The NFL salary cap has increased by more than $10 million in each of the past four years. It’s ballooned to an eye-popping $167 million this season, which is nearly five times higher than it was in 1994, the first year of the salary cap. What does all of this mean? Teams are getting more and more money to spend with each passing offseason, which leads to unwarranted contracts.
The Cleveland Browns have more than $100 million in cap space this offseason, and while they’ve been reluctant to spend in recent years, they’re almost certain to use a lot of that money to improve the roster. Will they follow in the footsteps of past teams that went on spending sprees when free agency opens on March 9? That remains to be seen, but history suggests it would be the wrong move.
Here’s how the biggest spender in each of the past five offseasons in terms of overall value. Figures are via Spotrac.com.
2016: Jacksonville Jaguars
Money spent: $230 million
Record in 2015: 5-11
Record in 2016: 3-13
Biggest signings: DT Malik Jackson ($85.5 million), LT Kelvin Beachum ($45 million), FS Tashaun Gipson ($36 million), RB Chris Ivory ($32 million)
The Jaguars, like the Giants, shelled out a great deal of money last offseason. While the Giants gave out more in guaranteed money than the Jaguars, Jacksonville’s overall spending was greater. It tried to shore up the defense by signing Super Bowl champ Malik Jackson and budding star Tashaun Gipson, but neither was much help as Jacksonville had the second-worst defense in the NFL.
As for Chris Ivory, he started just one game and had less than half the yardage he posted with the Jets one year prior. Kelvin Beachum had his option declined by the team this offseason after a subpar year. Needless to say, their big spending went without much return as they fell from 5-11 to 3-13 and have holes all over the roster once again. At least their big spending last offseason didn’t put them in a financial hole for 2017.
2015: New York Jets
Money spent: $182.8 million
Record in 2014: 4-12
Record in 2015: 10-6
Biggest signings: CB Darrelle Revis ($70 million), CB Antonio Cromartie ($32 million), CB Buster Skrine ($25 million), FS Marcus Gilchrist ($22 million), G James Carpenter ($19.1 million)
The Jets went into the 2015 offseason with one goal: overhaul the secondary. They did exactly that, signing four starting defensive backs to lucrative deals in free agency. Darrelle Revis was solid, as were Buster Skrine and Marcus Gilchrist, but the Antonio Cromartie experiment was a complete disaster. The Jets got overzealous in expecting him to be the player he once was, realizing their mistake by releasing him last offseason.
Technically, you could say their spending spree was worthwhile, considering they went from 4-12 to 10-6 and improved the pass defense, but look at the team they have now. Revis is gone, Cromartie is out of the NFL, Skrine struggled in 2016 and Gilchrist took a step back in 2016. The Jets have dug themselves quite a hole by going all in during free agency.
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2014: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Money spent: $152.4 million
Record in 2013: 4-12
Record in 2014: 2-14
Biggest signings: DE Michael Johnson ($43.75 million), LT Anthony Collins ($30 million), CB Alterraun Verner ($25.75 million), C Evan Smith ($14.25 million), QB Josh McCown ($10 million)
The Buccaneers were terrible in 2013, limping to a 4-12 record. What’s the best way to keep fans on board? Go out and spend lots of money! Well, that didn’t work. After signing Michael Johnson to a huge five-year deal and dishing out $30 million for left tackle Anthony Collins, the Buccaneers thought they were improving their roster. They didn’t. Johnson had four sacks in his one-year stint with the Bucs before going back to the Bengals, proving to be a complete waste of money.
Collins didn’t have much better luck, starting just 10 games after also coming over from Cincinnati. He was released in May 2015 and hasn’t played an NFL game since. The Buccaneers went from 4-12 to 2-14, which actually helped them land Jameis Winston. So I guess it wasn’t all bad.
After being the model of mediocrity for years – four straight seasons of sub-.500 football – the Dolphins decided to spend their wealth of cash on some of the biggest free agents out there. Mike Wallace was the headliner, making him one of the highest-paid receivers in all of football. With Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, the Dolphins thought Wallace would be able to put them over the top. Unfortunately, he didn’t. He caught just 140 passes and failed to eclipse 1,000 yards in his two seasons in Miami before being traded to the Vikings for a 2015 fifth-round pick.
Dannell Ellerbe had a similarly short stint with the Dolphins, playing just 16 games in two seasons. He was traded to the Saints in 2015 for Kenny Stills, which allowed the Dolphins to recoup something for their failed signing.
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2012: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Money spent: $162.4 million
Record in 2011: 4-12
Record in 2012: 7-9
Biggest signings: WR Vincent Jackson ($55.5 million), G Carl Nicks ($47.5 million), CB Eric Wright ($37.5 million)
The Buccaneers were one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2011, finishing last in the NFC South with an abysmal 4-12 record. This came one year after Josh Freeman led them to a 10-6 record, which only shows how frustrating the downward spiral was. To make up for it, the Bucs signed three of the biggest free agents on the market: Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. Jackson paid off right away with a 1,384-yard season, but that was his peak. His numbers have fallen off each year since, eclipsing 1,000 yards just three times in five years with the Bucs.
Nicks was even worse, playing just nine games in two years with the Buccaneers, turning into one of the biggest free agent busts in recent memory. As for Wright, he spent just one season with the Buccaneers, playing 10 games while intercepting just one pass. He was cut in 2013 and later retired in 2014 after finishing his career with the 49ers. The Buccaneers improved from 4-12 to 7-9, but that was largely thanks to Doug Martin’s emergence.