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You've Got Mail: The Price Of Free Agency

Topics include FA impact on draft, breaking news, and highly-paid safeties

Jonah Monti Mailbag

A lot was going on last week around the Cardinals, and free agency is ongoing. You know what else is ongoing? The mailbag. Questions have been edited for length and clarity. Don't forget to send a question for a future mailbag.

From Tory Hanson:

"Hey Darren. I want to go on and about my love and appreciation for D.J. Humphries but alas life goes on. Sad today, old news tomorrow. Let's talk about the new guy instead, Jonah Williams. I trust Monti, but there's an elephant in the room: Jonah gives up a lot of sacks. I don't understand. Why Jonah? He's vocally said he doesn't want to be a right tackle. It's a very weird decision. Also, why sign a tackle at all when the draft is six weeks away? It's notably a very strong OT draft. Finally, doesn't this effectively tip our hand in the draft? How can the plan be anything other than WR at 4, CB at 27? Joe Alt isn't sitting 2 years behind Jonah. We aren't drafting a DL with the room now packed. We aren't drafting a LB with the room now packed. I'm a big believer in BPA and I feel this shoehorns us into forced picks. Monti talks about being a 'draft-built team' and then is one of the most active GMs signing starters in FA."

I'm glad you brought up these topics. While I get where you are coming from, I just think you are missing the point of free agency. For Williams specifically, Pro Football Focus had him among the top five free agent tackles available this offseason, which underscores the dearth of good tackles that reach the market. He was also a guy who has played both sides, and likely fit what they are doing the best. Yes, at first he balked at playing right tackle with the Bengals but that lasted about a month. That is not an issue

As far as the draft goes, this is exactly what you are supposed to do in free agency -- fill as many holes as possible just so you aren't tipping your hand/locked into a pick. Why wouldn't they draft a defensive lineman? Why wouldn't they draft a linebacker? Not everyone will make this team (and I have seen free agents never actually make the roster). Defensive line still could use people. They can use an edge rusher. What about a tackle who can also play guard, since left guard is still a spot to upgrade? What if they traded down from four and went CB or edge with that first pick? No, they aren't locked into anything. 

From Sonny Dubois:

"Hi Darren. For a team who wants to build through the draft we sure are signing a lot of free agents. I'm not complaining, I like our guys, but I think there's a fair question of roster space at this point. Our DL room is getting crowded (in a good way). Feel the same about linebackers. Just looking at the math, are we going to draft three or four receivers? Two or three cornerbacks?"

Again, as I mentioned above, they are going to draft players they think are the best ones. Do they still need a cornerback? Yes. Do they need a receiver or two? Yes. And an edge? Probably. Are they passing on a good defensive lineman if he stands out on their board when the pick is up just because they signed a couple of guys? Absolutely not. 

From Rob Ert:

"Can the Cardinals extend players like Budda to lower their cap hit? Is this something possible? I'm sure they've thought of it, but haven't heard anything."

Yes, you can always extend a player to lower the cap hit. (I noticed you also asked about Humphries, but that's moot now.) With any extension, there are variables -- does the player want an extension or preserve free agency? Does the team want to keep a guy long term? Do the team and the player align somewhat on what the extension is worth? Easy to say. More complicated to execute. And in the Cardinals' case, cap space isn't an issue at the moment. 

From Ian Tapper:

"Thank you Darren and your team for all you do for your fans and for an opportunity to be interactive such as your mailbag section. I, like many I am sure, had been waiting to see how the Cardinals will handle their offensive tackles this year. Through a lot of your work, many of us have come to appreciate D.J. Humphries as a great tackle and person for the Cardinal organization. My question is, now that he is officially cut, what will come of his knee rehab? Now that he is a free agent, is his rehab his own responsibility until he is signed by another team or does he still have use of the facility until such time?"

No, once a player isn't under contract he can't work out or rehab at the team facility. In certain situations, a team can make sure a player has access (or the team can pay for) some help in that regard. You have to take care of players injured on the job. But he'll find a place to rehab and there are high-end rehab places for pro athletes in which he'd get the same kind of work he would if he was still on a team.

