2020 NFL free-agency lessons: What happened to the record-setting deals?

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Friday, April 3, 2020

NFL free agency isn't over, but with the vast majority of notable players under contract, we can get a sense of the bigger picture and what it tells us about the state of the league.

As the NFL dealt with the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and started free agency just days after approving a new collective bargaining agreement, this was the most atypical free-agent period we've seen since the post-lockout window in 2011.

Even given how unusual this window was, there are lessons to be taken away about how the league is approaching things. Let's get a sense of what to learn from this most recent run of free agency and what it could mean for players and teams in the years to come.

Jump to a section:

Players are already looking to 2022

How injured free agents were affected

The market for veterans wasn't there

There weren't record-setting deals

Cornerbacks didn't fare well

Wide receivers fared even worse

Offensive linemen? They got paid

Confused teams, confusing decisions

ESPN Daily podcast: What we learned in free agency

Players signed shorter contracts

We saw a clear trend in free agency this year: shorter deals. Typically, the top contracts in free agency are for four or five years, allowing teams to spread the large signing bonuses typically associated with those deals over as many years as possible to lower cap hits. In 2019, for example, 16 of the top 20 free-agent contracts by average annual value (AAV, simply the player's total compensation divided by years) were for four or more years.

In 2020, just eight of the top 20 deals by the same measure have been for four or more seasons. To understand why agents and players are looking for shorter contracts, you have to look toward 2021 and 2022. Over the next two years, the NFL will renegotiate each of its television contracts, which are an enormous source of league revenue. The league is realistically hoping to double its television revenue to $15 billion.

Once that revenue spike takes place, the salary cap -- and player salaries -- should rise dramatically. (NBA fans will remember a similar spike taking place in the summer of 2016.) As a result, there were plenty of players throughout this class who were willing to take shorter deals in the hopes of getting another shot at free agency in 2022 and 2023, when the cap could be north of $250 million and approaching $300 million.

This also means players approaching free agency now might be more inclined to wait for their deals in the years to come. Quarterback Dak Prescott, now on a franchise tag at about $33 million, is the most notable. The Cowboys and Prescott could come to terms on a four- or five-year extension now, but if Prescott is willing to go year to year, he could pocket nearly $73 million over the next two seasons and then hit unrestricted free agency in 2022 with the league in a new economic landscape.

Players with injury histories were affected by the coronavirus outbreak

While it pales in comparison to the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic, we saw players with significant injury histories miss out on opportunities they would have had in a typical offseason. Players and team executives were unable to travel. With doctors and medical facilities committed to the fight against the coronavirus, it hasn't been easy (and at times has been impossible) for teams to get full medical testing on players from the physicians they trust.

The most significantly impacted player by this holdup has been pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who likely expected to get something close to a Khalil Mack-sized deal in free agency. It's possible that teams see a player who has yet to hit 10 sacks in a season and just don't want to pay a premium for Clowney's upside, but teams that might be interested in making him a multiyear offer would need to give him a full medical exam first. The former first overall pick underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in 2014 and missed time in the second half of 2019 with a core injury. You can understand why organizations that might have been willing to offer Clowney more than $60 million in injury guarantees would want to get a closer look before putting pen to paper.

Running back Todd Gurley's past few weeks were also surely affected by the crisis. No team was going to be able to devote its limited medical resources in the middle of the first week of free agency to Gurley, which is one of the reasons the de facto deadline for a Gurley trade came and went without a move. The Falcons quickly agreed to terms with Gurley on a one-year pact after he was released by the Rams, but if you've noticed, Atlanta hasn't officially announced that deal. It is likely waiting to get a closer look at Gurley's knee.

It's also going to affect quarterback Cam Newton, who hasn't been healthy since the first half of the 2018 season. He underwent shoulder surgery last winter and then suffered a Lisfranc injury during the preseason, so we never got to see whether the former MVP was healed from that shoulder issue. If Newton wants an opportunity at a starting job, a team such as the Chargers or Patriots is going to want to give him a detailed physical and see the 2011 first overall pick throw the football. Neither of those things is possible right now, which makes it more likely Newton will wait until the social distancing measures have been relaxed before signing.

Likewise, this seems likely to pop up again as we approach the 2020 NFL draft in a few weeks. Without the ability to see players at a pro day, set up a private workout or get post-combine medical data, teams are probably going to be more hesitant about taking prospects who are medical risks than they would in a typical year.

Free agents on the wrong side of 30 didn't do well

Prominent players on the downside of their careers who might have expected one last significant contract typically didn't end up getting what they hoped. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr., 31, who was a Pro Bowler as recently as 2018, got only one guaranteed year and $9.5 million as part of a two-year, $17 million pact. Offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, 31, took home a deal with a max value of three years and $30 million, right in line with far less effective or experienced players such as George Fant and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins, 32, threatened to not return for the final year of his Eagles deal, which was set to pay him $7.9 million; while he got $16.25 million guaranteed over the next two seasons from the Saints after his release, his AAV barely rose on the open market. Even quarterback Tom Brady got only $25 million per season on his two-year pact.

