NFL free agency primer: Who will get paid, who won’t and more

Dak Prescott’s new contract sent aftershocks through the NFL, and free agency will look different than it ever has this offseason.

Tuesday was the deadline for NFL teams to apply the franchise tag, and it was just as — and perhaps even more — noteworthy who was not tagged as it was who was.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ decision to use the tag on wide receiver Chris Godwin over edge-rusher Shaq Barrett could be a canary in free agency’s coal mine.

“If those guys thought they needed to tag Shaq Barrett, or other teams felt they needed to tag their pass-rushers to keep them, they would have,” a league source tells FanSided. “That tells you everything you need to know about the market. They expect it not to be as good for them. Pass rushers are always paid a premium, so this should be fascinating to watch play out.”

Barrett was as instrumental in the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl LV win over the Kansas City Chiefs as Tom Brady, but now Tampa Bay has opted to take its chances negotiating a long-term contract before every other team is able to speak to him beginning on March 15. The Buccaneers are doing so, projected to be $3 million over the cap after tagging Godwin.

Teams also have the added benefit of uncertainty over what the cap will actually be, and when it will take effect.

“There is a belief among some teams,” says a source. “That the new league year might need to be pushed back. No one has any idea what the cap will actually be.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, two general managers tell FanSided they had not heard any indication from the league what the cap number will be, or when it will be announced. Obviously, there is a wait-and-see aspect to negotiations given the uncertainty, but an extended window would buy the Buccaneers, New York Giants, and every other team that has deployed the tag to try to negotiate long-term contracts with their franchise players.

Regardless of what the cap winds up being, or when it is enforced, some markets are going to shape up significantly stronger than others.

Forget wide receivers such as JuJu Smith-Schuster or Marvin Jones breaking the bank. Not with DeVonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and others to be had in what is viewed by many teams and scouts as a historically deep and talented receiver class.

To that end, the receiver market was weakened overall by Godwin and Allen Robinson each getting tagged. Kenny Golladay could be a big winner in free agency, but every team understands the talent and depth of the receiver class waiting in April at a far lower cap-number than the former Lion will command.

“I think offensive line is going to be the big winners in free agency this year,” a prominent agent tells FanSided. “You can always get skill positions. You had five offensive tackles chosen last year, and what, maybe one or two played well all year? The rest were average at best. You can get good skill guys who can help you immediately. You can’t always get immediate plug-and-play high-impact starting caliber offensive linemen.”

The markets for offensive guard Joe Thuney and tackle Trent Williams will be significantly stronger after guard Brandon Scherff and tackle Tyler Moton were tagged Tuesday.

“Offensive line and pass-rusher are going to be the highest-priority for everybody,” a source tells FanSided.”

One thing to remember, as free agency is set to begin in less than a week, is teams concern themselves far less with the salary cap than teams and media believe.

As one head coach recently told me, there is a chance that some marquee free agents — such as Steelers edge rusher Bud Dupree — might need to wait until after the Draft to find a home because of his injury history.

Likewise, multiple teams expect an influx of high-end veteran talent hitting the open-market after June 1, as teams slash costs to create cap space entering the season.

“The ‘haves’ get paid,” says one agent. “The ‘have nots’ won’t. That’s just the way it works.”

In a year with such cap uncertainty, and so many teams with so little to spend, that will be more than evident this year.

“Your top guys are still going to get their money in the first 48-to-72 hours,” a league source says. “After that, it is going to be a very slow burn for the rest of free agency. I think you’ll see a lot of guys waiting to sign.

“You’re also going to see more one-year deals than ever, for under-market value. Some for significantly under value. You’re going to see guys waiting to sign until after the draft, looking for the best fit for a one-year deal, and teams aren’t going to be in any rush whatsoever to sign any second or third-tier free agent.”

As always, much excitement precedes the beginning of free agency, and while there will undoubtedly be marquee players signed immediately, this offseason’s economic climate gives free agency a strong “hurry up and wait” feel.

Dak Prescott’s signing has long-reaching implications

The Dallas Cowboys made the prudent decision Monday night, coming to terms on a long-term agreement with Dak Prescott, who is on the cusp of becoming one of the top-five quarterbacks in the NFL.

“Any way you slice it,” one prominent agent tells FanSided. “This was a freakin’ fantastic deal … for NFL quarterbacks.”

Prescott is 18 months removed from passing for 4,902 yards with 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and was on pace for 5,939 yards and 28 touchdowns prior to suffering a gruesome ankle injury against the Giants back in Week 5.

With Prescott behind center, the Cowboys seemed destined to tear through a historically weak NFC East, before losing seven of their final 11 games after the 27-year-old for the season.

“He had all of the leverage,” an AFC personnel executive tells FanSided, on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on other teams. “He’s very popular among that team and the organization. He gained even more leverage after he got hurt and they struggled so mightily down the stretch.”

Prescott’s pact will have far-reaching ramifications.

A four-year contract that includes the NFL’s highest signing bonus in history, $66 million, along with $75 million guaranteed in Year 1 can be worth up to $164 million.  Beyond keeping a burgeoning young quarterback in Dallas for four years and lowering Prescott’s cap hit from what would have been $37.7 million under the franchise tag to $22.2 million in 2021, this deal is now the standard bearer.

