Three days of free agency, and the NFL's salary structure has already been laid to waste.
If you're a solid NFL player who signed a contract extension before hitting the free agent market on Friday (like, say, Washington Redskins running back Ladell Betts), you're probably kicking yourself. As expected, there has been plenty of cash to go around. But it was hard to believe so much of it would go to a so-called "low impact" position (offensive guard) or be doled to aging stars (Ahman Green) and underperforming offensive tackles (Leonard Davis).
So what do the past three days mean for the NFL? They mean that a lot of people are raking in a lot cash … and even more suddenly seem underpaid.
One agent, with a prominent player still under contract, hinted that his star might not report to training camp now that he appears to be so grossly underpaid in the new market being set. And he's likely not alone. With new San Francisco 49ers cornerback Nate Clements signing an 8-year, $80 million deal, $22 million in guaranteed money, he's now the richest defensive player in the league. The deal blows up the salary figures for cornerbacks, not to mention every elite defensive player in the league.
And who would have thought the largest signing bonus in the history of the Dallas Cowboys would be given to Davis? A player labeled slow and underachieving by the Arizona Cardinals – who have had one of the worst offensive lines two years running – was worth $49.6 million over seven years to Dallas. Then there is the five-year, $29 million deal, $13 million guaranteed, marginally talented defensive end Dewayne White got from the Detroit Lions. Considering the White and Clements deals, that $25 million-$30 million in guaranteed money sought by Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney doesn't look so outlandish.
But what is really staggering – and what threatens to create some serious salary cap problems down the line – is the money the offensive guards have commanded. Many talent evaluators have long considered guard a non-essential position and there was a belief that you didn't need to pay major sums to sign the most talented guards. The feeling was that for $4 million-$5 million a season and modest guaranteed money, you could sign some of the best guards in the league. That was before the combined $137 million in deals, $52.5 million guaranteed, signed by Eric Steinbach (Cleveland Browns), Kris Dielman (San Diego Chargers) and Derrick Dockery (Buffalo Bills).
Even to many veteran agents, the contracts have been shocking. Two prominent contract negotiators couldn't even recall what team Dockery played for last season, let alone assess how he performed. Then there was defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who had a grand total of 40 tackles and one sack in four years with the Baltimore Ravens. That was worth a three-year, $6 million deal with the splurging 49ers. While coach Mike Nolan certainly must have had some inside knowledge of Franklin from his time with the Ravens, it still seemed an exorbitant sum for a player who has barely seen the field in four seasons.
"That's the one that surprises me," said one prominent agent. "Three days ago, I didn't even know who the hell Aubrayo Franklin was. I never heard of the guy."
Not that it took a household name to cash in. Former Ravens fullback Ovie Mughelli barely saw the field before last season, when coach Brian Billick implemented him as a regular blocker for running back Jamal Lewis. He was impressive enough that agent Todd France told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday night that he was certain Mughelli was going to land a big contract. One day later he did, he cashed in to the tune of $18 million over six years, with a $5 million signing bonus with the Atlanta Falcons. That obliterated the record-setting, three-year, $5.1 million contract signed by San Diego fullback Lorenzo Neal just one day earlier.
Now, Mughelli's deal is just another example of the salary bar moving up. And while there aren't a lot of elite fullbacks in the league – nor a great need for them – the few out there will start with Mughelli's deal as a negotiating point. In turn, the Clements, Davis and guard contracts will all have massive ripples.
For example, Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis is already underpaid after signing a five-year, $25.5 million extension (with $9.4 million guaranteed) last offseason. As are guys like Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall ($1.54 million per season through 2009), the Philadelphia Eagles' Lito Sheppard ($2.89 million per season through 2011) and the Chicago Bears' Nathan Vasher ($850,000 in 2007).
"I would agree, there are probably some deals out there that will create havoc," one NFC general manager said. "The deals with the guards, certainly. You're seeing players getting deals deserving of the best at their position, and I'm not sure they fit that description. Some of these guys could be the best someday, but they aren't right now. So there is overpaying in a sense.
"Overpaying is what skews the [league's] future contracts. It's what always happens early in free agency. That's where the damage is done."