Entering the NFL free agent period, the value of proven veterans is at an all-time low. More and more teams are willing to take a risk on a cheap unproven rookie rather than pay for a high priced older free agent. Thanks to the new CBA, even the top picks in the NFL draft are considered bargain prices against their own veterans, and teams now see it more beneficial to force pay cuts from top players or cut them rather than fulfill their whole contract.
Players considered elite at their position such as Anquan Boldin and Elvis Dumerville were being told by their teams to restructure, or get cut. Now Anquan Boldin, considered one of the heroes of the Super Bowl, was just traded to the 49ers for only a 6th round pick. The Ravens prefer not to pay Boldin his $6 million dollar salary and take a late round draft pick that could be low-risk and high reward.
Another former Super Bowl hero Ahmad Bradshaw also finds himself unemployed this offseason. At 26 years old he can hardly be considered old in the NFL, even at the physically demanding running back position. But the Giants determined that he, Chris Canty, and Michael Boley were no longer worth the price they were making. They decided they are better off testing the draft and young talent on their roster, and who can blame them? They look around the league and see teams like the Redskins strike gold not only with first round gem RGIII, but also with 6th round pick Alfred Morris, who led all rookies in rushing. With so many youthful, cheaper options available paying big bucks for anything less than elite just isn’t worth it.
Successful teams in the league now have to put faith in young talent in order to thrive. The Patriots have been doing it for years, trading and cutting non-essential older veterans such as Richard Seymour and Lawyer Malloy while stockpiling picks to fill their needs, leaving plenty of cap space to keep their top players while developing talent within their own team. The 49ers have recently continued with the same trend, filling their roster with homegrown draft picks. Teams like the Jets and Eagles who have invested heavily in free agents and trades for high profile free agents have seen themselves falter in recent years, both failing to make the playoffs and meet high expectations.
With this oncoming period don’t expect any big deals for elite talent because there isn’t enough free talent out there. Sure, Mike Wallace and a few others will get huge contracts, but I’m willing to bet most will fail to meet their “market value.”
Instead, expect teams to look for role players while making sure to secure their own top talent. Teams are more likely to find impact starters in one of their draft picks than in free agency. Also the risk of a draft pick is fiscally safer than signing a free agent. If a late round draft pick never starts, fans expect that. But when a gem is found it’s like an extra present hidden behind the Christmas Tree. Signing a high price free agent that fails is comparable to the awesome new toy that breaks on the first day. Not to mention, it also hampers the team’s ability to improve long into the future.
The NFL is becoming more and more of a young man’s game, as speed and athleticism is spreading to every position. The athletes entering the NFL are more physically gifted than ever before and their skills are now cheaper to obtain than the worn down bodies of NFL vets. Expect this trend to permeate into all teams around the league.