A question NFL GMs have to ask themselves every offseason. Once a player’s contract reaches the end, tough decisions must be made regarding that player’s future with the team. Oftentimes, the question is whether to pay the player long-term, trade the player for building blocks or let them walk.
There are obvious benefits to both scenarios, but how has that worked out for teams in the past? Let’s take a look at some of the biggest decisions NFL front offices have had to make on their talent in the last few offseasons.
Let Them Walk
This is the least likely scenario as teams will more often than not apply a franchise tag of some sort before allowing them to leave. When an NFL organization invests time, money, and draft capital in developing a player, the last thing they want is to let that player leave for another organization with no type of return. While it is a rare event, it certainly has happened.
Most recently, we saw it happen with former Chiefs safety, Tyrann Mathieu. When you let a player walk, you can earn a compensatory pick, but since Mathieu signed with the New Orleans Saints after the deadline, the Chiefs went without any gain. We have also seen teams release their star player to find other opportunities.
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The Patriots allowed JC Jackson to walk in free agency
The Panthers released Steve Smith Sr. in 2014, he went on to find success with the Ravens notching a 1,000-yard campaign the following season. This move made the Panthers seem foolish. But we have also seen it play out the other way, in the case of Albert Haynesworth. After a Pro Bowl season in Tennessee, the Titans let Haynesworth test the market where he would go on to sign a 7-year, $100 million contract with Washington. He would only play two years of this contract, contributing just 6.5 sacks.
This is never the route a team should take. Sure they get a comp pick, but the team would be way better off sending that player for another player on a cheaper deal, or for added draft capital. The best options would absolutely be to pay or trade the player; but which one is better?
Trade The Man
Trading a player is never an easy decision to make. In most cases, the player is tradable because other teams desire the talent they bring to the field. Why would a team want to trade a talented player? This is a two-word answer: salary cap.
The NFL’s salary cap keeps teams competitive and allows the league to have the parity that it does. As the value of star player contracts rises, the tougher it will be to manage their salary within the confines of the salary cap. But there are ways around this. Teams can keep players by compensating them in other ways. Bonuses, incentives, and the restructuring of other players’ deals are all common ways teams will make cap space to afford their stars.
Where the conflict truly begins is when the player believes they are worth more than what the team is willing to pay them. Truthfully, the player is usually correct in these scenarios. The capital an organization gets from using a player’s name and likeness for marketing, merchandise, and ticket sales will generate way more revenue than what they shell out in a season.
The Chiefs got Trent McDuffie, Skyy Moore, Darian Kinnard, and $20m in cap space so far for Tyreek Hill. You can even include MVS in there as he would’ve likely not been signed. They have another 4th and a 6th from the trade in next years draft as well. Returns looking good. — Arrowhead Live (@ArrowheadLive) May 1, 2022
Tyreek Hill trade to Miami from Kansas City
This season, we saw a large number of moves in the league. The Eagles and AJ Brown parted ways, the Chiefs and Tyreek Hill ended their run, Hollywood Brown found himself in the desert, and the Packers and Davante Adams split all in the same offseason. All of these moves were related to a player’s contract situation. three of these four players received massive $100 million-plus contracts in their new homes. But it was the financial and draft flexibility that was gained in return that made it worth it.
It is hard to replicate the contributions of a playmaker like Davante Adams or Tyreek Hill, but the money gained and draft capital gained will make that pill easier to swallow for teams. As a fan, it is hard to see the big picture with these moves, but the NFL is a business at the end of the day and tough decisions are sometimes necessary.
Pay The Man
Finally, we get to the last option: pay the man! This is every fan’s absolute favorite option. No one wants to see their favorite player get traded or hit the market just to sign with a rival. Then you have to get rid of the jersey – or in some cases burn it – and hope they don’t play your team that season and put up a revenge game. While the fans love it, the teams do not always love this option.
Agreed to terms with QB Josh Allen on a six-year contract extension through the 2028 season. pic.twitter.com/7iQ88bKlqM — Buffalo Bills PR (@BuffaloBillsPR) August 6, 2021
When it comes to paying star quarterbacks, that seems to be the easiest decision. Paying someone like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert is a no-brainer situation. Paying the aging star edge rusher or the 28 year-old star running back makes it a bit more difficult.
Paying that second contract post-rookie deal usually pays off, but that third contract is where things will get dicey. There is a clear drop in production that occurs for most players after the age of 30, and the NFL has caught on. We are seeing teams refrain from paying their stars that third contract due to the risk involved with the situation. It seems only surefire Hall of Famers and QBs are the only ones getting paid and even that is not a sure thing.
I am always going to side with the players here and root for them to get their money. Their time in the league is finite and it is in their best interest to gain as much capital as possible while they can. But if you are looking at the front office perspective, the second contract is great, but the third contract is not the way to go.
The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer here. For teams, you have to evaluate your situation, the landscape of the league, and act in your best interest. If you are the player, you need to maximize your value at every turn, ensure you are putting yourself in a situation where you can do that, and control what you can control.
There will never be a move that pleases every fan, someone will always play the blame game. No organization will ever make all of the right moves – although some have come close for extended periods of time. Just enjoy your stars while you have them and enjoy the wins when you can.
Check out some of my other NFL Slant material here. You can follow me on Twitter @dan_tf40 and check in with my podcast @thefastest_40 on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts, & anywhere you listen to content!