From Don P:

"Always have to thank you for what you do. But why is it that when fans are desperate for news we have to go to other sites to find out what is happening? It seems to me that the Cardinals own news site should be the first to report signings and trades but here I am reading Tuesday's mailbag (last week) and not a single story on the free agents we have signed. The Cardinals website calls itself the official source for the latest news but it's not."

We always have news when a guy is signed. Most of these reports come out before the guy has signed, and yes, there is a distinction. Even then, the news almost is always going to be broken by NFLN or ESPN, because that's who the agents feed. I'd love to be so well connected, but believe it or not, our football side isn't letting me know ahead of time who they are trying to get. Finally, I am hurt by the idea you seem to think we didn't have a single story on the free agents incoming, especially when I was in Mexico for my brother's wedding Monday and Tuesday and still -- much to my bosses' collective chagrin -- hammering out stories of each guy as the news leaked out.

From Bob Haines:

"Now that the Cardinals have let Hollywood Brown and Rondale Moore leave, the receiver room needs to be addressed. It is imperative that Arizona keeps the No. 4 pick and take Marvin Harrison. Paired with Michael Wilson, Chris Moore and Greg Dortch is a respectable receiving core. They also have a true pass-catching TE in Trey McBride. How do you see the draft shaking out since they did address some of their other needs in free agency Darren?"

As I mentioned earlier, I see the draft still about the best players with the way the Cardinals have added to the roster. I don't know if it is "imperative" they use 4 and get Harrison, although I understand why that is the prevailing belief. I still think they'll look edge, and they'd take a good defensive lineman, and a cornerback, and an interior offensive lineman. But I am not ruling anything out -- could they take a tackle if he's good enough and use that guy as guard at first? Sure.

From Noah Tisnado:

"Do you think we will be signing any big names in the free agency market, or will we be just signing defensive guys and waiting until the draft for anything big?"

I think it's become clear Monti is not a guy who is going to throw a bunch of money around in free agency. Too many pitfalls, the return isn't worth it. Ultimately I think that's how it will play out most years -- unless there happens to be the perfect timing of a high-profile player they need right as the the Cardinals were ready to make a big push.

From Art Pozza:

"I'm wondering what the team is going to do concerning veteran leadership in the receiver room. Is Greg Dortch the answer? Do we bring in a veteran after the draft? Trade? What are your thoughts?"

Zach Pascal and Chris Moore are veterans, and that would be a start. Could they add another vet later, post-draft? Potentially. But if you end up with a rookie WR1, the pecking order is kind of set with youth anyway. 

From Martin K:

"For me, D.J. Humphries, Budda Baker, and Jalen Thompson were the pride of the Cardinals – always loved them. Last year the 10 highest paid safeties resided with the Chargers, Steelers, Seahawks, Falcons, Vikings, Broncos, Cardinals, Titans, and Ravens. Only the Ravens had a good chance to win the Super Bowl. This year, our two safeties approach $27 million in salary. Most NFL teams spend less than a third on ALL safeties on their team. Am I alone in expecting the other shoe to drop?"

It's a fair question, especially with the way veteran safeties have been treated around the league this offseason. But right now, I still see both Budda and JT as keys to this defense as it still seeks star power pretty much at every other position. As with anything, the roster and basically every player on it are seen as year-to-year. Safety overall in the NFL seems to be undergoing a sea change with how it is seen.

From Paul Chavez:

"Hello Darren, first want to say thanks to you Paul, Wolf, Dani and Craig for being great to us fans. What is the possibility that D.J. Humphries be re-signed after his rehab late in the season if we're making a playoff push? Is this something you believe the Cardinals or Humphries would entertain? Very sad to see it end like this."

I guess I wouldn't rule out anything, but I wouldn't expect it. One, would the Cardinals have an injury that would even require a fill-in tackle? Second, I would think Hump will be looking for an opportunity to play/start somewhere that gives him a possibility into 2025, and that wouldn't be with the Cardinals.

From Matthew Stroh:

"Chicago just traded Justin Fields for a conditional sixth-round pick. He played for three years and did OK. The Cardinals got a second-round pick and I think another pick for Josh Rosen after one season. At least we got more than Chicago. Do you think that was a good trade if you worked for the Bears?"

