The NFL’s free agency period opened up with the largest salary cap in league history: $133 million. That’s over an 8 percent increase from last year’s cap ($123 million), the biggest single season jump since 2006, when it leapt from $85.6 million to $102 million. With free agency underway as of the March 11, the newest crop of unrestricted free agents are going to be the recipients of a healthy windfall.
Talking to Bloomberg, one-time Colts President and ESPN analyst Bill Polian suggested that, historically, large cap increases have been accompanied by more big-money free agency signings than other years. “System fit will determine the market. People are getting better at realizing that,” Polian said. “More and more people are being pretty selective in who they pursue.”
With the NFL still shaking from the repercussions hoisted on the Cowboys and the Redskins during the uncapped 2010 season, this cap increase makes free agency more exciting than before. Here are five unrestricted free agents looking at larger paydays as a result of the cap announcement.
1. Eric Decker (Wide Receiver)
Shown here thinking about a delicious new contract, unrestricted free agent Eric Decker was instrumental in helping the Broncos in their Super Bowl run, hauling in 87 catches for more than 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns over the 2014 season. He also stayed healthy, playing in every one of Denver’s regular season games. Decker, who signed a four-year, $4.8 million deal with the Mile High City’s football team back in 2010, will most likely be looking at a contract worth around $8 or $9 million a year, according to the Denver Post, who cited the contracts given to other 2nd option receivers like Dwayne Bowe and Greg Jennings.
With thirteen teams loaded with an obscene amount of cap room, and an additional nine teams with over $10 million worth of space, Decker’s going to get paid. The only question is by whom. While the Broncos’ official stance on free agents is to wait and see what their players are being offered, it’s likely that Eric Decker will not be back in Denver for the 2015 season.
2. Jairus Byrd (Free Safety)
Jairus Byrd is really good at football. A three-time Pro Bowler at the age of 27, Byrd is looking for a mega payday after failing to come to a deal with Buffalo the week before hitting free agency. ESPN speculated that Byrd could make even more money than Eric Berry, who signed a six-year $60 million deal in 2010.
That’s all dependent on systemic fit, though. With professional sports being one of the biggest follow-the-leader communities in the world (just look at the advanced stats revolution), teams are zeroing in on how to replicate the Championship-winning Seahawks defense. Having an awesome free safety like Byrd is a key component in copping some of the most helpful bits of Seattle’s scheme, but he’s not necessarily worth top dollar if the other pieces aren’t available.
According to ESPN, Byrd is aiming for a Decker-like multiyear deal around $9 million a season. The next highest safety after Eric Berry is the San Diego Chargers Eric Weddle, who will make $7.5 million for the 2015 NFL season.
3. Golden Tate (Wide Receiver)
Humorously described by NFL.com as a “destitute man’s Hines Ward” — a clever play on the common, but ultimately meaningless “poor man’s”/”prototypical”/”2.0? player comparisons that litter the sports landscape — Golden Tate is a solid receiver who carries himself like he’s the next Jerry Rice. Basically, he’s the Mario Chalmers of the NFL. Most famous for catching the “Fail Mary,” an incomplete pass that was ruled a game-winning touchdown catch — a call blown so egregiously that the NFL came to an agreement with the then-striking referees days later.
After that call and the subsequent outrage, Tate was spotted wearing a “don’t hate Golden Tate” T-Shirt. Because of course he was. He’s a talented No. 3 receiver who is willing to give Seattle, one of the teams without a significant amount of cap room this offseason, a hometown discount, saying, “I probably shouldn’t even say this right now, but I’m going to say it anyway just because I love Seattle. Honestly, I would rather take a little less to be happy and win ball games than to take way more and go to a crappy city where the fans don’t give a crap about the team.”
Of course, he followed that up by suggesting that the reason he has an agent is so that he doesn’t sign for an insultingly low amount of money. Because no one insults Golden Tate. Here’s Tate earning his new contract with the Fail Mary.
4. Michael Vick (Quarterback)
Michael Vick will turn 34 next season. The controversial quarterback, who is still unarguably the best rushing QB the league has ever seen, wants to start. Despite the fact that he hasn’t played a full season’s worth of games in almost ten years, Vick would still serve as a clear upgrade for at least six teams in the NFL (Oakland, Buffalo, New York, Houston, and Jacksonville), even with his waning athleticism and fragility. With Chip Kelly’s system turning Nick Foles into a credible starter, albeit one with some seriously goofy hair, it appears Vick’s stay in Philly is coming to a close.
Vick’s most likely landing spots are probably on those not-so-good teams, although the MMQB, Peter King, recently suggested San Francisco as an interesting dark horse candidate. That’s no good if Vick’s serious about starting, but if he wants to win a ring, he wouldn’t make an awful backup.
5. Darren Sproles (Running back)
Sproles, an undeniable cap casualty, was one of the more surprising players to hit free agency when it was announced over the weekend that he’d been released by the Saints — only his transaction papers never materialized. While it’s assumed that he’s being released by the Saints, it’s not official yet. He may get traded instead. Assuming Sproles ends up hitting free agency, though, he’s going to get paid pretty well one more time.
The 30-year-old running back, picked all the way down in the fourth round in 2005 with the 147th pick of the NFL draft, has made a career out of being a target in the air, notching over 600 receiving yards all three years he was with the Saints. Sproles would be the best option for a team looking to flesh out its passing game. His last contract year with the Saints paid him an estimated $3.4 million.