Michael Vick, Eric Decker and Jairus Byrd are among the free agents who stand to benefit from the National Football League’s 8.1 percent salary cap jump to $133 million per team, the sport’s biggest increase since 2006.
The NFL’s free agency period begins at 4 p.m. New York time today, when teams are allowed to officially announce player signings. Clubs were able to open contract negotiations with players’ agents on March 8.
“History tells you that there will be more deals out there for big money,” said former Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian, now an NFL analyst for ESPN.
Vick, who lost his job as the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting quarterback last season, said he still wants to be a starter in the NFL. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft, Vick will be 34 next season, which will be his 12th in the NFL.
“I want to make sure I put myself in the best possible situation,” Vick told NFL Network last month. “Ultimately the goal is to win football games. Being on the back end of my career, I just have to make the right decisions right now.”
Decker, 26, a wide receiver coming off a season during which he recorded 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in Denver, became a free agent after the Broncos’ Super Bowl loss last month. Byrd, 27, a safety, spent the past five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, earning three Pro Bowl berths and totaling 22 interceptions in 73 games.
Defensive end Justin Tuck and receiver Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants are in this year’s free agent crop, as are receiver Santonio Holmes and cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who were released by the New York Jets over the past two days to clear about $13.75 million in salary cap space.
Other unrestricted free agents include quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Josh McCown; running backs Knowshon Moreno, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden and Darren Sproles; receivers Julian Edelman, James Jones, Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate; offensive linemen Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe; defensive end Jared Allen, and cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey.
“System fit will determine the market. People are getting better at realizing that,” Polian said, referring to the offensive or defensive systems teams incorporate. “The trend is that more and more people are being pretty selective in who they pursue, realizing that system fit is a key thing.”
Among the players re-signed yesterday before they hit the free-agent market were quarterback Chad Henne, who agreed to a two-year contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars, and defensive end Michael Bennett, who led the Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks with 8 1/2 sacks last season. Bennett’s deal is worth $28.5 million over four years, ESPN reported.
The NFL’s 2014 cap on player payroll rose to $133 million per team from $123 million, the biggest increase since it went from $85.5 million in 2005 to $102 million the next year. Many teams will have money to spend as a result.
Fourteen of the league’s 32 teams have at least $20 million in salary cap space, according to NFL.com, with four clubs -- the Oakland Raiders, Jaguars, Cleveland Browns and Colts -- having more than $40 million apiece.
Polian, who also was a general manager of the Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills before running the Colts’ football operations from 1997 through 2011, said teams still have to use financial caution in free agency.
“The best players are signed, so these are essentially ‘B players’ whose agents are looking for ‘A money,’” Polian said. “That in itself is not the best of buys. You recognize that as a general manager and there are some situations that you’re just forced to deal with, so you bite the bullet. When a player changes teams, systems, locale, he has an adjustment period. But there are some holes on your club you just have to fill.”