While there were exceptions, those moves tended to come from teams that typically don't have much of an ability to read the market, such as the Texans (wide receiver Randall Cobb) and Bears (tight end Jimmy Graham). This was not a friendly open market for the league's established stars.

The top of this year's class didn't move the market

Tight end Austin Hooper ($10.5 million per season from the Browns) and cornerback Byron Jones ($16.5 million per season from the Dolphins) came away with the largest AAV for players at their respective positions in league history. It might seem like those guys were resetting the market, but there's one factor left unaccounted for: the rise of the salary cap. After accounting for inflation, the top of the market didn't set records or keep up with the biggest contracts on NFL books.

The table below puts that in context. Going position by position, it lists the top active contract at each position by AAV, compares that to the most lucrative contract signed by a free agent this offseason by the same measure, and then includes a column detailing what that player would have needed to make per year to sign a true market-resetting deal:

Many of these veterans were re-signed before hitting the market. If we compare just free-agent deals to the free-agent deals of the past, only one position set a record for largest deal by percentage of AAV, which was at wide receiver. Even there, though, Amari Cooper's five-year, $100 million deal from the Cowboys came in at 10% of the cap, narrowly ahead of the 9.8% Mike Wallace earned on the five-year, $60 million contract he signed with the Dolphins in 2013. And while Wallace was able to get 50% of his contract fully guaranteed at signing, Cooper got only 40%.

For the players involved, money is money. Cooper and Jones got life-changing money and deserve to get paid. For the agents and the players who have big deals to come, though, the top of the market stagnating isn't a great sign. It tells us two things:

One is that the league didn't think this was a very good free-agent class, which is possible, although players such as Cooper and Clowney would be considered superstars at key positions in their respective primes, while Brady and Philip Rivers were veteran starters who still have something to offer. I would have expected them all to get more money. The average annual salaries for Brady and Rivers, accounting for cap, are smaller than Brock Osweiler's when he signed as a free agent with the Texans in 2016.

The other is that more teams are realizing free agency -- or at least the top of free agency -- isn't necessarily a smart place to spend money. It's likely not for a majority of teams; we've seen the Bills and Chiefs dramatically improve their roster in recent years by making smart free-agent investments, for instance. If teams do start treating free agency like it's a suboptimal solution, it'll change the way players and teams approach contracts.

In baseball, thanks to the frosty free-agent window of 2018, we began to see young superstars such as Ronald Acuna Jr. sign team-friendly deals years before they would be eligible for free agency. Football contracts are different for many reasons, but this could encourage the next Prescott or Kirk Cousins to sign the first deal they see as opposed to backing themselves to go year to year in advance of free agency. It's something we'll be monitoring this time next year with a class that could include Yannick Ngakoue, Patrick Peterson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Prescott.

Most teams were conservative at cornerback

We didn't see cornerbacks at multiple levels get the sort of contracts they would have hoped to receive. I mentioned Jones and Harris at the top of the market, but even the Darius Slay trade was telling. The Eagles had to give up only third- and fifth-round picks to acquire Slay, months after the Rams sent two first-round picks and a fourth-round selection for (an admittedly better and younger) Jalen Ramsey. The Eagles then handed Slay what amounts to a two-year deal for $26.6 million with two unguaranteed years attached. Slay himself suggested on Twitter in February that he expected to make north of the $15.1 million AAV Xavien Howard had hit on his new deal. He got there only with unguaranteed money.

Philly also signed Nickell Robey-Coleman to a one-year deal for a little over $1 million, which is remarkably low for a 28-year-old who had been an effective slot cornerback during his time with the Rams. There was a dramatic shift this offseason with slot corners. Last year, we saw teams place significance on paying their slot defenders. Bryce Callahan took home three years and $21 million from the Broncos. Tavon Young inked a three-year, $25.8 million deal with the Ravens. Kenny Moore II got four years and $33.3 million from the Colts, while Justin Coleman topped the lot with four years and $36 million from the Lions.

This year, the market mostly sputtered. Harris will move back into the slot, but his deal disappointed. Robey-Coleman signed for close to the veterans minimum. Brian Poole, who excelled for the Jets last season, re-signed on a one-year deal for $5 million. Bradley Roby signed a three-year, $36 million deal to re-up with the Texans, which is yet another example of general manager and coach Bill O'Brien failing to anticipate the market. Kendall Fuller, who took snaps at slot corner and safety for the Chiefs, did get a four-year, $40 million deal from Washington. Logan Ryan, a better player than Roby and Fuller, still hasn't signed.

