INDIANAPOLIS – What’s the hardest thing about the NFL’s annual scouting combine? For teams, it’s not the drills or repetitive interviews. It’s not sorting through medical charts or trying to decipher a player’s heart. It’s not even making the rounds with agents or fellow evaluators into the early morning hours and then powering through the next day with no sleep.
In reality, the most difficult thing about the combine is separating fact from fiction. And it’s never truer than when it comes to free-agent contracts.
Numbers fly in Indianapolis. Seeds are planted. Contract targets spiral. And with the salary cap once again moving aggressively north, positional salaries get reset. This year will be no different. There’s at least one thing NFL teams can agree on heading into Tuesday’s free-agent negotiating period: Prices are going up and some positions are headed for a salary reset.
With that in mind, here are three realities that will materialized in this free agency …
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup quarterback Mike Glennon is getting paid.
Yes, he threw a grand total of 11 regular-season passes over the past two seasons. And yes, he’s a guy who most outsiders weren’t factoring into the quarterback equation this offseason. But a quarterback class filled with significant question marks has helped Glennon’s limited body of work gain serious traction in free agency. So much so that multiple NFL sources expect his average contract value to land in the range of $14 million to $15 million per season.
That seems wild coming after a season where the Houston Texans appeared to have badly overpaid for Brock Osweiler. But it would be bottom-third starting money in a league constantly starving for quarterback talent. And any 27-year-old with experience and potential upside instantly creates a market.
Two things stuck out when speaking to NFL evaluators about Glennon – one good and one bad. The upside is Glennon’s limited amount of tape is twice the size of what teams had on Osweiler a year ago (630 passing attempts for Glennon versus 305 for Osweiler). And despite that offering mostly coming in 2013 and 2014, Glennon’s 18 starts apparently give a solid impression of what he has to work with. When teams watched it, they saw a raw Glennon working with far poorer players around him than Osweiler, but carrying himself with more confidence. They also saw a Buccaneers staff that wasn’t on par with what Osweiler had to work with in Denver.
Ultimately, some valuators agreed that other than Glennon’s age, his overall skills make him a solid option when compared against almost any quarterback in this draft. So the spin becomes this: Would a team rather devote a top-10 pick to a rookie quarterback, or spend that asset elsewhere and take a veteran who has shown a solid amount of NFL tape? The answer to that often depends on salary cap space and how a franchise feels about this rookie class.
Now, the downside: There was agreement that Glennon needs to land somewhere with a sturdy offensive line, particularly at guard and center. Like most quarterbacks, Glennon was at his best when he had a chance to step into throws in a clean pocket … and at his worst when interior pressure created problems.
Glennon’s suitors remains to be seen, but if they’re ready to invest $14 million to $15 million a season on him, the offensive line should either be well-built or a serious priority.
2. The guards are getting richer. Again.
In 2016 free agency, the guards amped up the average salaries at a position that has been historically depressed. Between Kelechi Osemele ($11.7 million per year), David DeCastro ($10 million), Kyle Long ($10 million) and Brandon Brooks ($8 million), it became clear that guards were becoming a far bigger priority for teams in free agency. This year will be no different.
Teams expect Cincinnati Bengals free agent Kevin Zeitler to land close to a record $12 million per-year mark. That kind of cash will float a lot of boats at the position, pulling up the target range of the Green Bay Packers’ T.J. Lang ($8 million to $10 million), as well as the Dallas Cowboys’ Ron Leary and Detroit Lion Larry Warford (both expected in the $8 million to $9 million range annually).
Why is this happening? The money in the rising (and now $167 million) salary cap has to go somewhere and guards have been dragging in pay prior to 2016. Also NFL teams with and without elite edge rushers are either scheming to create more of an interior pass rush or are looking for dominant pass-rushing defensive tackles. That has made guards who can handle these players more of a priority. Teams want clean pockets however they can get them – and guards who can’t stop penetration destroy offensive rhythm quickly.
3. The money is going to be ballistic and fast.
With the league opening a “legal” window two years ago for teams and agents to speak to each other about free agents (two days prior to free agency officially opening) there is a feeding frenzy in the first 48-72 hours of the signing period. Many teams have adopted the mindset that if they don’t get their priority free agents locked down in that first three days (or even one day), they are better off pivoting to plans B, C and D. Several teams suggested that targeting an “elite” signing – like, say, Zeitler – essentially forces clubs to close the deal within the first hours of free agency. And some evaluators think it’s this mindset – needing to move as quickly as possible – that promotes contracts that annihilate expectations.
It can be likened to a Day 1 stock market blitz on a hot new public offering (Hello, Snapchat). Teams panic that they won’t be able to get in or hold position with a certain player and the result can be some of the huge, over-the-top offers that have occurred in recent years (Ndamukong Suh … Ndamukong Suh … Ndamukong Suh). The result has been more and more teams hoping to sit back in the first wave of free agency while letting a handful of others make financial decisions they could regret later. Almost always, one unexpected huge spender emerges. Last year, it was the New York Giants.
With nearly another $400 million in cap space created on the market and several teams already sitting with astronomical space (see: the Cleveland Browns’ $100 million bankroll), the NFL’s shopping spree is going to be as wild as ever.
More NFL free agency coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• A list of the the franchise-tagged players
• Some interesting possibilities at quarterback for a change
• An all-time great running back leads top skill-position players
• A couple of guards lead a thin offensive line group