The strange world for 2021 NFL free agents: Entering a contract year during a pandemic


Young players around the league follow the contract-year playbook: Ball out in college, make splash plays on a rookie NFL deal, land life-altering wealth via an extension from the team that loves keeping homegrown talent.

Just last week, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle, Buffalo Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins and Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark followed that playbook to secure deals worth a combined $205 million in total.

The league collectively exhaled that business, at least for a few days, was pandemic-proof.

Post-COVID-19 business is slow for several teams that in years past might have signed star 2021 free agents by now.

The numbers bear this out, starting with the franchise tag. Last year, six teams used the tag, and five of those players got long-term deals with their original team or via trade.

But the pandemic hit right before this year’s March 12 deadline to designate the tags, so teams swiftly opted for the short-term fix. Fifteen players received the franchise tag and just two — Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones and Titans running back Derrick Henry — parlayed it into long-term deals. And even that number was considered a mild surprise.

Entering August, contract extensions were down more than 40% overall from 2019. At least six marquee players who were one year from free agency signed sizable deals between May and July of last year, with many more following in August and September. Most of that period was completely quiet this summer. Guaranteed money from March to August is up slightly year-over-year, from $3.33 to $3.64 billion, but the average guaranteed money per contract is down from $4.56 to $3.40 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Megadeals for pass-rushers Myles Garrett and Joey Bosa in late July showed elite superstars are still getting paid. But the tiers underneath could suffer. The middle class already was affected by the last collective bargaining agreement executed in 2010, and several agents anticipate bigger problems built around the expected salary-cap fall in 2021.

Projecting massive revenue losses due to the scarcity of fans in the stands this season, the NFL and players’ union negotiated that next year’s cap can’t fall below $175 million, which is a steep drop from this year’s $198.2 million. It doesn’t have to fall that far, but it will fall. From players to owners, pain will be shared.

Even agents of All-Pros are expressing concern that deals aren’t done by now.

“It is strange,” Detroit Lions left tackle Taylor Decker, a 2021 free agent, said about the overall state of NFL affairs. “It’s not like every other year before where guys would be going into free agency and everything is normal and business as usual. Just be adaptable with that situation and kind of take it day-by-day because you don’t really know what the situation is going to be.”

Even so, teams still need to build rosters and stay competitive, which is why several league sources expect spending to increase over the next eight months. Complicating matters is a 2021 free-agent class loaded with talent. Every position has high-level pedigree. Nearly 20 upcoming free agents occupied a spot on ESPN’s top-10 position rankings as voted on by NFL personnel. The crop includes top picks from the 2017 draft (Ronnie Stanley and Jalen Ramsey), All-Pro linemen (Cameron Heyward, David Bakhtiari), star quarterbacks (Dak Prescott, Philip Rivers) and all those stars coming off the franchise tag, too.

Players approaching free agency are trying to reconcile business realities and personal goals in different ways. ESPN talked to four of them to gauge their plans.

Shaquill Griffin is one of the top corners on next year’s free-agent market. He became the Seahawks’ first Pro Bowl corner since Richard Sherman, earned a solid 77.0 Pro Football Focus grade last season and received multiple votes in ESPN’s top-10 player rankings. As a third-round pick in 2017, Griffin isn’t subject to a fifth-year option, and can negotiate with the Seattle Seahawks in earnest before March.

Seattle views him as an ascending player who should only improve. But the 10 highest-paid corners make between $13 and $16.7 million per year, a list that includes three 2020 free agents — Byron Jones, James Bradberry and Trae Waynes. Good, young corners likely won’t take anything outside of that range.

Of course, Griffin, 25, knows what’s at stake entering a unique contract year. But he prioritizes the work on the field, always.

“I follow it. How could you not?” Griffin said of the headlines about NFL business. “But I’m trying not to worry about it. I’m not the only one in the situation. You can always take any situation and make the best of it. Focus on winning and the rest takes care of itself.”

For Griffin, that meant turning the backyard at his family’s St. Petersburg, Florida, home into a workout domain with a sandpit, a turf-field area, dip bars and a bench. His dad trained Griffin and his brother, Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Griffin, like they were back in high school.