“What people need to remember,” the agent says. “Is that this massively impacts the deals that are coming down the pike. Dak’s contract now raises the bar for the Josh Allens, Lamar Jacksons, Baker Mayfields, and every other young quarterback on the cusp of their first big contract.

“What the Cowboys learned, and every team should know from this, is you have to do them early. But, the cautionary tales are Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, so it really is an inexact science.”

This contract is great for the Cowboys, because once the new television rights deal gets signed, which could come as early as next week, based on league conversations, and the salary cap balloons, Prescott could look like a bargain.

Likewise, this is a great deal for Prescott, who is the highest-paid quarterback not named Patrick Mahomes, gives him long-term security and underscores the organization’s commitment to him and building around him for the foreseeable future.

“He was gone,” the executive said. “If he had to play on the tag again.”

No more haranguing or hand-wringing over whether the Cowboys will or won’t pay Prescott. No more clouds hanging over the organization. No more wondering about the future of the quarterback position in Dallas, and no more looking over his shoulder, for Prescott.

“It’s a smart move,” a second agent tells FanSided. “Dallas can guard against potential diminished returns on the back-end of a longer-term contract. And for Dak, he’s betting on himself because he’ll be in a position in four or five years to tee up one more big-money contract to close out his career as the cap and quarterback salaries will both be on par with the price of a stealth-fighter jet at that point.”

Meet the NFL Draft’s highest-riser

Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson have garnered much of the hype ahead of the NFL Draft as the top quarterbacks, and rightfully so, but a third quarterback is vaulting up boards.

“Mac Jones is this year’s highest riser,” an NFC talent evaluator tells FanSided. “Hands down.”

Jones, 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds leveraged a 2020 season of more than 4,500 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and only four interceptions into a Senior Bowl appearance and is drawing rave reviews from several teams across the league.

“He’s solid,” an AFC college scouting director tells FanSided. “Needs good players around him, but he’s rising because coaches are now evaluating and love how easy is to coach and how smart he is. Coaches love easy.”

As is the case with most things in life, quarterbacks draw varying opinions, because the NFC evaluator isn’t convinced.

“What stands out to me about the reason he’s rising,” the personnel man explains. “Is that based on talent, he’s really a third-round pick.”


“I think, unfortunately, that the NFL is becoming more like the NBA — the players are going to dictate where they want to go and where they want to play and not the team.”

– Former NFL coach June Jones, via FOX News

Jones is flat wrong here.

What Jones, and fans who trip over themselves to side with billionaire owners over millionaire players whenever a contract squabble erupts always seem to forget is that unlike the NBA and baseball, the NFL does not have guaranteed contracts.

Further, this era of athlete is far more marketable and financially savvy in today’s society than the players that Jones coached.

Jones also is projecting a potential movement of Russell Wilson (more on that later) or Deshaun Watson, that to date hasn’t happened. There are not super-teams being formed around the NFL as there have been in recent years in the NBA.

Even if Watson forces his way out of Houston or Wilson out of Seattle, good.

In lieu of long-term guaranteed financial security, why shouldn’t players have more control over where they play, who they play alongside of, and who they play for?

Let’s also call this coded language out for what it is … An attempt to further consolidate the power among the ownership class over its labor force. It’s the kind of thinking, and language that is holding back progress both in sports as well as broader society.

Teams capable of building consistent contenders will always benefit if superstars exert more power over their destinations. If players are able to more freely move between teams, as NBA stars have leveraged an ability to in recent years, organizations plagued by outdated thinking or stuck in complacency will be left behind … As they should be.

Final thought

The Russell Wilson soap opera continues to confound.

Wilson, perennial MVP-caliber quarterback, seems apoplectic over the Seattle Seahawks’ offense and the organization’s inability to build an offensive line capable of consistently keeping him upright. Meanwhile, the Seahawks seem to have had enough of dealing with Wilson’s semi-annual overtures about wanting out.

“He must really want out,” a current scouting director says. “These stories keep popping up. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually at least a spark of fire.”

There’s little motivation for the Seahawks to trade Wilson, and the market following Prescott’s extension with the Cowboys contracts the market.

With the Cowboys out of the equation, the Jacksonville Jaguars picking first, the New York Jets picking second, the Indianapolis Colts trading for Carson Wentz, that would leave the Washington Football Team, Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins, and Denver Broncos as quarterback-needy franchises with the cap space to absorb Wilson’s $32 million cap hit in 2021.

Much like Deshaun Watson’s high-stakes game of chicken with the Houston Texans, this feels unfeasible for the Seahawks to actually be able to pull off a trade.

If the Seahawks have any desperation to rid themselves of Wilson’s off-the-field offseason headache, they’ll have an equally desperate trade partner in Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy.

The Bears can offer multiple first-round picks to Seattle, who currently won’t pick until the second-round and owns just four selections in April’s Draft. In the unlikely event Wilson is dealt, Chicago is a situation to watch.

Matt Lombardo is the site expert for GMenHQ, and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday for FanSided. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL.

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