I’m not sure exactly when the fizzling out point is in free agency, but Day 10 feels about right. Oh sure, there’s still plenty of names out there, starting with one marquee defensive end who’s still good for about a dozen or so sacks (Jared Allen), and behind him are the handful of useful pieces who can make an important contribution in the right role (LeGarrette Blount, Lance Moore), and the dirt cheap lottery tickets (Miles Austin, Jermichael Finley). The pickups who fit into the latter two categories are often the most impactful in the fall.
Allen aside, the major cannonballs into the free agency pool are over. So when the dust finally meets the floor, we will look back on this free agency period and see a particularly mad time when Darrelle Revis was on the open market for a few hours alongside DeMarcus Ware. They’re two of the best defenders of this era, and we’ll also see a market that dumped all the money on cornerbacks, and cared little for running backs. The times, they’ve changed.
But inevitably like every free agency period we’ll also see something else when we look back. It’ll take at least a year, but a few of the contracts handed out since March 11 will become a salary cap burden that’s far too heavy. Like Ware this year, that can end in the player being a cap casualty, a fate which usually comes due to age, declining skills, and an astronomical dollar number that can’t be justified.
Teams typically set a max number they’re comfortable dedicating to each position, and even if they have cap room that can lead to the yearly curb kickings we see. Having money is nice, but it’s irrelevant if your current payroll isn’t being maximized. Ware and Revis may have been the most notable cuts this year, but D’Qwell Jackson was also axed by the Browns even though they entered free agency with the third most cap room. Similarly, despite having ample space with over $18 million to work with, the Falcons cut safety Thomas DeCoud—the same safety they signed only two years ago to a five-year contract extension.
The cycle of life in the NFL can lead to an abrupt professional death. So who could be the DeCoud of this free agency class a year or two from now? Well, let’s start with the guy who replaced D’Qwell Jackson.
You’re going to quickly notice a theme here: defenders who won’t age gracefully.
Karlos Dansby (signed a four-year contract with the Browns worth $24 million, with $14 million guaranteed): I like the Dansby signing in Cleveland. Really, I do, and I wrote glowing words about him yesterday. But the reality of Dansby’s 32-year-old body at a position that takes plenty of pummeling is that if he can maintain his current level of play (six sacks, four interceptions, 19 passes defensed, and 121 tackles this past season) throughout the guaranteed portion of the contract, the deal has been a win and everyone can part happy before the inevitable decay begins.
Predictably with his age Dansby’s contract was front-end loaded, and of his guaranteed money $10 million comes in just the first year. But a then 35-year-old in 2016 will still be due a base salary of $5 million, with the same amount coming in 2017. Unless he’s either discovered that youthful fountain we all seek or agrees to a pay cut, there’s no way Dansby sees the end of this contract.
Julius Peppers (signed a three-year contract with the Packers worth $30 million, with $7.5 million guaranteed): Peppers will be used in Green Bay as a situational pass rusher, and if his snaps are indeed limited enough to keep him fresh he has a chance to be this year’s John Abraham. In a similar role the 35-year-old Abraham had 11.5 sacis for the Cardinals in 2013 after being cut by Atlanta.
But there’s a problem with that comparison. Abraham was cut by the Falcons because of bloated contract and not so much his production, because a year ago he still recorded 10 sacks. Peppers was cut by the Bears because of his contract, his production, and his age. At 34 years old he simply lacked the burst and edge speed that made him so effective over the past two seasons when he had 23 sacks. If that’s still a reality even in a limited role, Peppers’ stay in the wintery bliss of Wisconsin will be brief, and with that minimal guaranteed money he could easily be available again a year from now.
Jason Hatcher (signed a four-year contract with the Redskins worth $27.5 million, with $10.5 million guaranteed): Hatcher’s pull on the open market was very much the proverbial “look what I’ve done lately” aphrodisiac. There should always be caution around a pass rusher who breaks out in a contract year with 11 sacks after taking down a quarterback only 16 times over the previous seven years. But caution isn’t a thing the Redskins traditionally recognize in March, so to bolster their pass rush Hatcher was signed to the heavy figures above, especially the guaranteed money.
The good news is that, much like Peppers, the guaranteed money is entirely in the first year between Hatcher’s $9 million signing bonus and his base salary. But he’ll be 32 when the 2014 season starts, and given his history of booming only when it’s convenient for him, there’s little reason to believe a then 34-year-old Hatcher will still be on the Redskins’ roster in 2016 when he’s scheduled to make $6.5 million. In fact, there’s no reason to believe that. None at all.