Closer to camp, Shaquill Griffin took to the field to hone his man-coverage skills with physicality drills, letting a receiver push and pull him in the open field so he can react. He wants to be an unquestioned shutdown cover corner among the game’s best. One veteran NFL defensive coach said he’s been impressed with Griffin and believes he has the physicality and athleticism to become that, assuming he refines his game in his fourth season.

“In this league, mental preparation is everything, so I just followed the routine instead of the uncertainty,” Griffin said.

Naivete helps drown out the business, too. Atlanta Falcons safety Damontae Kazee says he leaves the business side completely out of his planning, at least for now.

“This is my fourth year in the league, and I don’t know none of that stuff,” said Kazee, 27. “I still don’t know what a fifth-year option or a tag is, really. I’m sure I’ll learn about all that when the time is appropriate. But now, as I’m going into my fourth year, I just go about my day and just play.”

That formula has worked for Kazee, who has 10 interceptions and 13 pass breakups the past two seasons. The Falcons see him as a valuable piece to their defense long term. He can play in the slot or at free safety. And interceptions pay — ask Vikings safety Anthony Harris, who parlayed a six-interception season into an $11.4 million franchise tender.

Outside of the highest-paid safeties, former free agents Kareem Jackson, Lamarcus Joyner and Adrian Amos all recently landed contracts worth between $9 and $11 million per season. As Kazee sets his own floor, one NFC exec expects him to utilize Joyner’s four-year, $42 million contract as a free-agency comp off the strength of those turnovers created.

Kazee hasn’t thought much about his value, or how a pandemic would affect it. As long as he gets paid to play the game he loves and can buy his parents a home sometime soon, he’s happy. They endured a lot to get him and his brothers through a difficult upbringing in San Bernardino, California.

Kazee is set to make $2.13 million in the last year of his rookie deal.

“There’s no complaining — we get to play the game of football — so I try to bring energy every day,” he said. “The money I get now is a blessing. I just hope we have a full season.”

Left tackles usually get paid in timely fashion, and in a normal year, Detroit might have locked up Decker weeks ago. He’s a former first-round pick who is set to play on a fifth-year option at $10.35 million.

Decker had reason to smile at Dawkins’ $60 million extension in Buffalo. As a player considered a quality starting left tackle outside of the top tier, Decker could probably ask for more than that and get away with it. Despite an injury history that’s included shoulder surgery in 2017, Decker managed to start 31 games the past two years.

Decker doesn’t have any expectations for when a deal should be done, but closely following the NFL’s financial landscape would drive him crazy, he said, especially with more pressing matters such as safety and social justice initiatives.

“These numbers being thrown out and what the salary cap, what the future might look like, what the NFL this year might look like — there’s a million things being speculated,” said Decker, 26. “If I was reading into all that, being worried about my contract, with a million other important things going on, that would be exhausting.”

Decker did acknowledge that protecting his asset — his 6-foot-7, 318-pound frame — from COVID-19 was essential this offseason. So he stayed as low-key as possible.

“My gym was open so I was able to go train,” Decker said. “I was able to go home, eat, go to sleep, repeat. Golf a little bit.”

While Decker is a candidate to receive new money in August, some players might be best-served playing out their deals. Running back Matt Breida, who was traded from San Francisco to Miami this offseason, would like to re-sign with the Dolphins but can up his value with a big year as a feature back alongside Jordan Howard. A nagging ankle injury and the emergence of Raheem Mostert limited Breida’s production to 623 yards on 123 attempts last season.

Breida, 25, isn’t considered in the same tier as Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara, who are all in negotiations with their teams over sizable contracts. But Breida is the kind of explosive athlete who wouldn’t shock if he got, say, the Austin Ekeler treatment (four years, $24 million) or more.

The self-proclaimed fastest man in the NFL has a goal to hit 23 mph in live game action. He hit 22.3 mph on an 83-yard touchdown last season. And Chan Gailey’s offense will undoubtedly provide pass-catching opportunities out wide.

As for what money will be available next year due to COVID-19, Breida has faith in the NFL product — hopefully with a few fans in the stands.

“You have to trust the league and the players are doing their part,” Breida said. “As long as we have a season — as a competitor, I don’t want to sit out and not play — the football will be good and entertaining and TV contracts can stay in place. Hopefully after that, everything will go back to normal.”

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