With the NFL new year set to kick off this week, 2021 free agency (and all of its rumors) is just around the corner. Fans are both excited and nervous; excited if their favorite team is under the cap and pensive if their franchise is in the red.
What is the feeling around the NFL with free agency set to open?
This is also the best way to explain the feeling among teams and player reps as free agency approaches — pensive. According to league insiders I’ve spoken with, the 2021 free-agent market will be unlike anything we’ve witnessed in recent NFL history.
Here’s why — top-tier free agents get the majority of the pie, then there’s a lull and the rest of the free agents fight for what’s left. Over the past half-dozen years, the trend in free agency has been consistent.
With the cap reduced almost $20 million from a year ago (Adam Schefter recently reported the 2021 salary cap will be $182.5 million) and uncertainty about where it will be a year from now, the top free agents who sign large contracts in 2021 will see less money than in the past.
Edge rushers will have tough decisions to make in free agency
For instance, let’s take a look at the group of edge rushers available in 2021 NFL free agency, one of the better positions this year. Shaq Barrett, Matthew Judon, and Carl Lawson are expected to sign large deals that will pay them at or above market value. The remaining free-agent edge rushers are likely to have tough decisions to make.
Expectations are that many free agents who usually fit into the top tier at a position may have to accept contracts that are less than their market value or sign a one-year deal with the hopes of a big-money, long-term deal in 2022.
Did Bills linebacker Matt Milano leave money on the table?
Matt Milano is an example of the former. The Buffalo Bills agreed to a four-year, $44 million contract with Milano last week. But one league capologist told me Milano would’ve commanded a deal closer to $13 million per year in an ordinary year where the cap did not take a hit. Milano took a potential 15% cut from market value in 2021 free agency for the security of a long-term contract.
Jadeveon Clowney not in the same boat as Milano
Jadeveon Clowney’s experience last year is an example of the latter. Clowney wanted a deal that would’ve paid him $18 to $22 million each season and turned down lesser offers. He ultimately chose to sign a one-year contract with the Titans with the hopes of a longer-term deal in the future. Obviously, that has not worked out.
The wide receiver position is unsettled heading into the new league year
The situation at receiver may be more pronounced than any other position in free agency.
Kenny Golladay will receive the payday he expects when he hits free agency. League insiders tell me the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins are expected to lead the charge for his services. But after Golladay, many of the top free-agent receivers could end up with below-market contracts.
This is not only because many teams are nervous about signing receivers to long-term deals, but also the fact that it’s another very strong class of wideouts in this year’s draft.
Will we hear of any verbal deals over the next few days?
One thing that’s also missing from this year’s free-agent period is the talk of verbal deals that have already been agreed to. Free agency usually begins at the Senior Bowl then kicks into high gear at the NFL Combine.
Last year from the combine, I reported on PFN that Philip Rivers to the Indianapolis Colts would happen. I also reported that the Jets liked offensive tackle Jack Conklin and were looking at George Fant as another option. As Meatloaf once said, two out of three ain’t bad.
Those verbal deals have been nonexistent to date. This is not only because the combine was canceled while the Senior Bowl was a good old-fashioned scouting event with little outside activity, but teams are waiting to see where the free-agent market will be set at each position.
A good source tells me those verbal deals will start this week. However, unlike previous years, don’t expect an insane amount of free-agent chatter like years past around the legal tampering period.
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