Here we are with last season over and with training camp not set to open until late July. NFL media people, bloggers, and assorted pundits are penning almost daily articles on an upcoming item on the NFL calendar: the opening of free agency in mid-March.
The majority of what they’ll be writing over the next three weeks will be mere filler – wild, unwarranted speculation about which team will land which free agent. The big nationwide sites are actually worse than home-team-centered sites when it comes to saturating the internet with silly predictions that have no basis and will never happen. Don’t drink that Kool-Aid.
Let’s get down to reality. The Green Bay Packers don’t currently have the financial resources to go wild in free agency generally, and in particular in competing for top-notch free agent talent. The Packers sit at 23rd place in “top 51 cap space,” with $19.25 million available. Even if they were to jettison Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, and Brian Bulaga, it would barely land them in the league’s top 10 in terms of cap space. And of course, most of that additional money would have to be poured back into purchasing their replacements.
By contrast, going into the 2017 free market period the Packers were in 14th place, with $41 million available. The Browns were way out in the lead ($106.5 million), followed by the 49ers, Jaguars, Buccaneers, and Patriots.
There are various limits contained in the Collective Bargaining Agreement meant to discourage money hoarding, but they are too complicated to explain here. Suffice it to say that some teams end up having to spend around 90 percent of their cap money on player compensation in a given year – even if they don’t want to acquire more players. This might help to explain some of the extravagant contracts that free agents have signed.
New Packers’ GM Brian Gutekunst has expressed more of a desire to acquire free agents than his predecessor ever did, but he doesn’t realistically have sufficient funds to make much of an impact in the upcoming free agent marketplace. It ain’t gonna happen!
I’ve never before seen so much disparity in cap space numbers. It’s clear that a number of teams have semi-intentionally allowed themselves to have bad seasons. There’s a long history of teams accepting bad win-loss records in order to get top draft picks.
In addition to that strategy, a number of teams have gotten rid of top players in order to free up money to make a big splash in the next free agent market.
One good example was the 2017 Jaguars, who had the third most cap space heading into that year’s free agency period. Their number of wins since 2011 had been 5, 2, 4, 3, 5, and 3, but they soared to 10 wins last season. The 49ers (second most cap space) and the Titans (fifth most) also saw dramatic improvement in their win-loss records. Sometimes, sudden win-loss reversals are more a result of financial hoarding than due to great coaching, fewer injuries, a favorable schedule, or other such factors.
At any rate, for 2018 the Cleveland Browns are once again way out ahead of everyone else, with almost $111 million in available funds. This includes a carry-over of $50 million from 2017. Next in line are the Jets, Colts, 49ers, Texans, and Buccaneers, who have stashes from $79 million to $64 million. You probably noticed that only one of these top six cap space teams had as many as six wins last year – and that’s only because the 49ers acquired Jimmy Garoppolo in midseason.
As for Cleveland, and for Jacksonville until last year, even cap-space-hoarding hasn’t aided consistently mismanaged enterprises.
For some further details, the Sporting News made a list of the top 18 unrestricted free agent signings of 2017 (including re-signings by the same team). The list was spread out over 15 teams – a sign that it’s hard for one team to afford multiple big free agent signings. The three teams on this list who each had two signings were the Patriots, Jaguars, and Packers.
The Packers re-signed Nick Perry, for $60 million over five years, and they signed Martellus Bennett for $20.25 million for three years. They also lost T.J. Lang, who went to Detroit for $28.5 million for three years.
The Calais Campbell Coup
I must digress a bit. For the same price the Packers paid for Nick Perry, the Jaguars picked up Calais Campbell, though for four, not five years. It would be unfair to compare their 2017 seasons, as Perry was limited to 12 games due to injuries. Campbell, though, in 15 games had 60 tackles and 14.5 sacks, three passes defended, and three forced fumbles.
Jacksonville’s belief in the Cardinals’ veteran of nine years was rewarded: Campbell tied for second in sacks in 2017. What makes the Jaguars look so brilliant is that Campbell never previously had more than nine sacks in a season. At the same time it would have been all but inconceivable for the Packers to expend $15 million per year on Campbell, even if they could have foretold the future. As it was, $12 million per season to Perry was excessive in most fans’ minds.
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up
The Packers have a whole new set of top player personnel people. There’s Brian Gutekunst at the helm, and his right-hand guy in terms of free agency is John Wojciechowski, director of pro personnel. Eliot Wolf has gone to Cleveland. I suppose that Russ Ball, by virtue of his new title of director of football operations, will also be a key participant. I wish them well at plugging up some holes and maybe getting some key reserves through free agency.
I’ll be surprised, however, if they manage to land a real difference-making free agent. I do see one possibility, however: if the Packers were to release a highly-paid under-contract player, such as Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, or Randall Cobb, that might provide enough funds to procure a free agent replacement for the dropped player. Better yet, for about the same salary, the free agent might be a substantial upgrade.
Though opinions are highly mixed, my guess is that Cobb would be viewed as the most expendable of the three.