There is still a lot of cornerback talent out there, too. In addition to Ryan, Darqueze Dennard, Bashaud Breeland, P.J. Williams, Prince Amukamara and the recently released Dre Kirkpatrick are all still available.

Teams resisted the wide receiver market in advance of the draft

This was a middling class of receivers, but the free-agent class struggled to make an impact. Robby Anderson, who was widely regarded as the best receiver in the group, ended up taking a two-year, $20 million deal from the Panthers with $12 million guaranteed. Five wideouts topped that guarantee mark in 2018 and three got there in 2019. While Cooper hit $20 million per season, even he didn't get the sort of guarantee structure that would have seemed likely heading into the season.

The middle class of wideouts also got crushed. Guys such as Breshad Perriman ($6 million from the Jets), Devin Funchess ($2.5 million, Packers), Nelson Agholor ($1.1 million, Raiders) and Demarcus Robinson (undisclosed, Chiefs) found only one-year deals. Phillip Dorsett took a one-year deal for the minimum from Seattle. Agholor didn't have his best season, and Funchess was hurt for most of the season, but Perriman was one of the most productive wideouts in the league in December. Every one of them would have at least held out hope for a multiyear offer.

Given how aggressive teams have been at wideout in years past, the easiest explanation for their sudden thriftiness at receiver has to be the upcoming draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projected 12 wide receivers to come off the board across the first two rounds in his latest mock draft. Teams certainly seem comfortable targeting this draft class at the expense of the veterans in free agency.

Veterans currently on rosters are also going to be at risk. Take someone like Kansas City's Sammy Watkins, whose $13.8 million base salary for 2020 was already untenable even before the wide receiver market tanked. He isn't going to get that sort of 2020 salary on the open market, and once all those first- and second-round picks flood rosters, there just aren't going to be many jobs available. The realistic threat of teams releasing players such as Watkins, Marqise Lee (Jaguars) or Marquise Goodwin (49ers) could lead them to accept pay cuts. (Update: Watkins restructured his contract with the Chiefs on Friday.)

Teams are still desperate for offensive linemen

Offensive line was one of the few places in which we saw teams stay aggressive in free agency. The Cardinals gave D.J. Humphries a three-year, $43.8 million deal before free agency began, and that seemed to set the tone. While the top of the market wasn't record-setting, we saw Anthony Castonzo (two years, $33 million from the Colts) and Jack Conklin (three years, $42 million from the Browns) each get significant deals as the best options available at their respective positions.

Needy teams bought in bulk. The Jets signed four offensive linemen, including the widely panned decision to give Fant a three-year, $27.3 million deal. His former employers signed four themselves, as the Seahawks added B.J. Finney, Brandon Shell, Cedric Ogbuehiand Chance Warmack, the last of whom sat out the 2019 season. This was one of the few positions in which the mid-tier got paid well and even the lower tier is mostly off the market.

The confused teams made confusing decisions

Finally, we saw teams that typically make head-scratching choices continue in that vein. The Texans were the most obvious example; even if we put the DeAndre Hopkins trade aside, the contracts they handed to Cobb, Roby and Eric Murray are disasters after you look at how the markets at those positions went. Murray, a useful special-teamer and a viable third/fourth safety on a good team, probably should have gotten a two-year deal for a total of about $6 million. Houston guaranteed him nearly $11 million and likely will be in for $12.6 million over the next two seasons.

The Bears proceeded to blow away nonexistent markets to get the guys they wanted. After general manager Ryan Pace struck out on tight ends Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims and Trey Burton, Chicago signed Jimmy Graham to a two-year, $16.1 million deal with $9 million guaranteed and what must be the most inessential no-trade clause in league history. (Burton is still under contract because his player-friendly deal structure guaranteed $4 million of his base salary for 2020 in 2019.) Chicago also chose to send a fourth-round pick to acquire Nick Foles from the Jaguars, eating some portion of what was an underwater contract in the process, when the likes of Newton and Andy Dalton are either available for free or will be available for much cheaper.

Even the Cardinals, who had the Hopkins deal fall into their lap, have managed to get their other major decisions wrong. Contracts for players such as Jordan Phillips, Devon Kennard, and De'Vondre Campbell have voidable years attached to reduce Arizona's short-term cap issues in 2020. That's a reasonable move if you have Drew Brees under contract at $25 million, but not really if you're adding marginal defensive players. Campbell's deal has a ridiculous four voidable years attached. It's the sort of financial mismanagement that would lead you to take away somebody's checkbook. Think about how foolish that strategy is ... and how much better Arizona's offseason still looks than Houston's. That's where we are with O'Brien.

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