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For all of the eye-popping deals on the NFL market this week that marked the opening of a new league year, some of the most significant moves were those that allowed teams to keep their own.
The Baltimore Ravens kept nose tackle Brandon Williams in the fold. Pass-rushing force Nick Perry is staying put with the Green Bay Packers. The New Orleans Saints don’t have to replace defensive Nick Fairley.
Granted, an overwhelming majority of players getting new contracts amid the downpour of fresh dollars left for greener pastures elsewhere.
But addition by avoiding subtraction can be such a virtue, too, with another huge increase in the NFL’s salary cap – rising to $167 million per team this year, or $47 million more than five years ago – leaving teams better equipped to compete for players poised to hit the road.
Take the Ravens with Williams, a player they developed as a third-round pick from Missouri Southern State. The anchor for one of the league’s best run defenses, Williams was general manager Ozzie Newsome’s No. 1 priority in free agency.
Now he’s the NFL’s highest-paid nose tackle with a five-year, $54 million contract that guarantees $27.5 million.
Rather than putting the franchise tag on Williams – which is the track the Arizona Cardinals took with outside linebacker Chandler Jones before re-signing him to a five-year, $83 million deal – the Ravens gambled with the risk of losing him.
They had to sweat it out, with Williams undoubtedly among the top 10 eligible free agents. But in signing him to a deal averaging $10.8 million instead of keeping him on a franchise tag of $13.4 million, the Ravens had additional wiggle room under their cap that aided them in luring safety Tony Jefferson and running back Danny Woodhead.
No, Newsome couldn’t keep right tackle Ricky Wagner (who signed with the Detroit Lions) or fullback Kyle Juszczyk (San Francisco 49ers), but the massively athletic Williams would have been so much tougher to replace.
Ted Thompson can relate. The Packers general manager has had a long history of building through the draft and keeping talent at home. He risked losing Perry, his first-round pick in 2012, to a market that pays a premium for edge rushers.
The timing was right for Perry, too. He is coming off an 11-sack breakout year. Even though the Packers didn’t franchise-tag Perry, coach Mike McCarthy calls him a “core player” as he works alongside Clay Matthews for the much-needed pass-rush tandem in Dom Capers’ defense.
The risk was such that Perry even took a sentimental lap around Lambeau Field last week, like it might have been the last time. In the end, Green Bay kept him with a five-year, $60 million deal that included $18.5 million guaranteed.
In assessing his new deal before reporters in Green Bay, Perry acknowledged the growing pains he’s endured and a mission to hit a higher level.
He also reflected an approach to free agency that seemingly increases the odds for success: It’s better to stick with a known quantity rather than bank on the unknown.
I mean, since the current labor deal was struck in 2011, no team in the NFL compares to the Jacksonville Jaguars when it comes to high-priced free agent signings … and no team in the NFL has lost more games during that period.
Then again, there’s more money to spend, which is why it is such a sweet time to be a free agent. The cap rose more than 7% over last year, when it increased more than 8% over 2015.
Remember the lockout year? After the 10-year collective bargaining agreement was struck, the cap remained essentially flat for a couple of years under $121 million, when agents grumbled that they were operating under the worst markets since liberalized free agency came into existence.
The NFL Players Association defended the economics of the pact, maintaining that it would get better for players in ensuing years – which, of course, was of little consolation to older players nearing the end of their careers.
Four years ago, the cap was $123 million. But look at it now. The cap, tied to league revenues that have soared to more than $14 billion per year, has grown by $44 million since 2013.
That’s a big reason why the Saints will still have Fairley – who produced a career-high 6 ½ sacks in the first 16-game season of his career — aligned next to last year’s first-round pick, Sheldon Rankins, in the middle of the defensive front. The Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, hung onto wide receiver Kenny Stills, while the Indianapolis Colts keep tight end Jack Doyle.
But teams still must decide which players are worth keeping and which they should let walk.
Look at the New England Patriots. At the moment, they have officially re-signed only one player — safety Duron Harmon, with reports indicating defensive tackle Alan Branch also has an agreement in place — while linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s status remains in limbo.
If the Patriots — so busy working the market from multiple angles — manage to keep Hightower, it might be one of the smoothest moves of all.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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