Now that the Super Bowl is over and the Los Angeles Rams have been crowned the Champs, it’s peak optimism time for the other 31 franchises. As teams embark on the NFL offseason, it is a time for them to gear up, reload or add the last piece or two for a championship run.
One tool NFL general managers have in their arsenal, as they look to improve their team, is Free Agency. If you are like me, after about week three of far too many Jets seasons, I’m over at Walter Football checking to see who’s a free agent in the upcoming offseason.
The new league year starts on March 16th, and Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh are tasked with infusing the Jets with enough talent to get Gang Green back to the playoffs. The Jets are armed with lots of salary cap space and plenty of roster holes that need to be filled. Let’s look at exactly what free agency is and is not.
The Salary Cap
This season the NFL base salary cap is expected to be $208,200,000 according to overthecap.com. As of today, February 24th, the Jets have about $48 million in cap space, the fifth most. That number will increase as Douglas tinkers with the roster before free agency starts.
The salary cap is determined by splitting about 48% of the league’s total revenue by 32. The NFL operates with what is known as a hard cap. this means that if say the salary cap is $100 million a team can only spend that much on player salaries. They can spend less and roll over the unused space into the next season but can not spend over the cap one year and below the next to “balance” it out. Teams must spend at least 90% of cap space during three or four-year windows, within the 10-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
Types of Free Agents and Different Tags
- Exclusive Rights Free Agents (EFFA): Players that have accrued less than three years service time and their contract is up. A player is awared an accrued season if he is on the roster for six games. Injured players on Injured reserve (IR) or the physically unable to perform list (PUP) are given credit of games as long as injury is not designated a non-football injury. Their team can offer them a qualifing offer for one year at the league minimum salary and they must sign offer or sit out.
- Restricted Free Agent (RFA): Players that have accrued three years of sevice time and their contract is up becomes a RFA. RFA are allowed to negotiate with other teams in free agency but prior to the start of free agentcy the original team can extend a tender offer. There are four levels of tender offers: first-round tender, second-round tender, origninal-round tender, and the right-to-first-refusal tender. The level of player compensation is tied the the level of tender. If the new team signs a RFA the original team has five days to match offer. If they do not match offer they will be they will be compensated with draft picks based on tender level. In the case of right-to-first-refusal if the orginal team does not match offer no draft compensation is awarded.
- Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA): Players that have accrued four seasons and contract is up are UFAs. These players are free to negotiate with any team they want and sign with any team they want.
- Franchise Tag: The franchise tag is a tool teams can use in an effort to keep UFA. There are two types of franchise tags, the exclusive rights franchise tag and the non-exclusive rights franchise tag. If a team designates a player with the exclusive rights franchise tag they must pay that player the average of the top five players at that position or 120% of previous years salary, whichever is higher for one year. With the non-exclusive rights franchise tag the player can negoitate with other teams. If a deal is reached the original team can match offer. If they decline to match the offer the new team must compensate orginial team with two first-round draft picks. Teams often use the franchise tag as a catalyst to work out a long term deal with player.
- Transition Tag: The transition tag is similair to the franchise tag but the player compensation is based on the average salary of the top 10 players at the position instead of top five. Other teams can sign players designated with the transition tag. The original team can match the offer. If they do not match offer, the orginal team receives no draft compensation.
Who Actually Gets to Free Agency?
On February 22 teams can begin to designate franchise tags and transition tags with the deadline being March 8th. Many of the top players never make it to free agency. Teams will try to sign their top free agents to long-term deals, before using the different tags. Each year some good players make it to the open market but just what are you getting? In all likelihood when a team signs a free agent they have probably outbid other potential suitors. And why didn’t the team that just worked with that player every day for four years re-sign him?
Here is a look at the top 3 free agents each year between 2015 and 2018 as ranked by NFL.com. I picked this time period because in free agency players often sign four to six-year contracts and I wanted to see how the contracts played out.
- Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Detriot Lions, signed a six-year $114 million deal with the Miami Dolphins (the highest contract for a defensive player at the time). Suh was released prior to the 2018 season.
- Julius Thomas, Tight End, Denver Broncos, signed a five-year $46 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was traded to the Dolphins prior to the 2017 season.
- DeMarco Murray, Running Back, Dallas Cowboys, signed a five-year $42 million deal with the Phildelphia Eagles. Murray was traded to the Titans after just one season.
- Malik Jackson, Defensive Tackle, Denver Broncos, signed a six-year $85 million deal with the Jaguars. Jackson was released prior to the 2019 season.
- Olivier Vernon, Defensive End, Miami Dolphins, signed a five-year $85 million deal with the New York Giants. Vernon was traded to the Cleveland Browns prior to the 2019 season.
- Kelechi Osemele, Offensive Guard, Baltimore Ravens, signed a five-year $60 million deal with the Oakland Raiders. Osemele was traded to the Jets prior to the 2019 season.
- Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears, signed a one-year deal with the Eagles.
- Calais Campbell, Defensive End, Arizona Cardials, signed a four-year $60 million deal with the Jaguars. Campbell was traded to the Ravens prior to the 2020 season.
- Brandon Williams, Defensive Tackle, Baltimore Ravens, re-signed with the Ravens for five years at $54 million. Williams is still with the team.
- Kirk Cousins, Quarterback, Washington Commanders, signed a three-year $84 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings. Cousins played out entire contract.
- Drew Brees, Quarterback, New Orleans Saints, Brees re-signed with the Saints for tow years at $50 million. Brees played out contract.
- Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, signed a one-year $14 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams. Suh was not offered a new contract after the 2018 season.
Of the 12 players highlighted here five of the players played out their entire contract. Of the five, two were on one-year deals and two re-signed with their original team. The remaining seven players were either released or traded prior to the end of the free-agent contract they signed.
A mixed bag so far for Douglas
Douglas arrived at One Jets Drive after the Jets somehow let former general manager Mike Maccagnan spend a boatload of money in the 2019 free agency period. In his first true offseason, 2020, Douglas had some hits and misses in free agency. His hits were offensive tackle, George Fant and center, Connor McGovern. Both are solid players who a still part of the team’s future. Two big misses from the 2020 offseason were corner Pierre Desir (who didn’t make it through the entire season with the Jets) and guard Greg Van Roten. Van Roten lost his starting job last season.
In 2021 Gang Green’s free-agent class can be summed up in one word, injuries. Douglas signed edge rusher Carl Lawson who missed the entire season with an Achilles injury. Wide receiver Corey Davis played in just nine games last year, hauling in a disappointing 34 catches. Linebacker, Jarrad Davis missed the first six games of the season and when he did return from injury he played poorly, receiving a 28.6 defensive grade from Pro Football Focus. Safety, Lamarcus Joyner got hurt in the season opener and missed the rest of the season.
How the Jets should attack this free agent class?
When attacking free agency I believe the Jets should be aggressive but calculated. Douglas should not go spending money like a drunken sailor overpaying for anyone that will take the Jets’ cash. Yes, they may have to overpay to get a guy or two that’s the nature of free agency, the contracts should be reasonable and flexible. Secondly, the Jets should stay away from anyone over the age of 28. They need young ascending players. Could they also bring in guys a little older? Sure but the bulk of their signings should be younger players. Here are six guys that if they hit free agency the Jets should be aggressive in acquiring.
J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots, 26 years old
The Jets defense forced just 14 turnovers last season, only the Jacksonville Jaguars forced less. Gang Green’s corners had just two interceptions last season, both by Brandin Echols. Jackson finished second in the league with eight picks and allowed a passer rating against of just 47.8. It is unlikely that Jackson makes it to the free market but if he does he should be a high priority for Douglas.
Mike Williams, WR, Los Angles Chargers, 27 years old
Williams is not a No. 1 receiver but he is a top red-zone threat and a top downfield weapon. The former first-round pick hauled in 76 passes for 1,146 yards and nine touchdowns. Williams was second in the NFL with 21 contested catches and had a 114.3 passer rating when targeted. Adding a veteran to the WR room is the ideal way to aid Zach Wilson‘s development.
Marcus Williams, S, New Orleans Saints, 25 years old
The New Orleans Saints are in a tough salary cap situation and it seems likely they will need to say goodbye to some solid veterans. Williams who played on the franchise tag in 2021 is a versatile free safety. The former second-round pick allowed a passer rating against of just 54.2 (seventh among safeties). Williams gave up just eight receptions in coverage and picked off two passes last season.
Carlton Davis, CB, Tampa Bay Bucs, 25 years old
While Jackson is the ideal target for New York, Davis would be an excellent consolation prize. Davis, a second-round pick in 2018 had 10 pass breakups and one interception in 2021. The former Auburn Tiger is an ideal fit for the Jets, who should aggressively try to improve the NFL’s third-worst passing defense.
James Daniels, RG, Chicago Bears, 24 years old
Daniels is just 24 and coming off his best season as a pro. The former second-round pick settled in at right guard after bouncing around for center to guard to start his career. Daniels allowed just three sacks while playing the eighth-most snaps in 2021. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Daniels was the 12th ranked zone-blocking guard last season.
David Njoku, TE, Cleveland Browns, 25 years old
A first-round pick in 2017, Njoku has not lived up to the expectations placed on players drafted that high. This does not mean he does not have value as a free agent. Njoku caught 36 balls for 475 yards and four touchdowns. The former Miami Hurricane dropped only two passes all season. While Njoku will never be confused with George Kittle as a run blocker, he did according to PFF, rank sixth as a run blocker on zone runs. Njoku is not the answer at TE for the Jets but he could be a piece of the overall puzzle that includes drafting one in the early rounds of the 2022 draft.