being consistently below average in terms of cash spending, even more impressive. Kudos to their General Manager Brett Veach and the recently departed Vice President of Football Operations Brandt Tilis (now with the Panthers) for building the first ever team to win a Super Bowl with a quarterback carrying the largest cap hit in football while dealing with this constraint. 

Impact players at premium positions are hard to come by, while teams can acquire difference makers at non-premium positions in free agency.

This loops back to the first proverb, which is that it’s hard to win games in free agency, but it is worth mentioning on its own. High-end players at premium positions are simply not available in free agency, and when they are, there is often some risk in rostering the player. This was highlighted very well by Fitzgerald in the article below:  

Maximizing Roster Construction by Valuing Positions in the NFL Draft | Over the Cap 

Take, for example, the top 10 players per OverTheCap in terms of APY at wide receiver: 

None of these players were acquired in free agency. Half, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, A.J. Brown, Stefon Diggs, and D.J. Moore, were acquired via trade, but none of these players have even been accessible on the open market during their career. Contrast this with the top 10 players at linebacker: 

Edmunds, Mosely, Oluokun, Okereke, Campbell, and Davis have all been on the open market during their career. One can look at other premium and non-premium positions and spot similar, albeit not as pronounced, trends.  

While this may seem more of a draft proverb than a free agency one, it helps us set expectations for the next few months. If your favorite team is deficient at left tackle, for example, the solutions generated via free agency will be meager and/or temporary.  

Developmental differentials are real but are not leveraged to their fullest potential in free agency.

My former colleague at PFF, Timo Riske, did an extensive study using our WAR metric on the developmental curves of players at different positions. He found that among offensive skill players and non-defensive linemen, defensive backs aged more slowly than offensive skill positions while linebackers and running backs aged the quickest. This is except for tight end, where only 40% of the player’s career WAR is generated before the age of 25.  

Investigating positional aging curves with PFF WAR | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

This finding has the potential to create an edge this time of year, as tight ends and safeties are available in high numbers in free agency. As I detailed in 2022, the Cleveland Browns stunned a lot of people with their extension of David Njoku. However, given the age curve of tight ends, and specifically athletic tight ends, the mistake was drafting him high in the first place; to let him go before he hit his peak would simply compound such errors. Since the contract, Njoku has turned 139 targets into 1510 yards and 10 touchdowns, securing a Pro Bowl selection in 2023.  

Making sense of David Njoku’s new contract with the Cleveland Browns | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF 

Riske found that players in the trenches tend to age more slowly than players on the perimeter, which doesn’t necessarily help teams that need tackles but can be a source of value for teams looking to buy low on the interior of the offensive line. For example, Connor McGovern, after four seasons with the Cowboys, was an affordable piece for the Bills’ offensive line in free agency, signing a three-year, $13-million deal as they tried in vain for their first Super Bowl title.  

Trades for veteran players are underused and undervalued.

When the Cleveland Browns, under the first analytics GM, Sashi Brown, traded for failed Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler and his huge cap hit, in essence buying a second-round pick, there was a thought in my circles that this would be a new norm in the NFL with rebuilding teams buying draft picks with unused cap space (see above) by taking on struggling players with bad contracts. 

NFL Trade Deadline – Trade Types Explained | SumerSports 

This largely hasn’t materialized, with in-season trades being the main source of swaps that exercise the draft pick/cap space curve to fit the needs of each team (see Von Miller, Rams). The Browns, who are one of the savvier teams in all of football, executed the “Amari Cooper for a fifth?” trade with the Cowboys two years ago, because they were willing and able to take on Cooper’s large salary. That has paid tremendous dividends for them, to the tune of 150 catches, 2410 yards and 14 touchdowns for Cleveland, despite inconsistencies at the quarterback position.  

The Cooper trade is illustrative of the possibilities that exist for teams that have resources, either in the form of cap space or draft capital (or, in a perfect world, both). While prorated bonus monies must stay with the trading team during a swap, money that has not been paid out, in the form of paragraph 5 (guaranteed or not) salaries, future roster or option bonuses, etc., go with the player in a trade. If a receiving team can absorb the hit, it’s usually preferable to the trading team than cutting the player, and hence they are usually willing to part ways for a significant discount. If the receiving team has a ton of draft capital, they can often execute a pick swap to appear to sweeten the deal, as Cleveland did for Elijah Moore last offseason, sending a second-round pick for Moore and a third-rounder, which sounded a lot better for the Jets than it really was.  

This proverb appears to contradict the one above that says that cap space is overrated, and in a sense it does. However, because this tool is so infrequently used, said cap space doesn’t have the realized utility it could, hence said conclusion.  

Average is a transient state in the NFL. Optimizing for average should be avoided if at all possible.

A couple of years ago, using my PFF Elo rating system, I showed using a Markov transition matrix that being above or below average were transient states in the NFL, meaning that the path to being a great team is not all that much longer from below average to elite than it is from above average to elite, and it doesn’t take all that long to go from being poor to elite in a relatively short amount of time. I put this prediction to the test in my bullish stance on the Detroit Lions, who went from 3-13-1 in 2021 to a 17-point lead in the NFC Championship Game in two years, while others in their conference optimized for average, with meager results. These results were replicated with Football Outsiders’ (RIP) DVOA last year.  

Even one of the Lions’ main competitors, Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, whose franchise has taken a different approach, is aware of this research, having referenced it in his 2024 preseason press conference. After winning 13 games in 2022 and seven in 2023, it appears that Minnesota is indeed doing something of a reset, with the Lions and the Packers clear favorites, and the Bears further along in their rebuild.  

Vikings’ big picture plan takes center stage during camp-opening pressers – Sports Illustrated Minnesota Sports, News, Analysis, and More 

Thus, while the shiny objects of March are enticing, they don’t move the needle much. Unless your team is trying go from the precipice of elite to firmly elite (assuming such assessments are accurate), the returns are likely even less than stated in the previous proverbs of this article, as even a place among the above average teams in the NFL is transient at best. 

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