One week from the opening of the NFL’s negotiating window for free agents, the marketplace is as unsettled as any in recent memory.
There is still no final number for the 2021 salary cap, which is expected to fall from a record $198.2 million in 2020 to around $185 million because of a revenue shortfall last season related to COVID-19. A rash of veteran cuts is underway and will continue through the start of free agency (March 17) and beyond, flooding the market with players who won’t count against clubs that then sign them in the compensatory draft pick formula. And the big spike from new TV contracts may not come until 2023, complicating how new multi-year deals are structured.
The expectation continues to be that the first wave of a couple dozen free agents will get paid as they always would. Then the bottom may fall out, with many second- and third-tier players looking at one-year deals that send them back to an uncertain market in 2022. And unlike most years, when teams and agents routinely meet at the NFL Scouting Combine — an event that was significantly altered by the pandemic, losing the in-person gathering in Indianapolis — sources say there is far less clarity for anyone involved about who may land where, or for how much.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith has already implored agents to “collude,” communicating with one another and union officials to avoid getting strong-armed into low deals that affect markets for years to come. But with roughly $800 million less in the 2021 marketplace that teams were budgeting for prior to the pandemic, it’s unavoidable the middle class is going to get squeezed to some degree, and teams are already getting creative with voidable years, salary conversions and other mechanisms as they restructure existing deals just to get by when the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET two Wednesdays from now.
With all that said, here’s a look at some pending unrestricted free agents who might end up getting more money than you think: