NFL free agency: Supply and demand explained

Just like in past years, the 2017 NFL Free Agency frenzy has been the equivalent of a roller coaster ride that takes a billion turns and feels like it’s never going to end.

In the day of advanced statistics and the concept of “market value,” we’ve seen several players cash in on questionable massive contracts. Most notably, the Chicago Bears signed quarterback Mike Glennon, who’s thrown 11 passes in the past two seasons, to a three-year, $45 million contract.

We also saw the New England Patriots sign all-or-nothing cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million dollar contract, with an astounding $40 million of it guaranteed. Although Pats head coach Bill Belichick has been making sports analysts feel like Michael Jordan when he got crossed over by Allen Iverson for the past decade with his head-scratching roster moves, this one was particularly surprising. New England has a solid number one cornerback in Malcolm Butler, who many consider to be better than Gilmore.

On the flip side, there have also been several well-known players experiencing the misfortune of finding out that their own self-worth is way higher than many teams perceive it to be.

Although it’s come as a shock to many players and fans alike that teams wouldn’t shell out a minimal amount of money for a player in the back-end of their career, the main reason behind this is the old fashioned economic concept of supply and demand.

After the Super Bowl, several big-name running backs were let go by their respective teams. This included Jamaal Charles, 30, being released from the Kansas City Chiefs, Eddie Lacy, 26, of the Green Bay Packers becoming a free agent and Adrian Peterson, 32, from the Minnesota Vikings not having his option picked up. Additionally, many sources expect the Philadelphia Eagles to release ex-Pro Bowler Ryan Mathews, 29, upon his recovery from injury.

Charles, Lacy and Peterson headed into free agency with high expectations. In fact, Peterson even went as far as naming three potential landing spots for himself upon his release: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Houston Texans and the New York Giants. Peterson’s father took it upon himself to act as his son’s spokesperson at one point, and stated it was likely he would end up with the Oakland Raiders. Little did he know that the interest wouldn’t even be remotely mutual.

Although age is an especially important number at the running back position, as the wear-and-tear has been proven to take effect sooner rather than later, it came as a surprise to many that teams weren’t lining up to offer Peterson a low-risk, high-reward deal.

Who wouldn’t want a guy who is in the conversation for top ten greatest running backs of all-time? Peterson has proven that he has (or at least had) that second-gear, that breakaway speed, that many running backs today lack. There’s no question he has been one of the most innovative and exciting players to watch over the last decade.

The main reason teams weren’t and clearly aren’t competing for his, Charles’ or Lacy’s (who signed with the Seahawks) services is simple: the demand isn’t there.

Although there were several big-name, aging players available in free agency like these three, many teams already have their main back on the roster. Let’s be honest, relying on someone who is over 30 as your primary running back is borderline unheard of.

The main factor contributing to the lack of demand this year at running back is the elite draft class at the position this year. Teams are much more likely to take a chance on a younger player that they can mold and develop than one who is in the back-end of their career.

This problem wasn’t as evident in the past, as many teams tried to steer clear of the running back position due to the amount of mid- to late-round and undrafted talent at the position. The main guy who defined this phenomenon was Arian Foster, who went undrafted and recently announced his retirement following a ten-year, four-time Pro Bowl career. Even last season, six of the NFL’s top ten leading rushers of 2016 were taken in the third-round or later — Jordan Howard (fifth), DeMarco Murray (third), Jay Ajayi (fifth), David Johnson (third), LeGarrette Blount (Undrafted) and Devonta Freeman (fourth).

The bottom line is that the position of running back has traditionally been a spot where top-notch talent can be found later in the draft. Even if the talent isn’t “top-notch,” the sheer fact that young talent has been proven to be so readily available and able to play right away has been enough to deter teams from taking a chance on an older player.

There’s absolutely no justifiable reason to line up for an older player at a position where talent is aplenty; especially when that talent will be coming on a rookie contract at a fraction of the price. Even if the rookie tailback makes a number of mistakes and struggles in his first season, his production will likely match that of an older, injury-prone veteran. No matter how you look at this situation, the logic behind why any of these aging players expected hefty paydays just doesn’t add up.

The situation with Matthews is perhaps the most intriguing. After seeing several other veteran tailbacks struggle to find contracts on the open market, perhaps Matthews and his agent have discussed a restructure with the Eagles.

Although there’s no way of knowing how interested both sides are, I’ll go out on a limb and say that most types of contract restructures, even if it’s at a fourth of his $4 million per-year contract, will be better than anything he can get on the open market. Matthews had the benefit of watching the free agency market for players of a somewhat similar caliber essentially disintegrate before he was even released.

The main question is: Now that he knows what the market looks like, will he decide to take a different approach? Only time will tell. We’ll see how this one plays itself out.

Guys like the recently signed Gilmore and Glennon got to enjoy free agency from the opposite spectrum.

In a league that is pass-happy, the average team throws the ball on roughly 60 percent of its offensive plays from scrimmage, there was extreme desperation for talent at the cornerback position.

Out of all the positions on the field, the one where a mismatch is debatably the most obvious is at cornerback. When a quarterback recognizes a less-talented corner covering his top receiver, it is likely that he can, and will, exploit the matchup as much as possible.

If anyone is in question about this, look to the NFC Divisional Round game between the Packers and Cowboys, where Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott kept going after LaDarius Gunter. Gunter was charged with covering Dez Bryant. Bryant lit Gunter up in that game with nine catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. This is precisely why many teams wanted someone with a proven track record at the position, despite the fact that this year’s draft class has been labeled one of the best ever. 

Although Gilmore had an up-and-down 2016 by many standards, this explains why the Patriots were willing to throw $40 million in guaranteed money at him. They wanted someone who’d more or less provide consistency at the position and has the proven ability to cover a team’s number one wide receiver.

There was such a limited amount of known, top-level talent at the position, that a team like the Patriots were willing to overpay for less-than-top-level talent. The Jaguars, did the same thing, albeit to a lesser degree, when they handed fellow cornerback A.J. Bouye a five-year, $67.5 million dollar contract with $26 million guaranteed.

However, the situation with Bouye is perhaps an even greater example of this, as he only has one year of top-notch play under his belt. That year was spent playing primarily in the slot. Although the Jaguars have one of the best young cornerbacks in the league in Jalen Ramsey, and although Bouye fits their defensive scheme well, it was still shocking that a team was willing to dish out that much money on an unproven player who has such a distinct spot on the field.

Like cornerback, the quarterback position has been one where top-level talent has been extremely hard to come by. This has been something that’s led to very mediocre starting quarterbacks receiving hefty contracts. Last offseason, we saw unproven, career clipboard-holder Brock Osweiler sign a four-year, $72 million with the Houston Texans.

A year later, after an abysmal season from Osweiler, it appears the Bears made the same mistake with Glennon’s contract. The fact that another team was willing to take a chance and sign a career backup to that kind of contract speaks volumes.

Teams are so desperate and disgruntled with the current quarterback lack of talent that they’re willing to take a chance and spend a large fraction of the team’s cap space on someone who likely won’t live up to the deal. One of the reasons teams have taken these extreme measures is because they don’t trust the process (Joel Embiid pun intended) of grooming any of the current draft prospects at the quarterback position. Additionally, there’s such a lack of talent at the position in free agency that even the most mediocre guys stand out.

The reason that these quarterbacks are receiving these contracts that contain enough money to support most average people, and their entire immediate family for the rest of their lives, all comes back to the idea of supply and demand. At the in-demand cornerback and quarterback positions, we saw several guys cash in.

This was due to the market value price of mediocre talent being driven up. At the running back position, we saw several guys experience the effects of aging, which diminished their market value. The NFL has been widely known as a “tough love” league as many superstars have trouble finding work late in their careers. Teams that were once lining up to talk to the player now have no interest.

The situation for Charles, Peterson and Lacy has been no different. One might assume confidently that Charles and Peterson are being patient in hopes of finding the best playing situation possible. Every year, there is the inevitable injury and desperation to find a guy who can fit in at that position. These guys seem to be looking at this option to have the best chance of re-proving themselves.

Contact CU Independent Sports Staff Writer Jack Stern at jack.stern@colorado.edu.

Jack Stern

Jack Stern is a staff sports writer for the CU Independent. He is a know-it-all sports fan who soaks up anything sports related. His favorite sports are football, baseball, and basketball, but is always excited to learn about, and cover other sports. For story ideas, he can be contacted at jack.stern@colorado.edu or by phone at 718-938-5846.

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