The NFL salary cap has risen from $120 million in 2012 to $167 million in 2017, escalating $10 million annually over the last 4 years; while the value of rookie contracts has simultaneously declined after the players negotiated to increase cap allocation for veterans, within the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA also allows for teams to roll over available cap space to the next season, creating a situation where teams can stockpile money (see: Browns, 49ers and Jets all have over $100 million to spend this offseason). Those large sums of available cap space have changed the perception that free agency is a collection of desperate teams overpaying to acquire talent on the decline, to a viable roster-building strategy with empirical data to support those beliefs; 6 of the top 10 spenders during the 2016 offseason made the 2017 playoffs, with the Jaguars (spent $20 million more than anyone else last offseason) turning it around from 3-13 to 10-6.
Howie Long-Short: NFL players are underpaid relative to athletes in other professional sports. Their careers are shorter, their contracts are rarely guaranteed in full and there are simply far more players divvying up the revenue allocated. NFL teams also don’t tie contracts to a percentage of the salary cap, so as the cap rises, star player contracts become relative bargains. Only once a player receives a franchise tender (a tactic used to retain valuable free-agents) is the contract tied to a percentage of the salary cap, and even then, it’s an average of the Top 5 players at the position or a 120% increase from the year prior; far less than a player could earn on the open market.
Fan Marino: The Jets gave up a 1st and 3rd round pick to acquire restricted free-agent (and current HOF) Curtis Martin in March of 1998. There was another 1998 free-agent signing that receives far less acclaim, but deserves to be recognized among the all-time great free-agent acquisitions. In February of 1998, the Jets made Center Kevin Mawae the highest paid player at the position with a 5-year $17 million contract. Mawae, who went on to play 8 seasons with the Jets, including 7 times as a First Team All-Pro, is a 2018 HOF finalist. Pro-football-reference.com, compares Mawae’s career to those of Mike Webster, Gene Upshaw, Jim Otto, Larry Allen, John Hannah, Gary Zimmerman, Will Shields, Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden. What do all those guys have in common? Their busts reside in Canton, Ohio.
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