I think the Bears probably got what they could get at this point. The league knew the Bears needed to trade him and that's a tough place from which to deal (I actually thought back in 2019 the Cardinals got more than they were going to for Rosen, for the same reasoning. And at that point, Kyler was already drafted.)

From M Chad:

"Darren, talk to me about this DeeJay Dallas signing. It seems weird. Dallas' deal may not seem like a ton, but when you see Henry, Swift, Jacobs and Pollard all signing for 8 million a year, it suddenly feels like plenty. If we're looking for an RB4 or even an RB3, why not just take a shot at a guy in the draft for less money?"

For starters, they are likely also valuing Dallas for his special teams skills, which make a difference. And they still don't have a ton invested in the top four running backs (Conner, Carter, Demercado and Dallas have a combined cap number of less than $15M. That's not bad for the whole room, with veteran depth at a position that can get injured very easily. 

From Harrison Dragone:

"Sad to see Hump go, but I understand the move. Correct me if I'm wrong, but he was our highest-paid player and highest cap hit aside from our franchise QB. How much dead cap are we on for in 2024 and 2025, and how much of the money we saved is going to immediately be eaten up by Jonah Williams?"

Humphries will ultimately be a $7 million dead cap hit in each of the next two seasons. Williams' cap number this season is $6.6M and moves to $16.4M next season.

From Brian Shaw:

"Does the guy at the draft who picks up the red phone and hands in the pick know who we are picking ahead of time? Maybe not KNOW, but I assume he's been briefed on the plans and what to expect given certain scenarios? Or is he completely in the dark, and is he just listens-and-writes-the-name?"

The person writing down the name actually at the draft does not know ahead of time. Very few people are actually in that loop. They are called at the appropriate time, the name is double and triple checked, but they are finding out in real time. 

From Patrick Brackens:

"Arguably our weakest position last year was cornerback, and although we signed Murphy-Bunting and I expect we draft a guy on Day 2, (or even at number 27) I still don't think it could be called a strong room. Our team hasn't had a full room of CBs in a long time, and I would absolutely love to see one of these guys still sitting in Free Agency on a one- or two-year deal. White, Witherspoon, Fulton and Jackson are all under 30 and could be brought in without spending too much money."

I wouldn't be surprised if they signed another cornerback. Would it be before the draft? I'm not sure about that now. There will be some veteran signings in May, after teams have their draft and know exactly what they might need to fill out the roster. Here's the thing they have to decide: Do you see a future for Garrett Williams? For Kei'Trel Clark? For Starling Thomas V? Because if you saw that, you don't want to delay development by signing a guy for a year just to have a veteran. If the ability is close, you want to use the young guy and develop him. 

From Sebas Quiros:

"Hey Darren. Do you think the signing of Jonah Williams pushes the balance more in favor of a receiver with our first pick or do you think that won't have as much of a say in the matter?"

I do not think the Cardinals take a tackle at 4, but I am not ruling out an offensive lineman in the first round. I don't think Monti would box himself in that way. 

From Wally Kowalski:

"From being around him, is Paris Johnson noticeably bigger than your average big offensive tackle? Hump mentioned on a pod how big Paris is, which is surprising coming from a big dude like Hump. Maybe it's because he's surrounded by other big guys on the field, but I'd never noticed. Quick wiki search says he measured in at 6'6 at the combine, so he is in fact a certified unit. Also from what you can tell, has he gained weight? Or plan to? For a frame like that he could really fill out more. With his athleticism, some heft and strength would make him quite formidable."

Paris is a big boy, but not so big he seems out of whack. Could he put on weight? Maybe, but he's got a great frame already and if he has the strength he needs -- not sure how he stands with that with the coaches -- I wouldn't want to take from his athleticism. Back in the day, Leonard Davis was just a mountain of a man, even he wasn't as tall as PJJ. 

From Walker:

"Is Budda Baker's money guaranteed this year?"

It is not currently. Although as a veteran, his salary would be guaranteed if he was on the roster the opening week of the season. He does have a $400,000 workout bonus tied to him taking part in the offseason work.

