Cleveland Browns can take advantage of free agent discounts in 2021

Cleveland Browns offseason. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland Browns offseason. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /
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Cleveland Browns. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

Free-agent discounts may be as much as 50 percent due to shrinking cap dollars, and the Cleveland Browns can take advantage

The Cleveland Browns will respond to the budget chaos of 2021 with smart financial analytics-driven action rather than the more typical greed and desperation that characterizes the offseason for most teams.

To make a long story short, the free-agent market will teach some harsh lessons for most NFL teams this off-season. The market has undergone a major financial shock, though perhaps not all GMs fully understand the implications yet.

The upshot is that free-agent veterans will have to sign for less than half their previous value, and the later it gets in free agency, the crazier the bargains are going to be. This writer believes that after a few initial signings the market will cool very rapidly and the discount rate is going to be at least 50 percent.

There simply isn’t enough money under the cap for the league as a whole to pay the athletes what they want.

For example, if the Browns are looking for a free agent linebacker this season, there are some good ones in the persons of Von Miller (if released by the Broncos, and guessing here is that he probably will be), Matt Judon, Melvin Ingram, Bud Dupree, Shaquil Barrett. Although each of these players had an average cap number of over $15 million per year, they will probably sign in 2021 for significantly less than $10 million dollars per year.

Ditto if the Browns are looking for defensive ends to complement Myles Garrett. Players hoping to get super-rich include headliner J.J. Watt, Leonard Williams, Jadeveon Clowney (trying again after falling about $7 million short of his compensation goal last season), Justin Houston, and Yannick Ngakoue, all hoping for compensation in the range of $15 million per year. This analyst doesn’t believe anything remotely close to that is possible, though they were certainly worth it last season.

The reason is that the salary cap is going to be $180 million this season, a drop of $18.2 million from 2020, reflecting the lousy revenues from last year. Suddenly, most teams are over budget. At the same time, several teams — the Saints, Eagles, Rams, Falcons, Chiefs, and Steelers —  were all on the play-now-pay-later plan last season, and later has arrived.

In the case of the Saints and Steelers, it sort of made sense because they were trying to get one more year out of talented old geezer quarterbacks and they were willing to push all their chips to the center of the table. The Chiefs at least got to the Super Bowl. The other teams were just experiencing different levels of greed plus stupidity. These overspent teams will find it very difficult or impossible to compete for free agents in 2021.

In 2020, the NFL signed $930 million worth of free agents (that is, by their 2020 cap charge number), give or take. That comes to about $29.1 million per team. This season, it’s going to be more like $10 million per team. Plus, some teams are still determined to over-invest in quarterbacks (trades for Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Matthew Stafford result in enormous dead money charges against this season’s salary cap), further shrinking the amount of money available for free agents. These teams are cutting good players left and right in order to make their salary cap limits.

There were also 255 college players drafted at a cost of  $275.3 million, or $8.6 million per team, on average. That figure will come down this season; according to Over the Cap, the class of 2021 will be paid $7.4 million per team. That represents a 14 percent discount compared to 2020.

Conclusion: Free agents are a  better deal this season than draft picks.

If you scroll down through the pages below, you can look at the calculations, and punch the numbers into your spreadsheets and figure out how much money has been wiped out by Covid-19, and what the impact is going to be on the 2021 free-agent market. The sports dollar is shrinking in 2021, and NFL general managers with poor financial skills will be severely punished.