Last week, I wrote about the NFL's new "flat-cap" landscape, wherein we saw a marked decrease in the cap between 2009 and 2011 (2010, you'll recall, was an uncapped year) and then, to top it off, the smallest cap increase between 2011 and 2012 that we've seen since 1996-'97. And this is a trend that should continue; we now have a "flat cap" for the foreseeable future.
In the last week, NFL front office maven-cum-reporter Pat Kirwin has penned two articles that address the changing salary landscape. In the first of these he opined that, after a brief initial frenzy, the market would soon dry up. Kirwin attributed this to the fact that, not counting the restricted free agents on the market, there were 455 veteran football players looking for work (many of them having just finished the contracts signed after being drafted in 2009, one of the weakest drafts in recent memory). As a case in point, Kirwin notes that there were 52 wide receivers and 48 cornerbacks looking to be signed at the outset of free agency. Is it any wonder why those markets have been quiet? Teams don't have to outbid each other to secure the services of a handful of players.
As a result, Kirwin writes in a follow-up piece, this year's free agency period is likely to see a lot more one-year deals, and to see them earlier. Most years, Kirwin explains, the initial free agency frenzy lasts about three weeks before the money dries up and teams start offering whoever is left one-year "prove it" deals. This year, Kirwin writes, "agents told me they were OK with one-year deals at this point, with an eye on getting back in the free agency game next year." As a result, we have seen almost 40 one-year deals in free agency's first week; Kirwin predicts that we will see as many as 100 by the time the free agency period expires.
This might well positively impact the Cowboys, for two reasons. One: as has been oft reported in these parts, they are nearing a long-term extension with Tony Romo, one aspect of which will be to lower his 2013 cap hit, and give the Cowboys a little breathing room to fit a couple of free agents under their remaining cap. If they were to sign these guys to multi-year deals, it would only serve to compound cap problems in 2014-'15, where they are already tight and Romo's new deal is certain to eat up a lot of the remaining space. In other words, not only can't they afford to sign free agents this year, but they really can't afford to have them count against the cap in future years.
Which is why it's such good news that so many players and their agents are willing to take one-year deals. This brings us to our second reason: as the Cowboys work to free themselves from a slew of bad decisions and poor drafting choices made from 2006-‘09, Dallas still has several roster holes that need filling. Hoping that the draft will match up perfectly with those holes is a fool's errand. As Jason Garrett has repeatedly said, the best way to fill those holes is through free agency. And the best way to do that in free agency is to get solid, if unspectacular, veteran players at bargain prices - preferably without any long-term financial commitment.
Think about it: if they draft a promising rookie, the last thing a team wants is to have just committed long-term money to a veteran at the same position. If that same vet has a one-year deal, that gives the organization a year to develop and to season the rook and, when he's ready to start in year two, the veteran player is off the books. Or, like recent LB signee Ernie Sims, who recently signed a one-year deal for the veteran minimum, he can be a valuable veteran backup on the cheap.
And, whenever Romo agrees to an extension, I'd bet we'll see some more Sims-like signings. If he signs before April 25, we'll see a version of the 2012 offseason: veterans signed to fill thin positions, so that the team can follow a "BPA" strategy in the draft. If he signs after April 27, we'll see a reiteration of the 2010 offseason (when FA followed the draft due to the lockout): veterans brought in to fill whatever holes remain unfilled by recent draft picks.
In either case, for a team in Dallas peculiar position (rebuilding, yet with minimal cap space), this free agent market is shaping up about as well as can be expected.
For that, you can thank the flat cap.