From Kelby White:

"Last year with Kyler back, our offense was pretty productive and our defense was holding us back. Clearly Monti is looking to add depth to the defensive side of the ball to build a solid roster for the coming year, and hopefully become a playoff team. Do you think it is more likely Monti makes a trade for a star-caliber defensive player this offseason or wait to see how this year's free agents/draft class pan out, and make a splash trade/signing next offseason?"

I don't know if a "splash" is something Monti would ever do, although I'd look at that as a case-by-case. I think in M.O.'s perfect world, that star-caliber defensive player would emerge from one of these draft classes. 

From Brent Snyder:

"Hey Darren. I have a quick one for you that I have always been curious about. If a team doesn't got to where they need to be for the salary cap, what happens? What is the penalty? And how often does it happen that teams just can't get under the cap? Thanks Darren, you're a rock star!!!"

Kind of you to say Brent. If a team is over the cap, they can be fined a few million dollars and lose draft picks. That's if a team is already over (they get a few days to adjust if an incentive kicks in to change things.) But if a team is under and has a contract or something that would then put them over, the contract -- which has to be approved by the league -- is simply rejected. 

From Ted Beck:

"In today's mailbag you said that Josh Jones played better at tackle than at guard. That reminded me of something that I have often thought about. As someone who never played organized football, I honestly don't know the answer to this. But regarding which position someone might play on the O-line, what is a tackle expected to do that a guard couldn't do (or vice versa)? I know that typically tackles tend to be taller than guards, but I'm sure there is more to it than that. Thanks for all your great work!"

It would be easier to quote a lineman on this, but in a very basic nutshell: Guards are expected to hold up and push against bigger, stronger behemoths in the middle of the line, so you're looking for a bull of a man (think Will Hernandez) who doesn't necessarily have to be athletic  but is strong and can work in tight areas. A tackle (mostly) deals with faster edge guys so the tackle has to have great feet, hopefully longer arms to fend off dudes coming from everywhere and are big enough to wall off the QB. Your guards are, hopefully, not too tall, since the QB has to see over them to throw. 

From Jay Phillips:

"Hi Darren! It's early but so far so good. LOVE the Bunting deal. Gem! And I like Nichols and Jones. Beef up the DL with veterans. Perfect. Not complaining, but the talking heads locally keep saying how this was always the plan. Mid-level guys. 1-3 year deals. Low numbers. My question is if we're only handing out mid-deals, what are we doing with all our money? We're among the top cap-room teams. You can horde it, sure, but money in the bank doesn't play on Sunday."

Cap space doesn't play cornerback. I know. But using the space just to use it is foolish too. In a perfect world, you will use it to extend your current good players/draftees. I'm not saying some bigger FA deal could never happen. But it's going to have to be the right circumstances -- player, position, where the team is trending for that season.

From Denny O:

"Please confirm if I have this right. Only the guaranteed money matters on a contract? So a five-year $100M contract with $50 guaranteed is not worth $20M per year it seems to be. In fact it's actually a five-year $50M contract, averaging out to $10M per year. Any nuance I'm missing? I don't understand signing bonuses or that stuff."

Yeah, it's not that simple. And guaranteed money isn't the only one that matters, although it's the most important. In your example, it wouldn't necessarily be a five-year, $50M deal because that's only the guarantee. For instance, Budda Baker is scheduled to make about $14M this season in salary. It is not guaranteed. But he gets the money if he plays so whatever extension he got price-wise a few years ago will basically be worth the max because he would've collected it all -- much more than the original guarantees. Let's say a guy signs a four-year contract. He gets salaries of $5M, $10M, $12M, $15M. His signing bonus is $16M. It's a four-year, $57M deal but his guarantees (his real guarantees) are $21M -- $5M salary (because he's going to be on the team the first year) and the bonus. Some agents want to lump in the second year salary because a guy is rarely cut after that first season, knowing there would be a $12M dead cap hit. This guy's cap numbers (on a very simple deal) would be $9M, $14M, $$16M and $19M. After that first season, they could cut him and multiple $4M prorated bonus cap hit times however many years he had left to find out dead hit.

From Scotty:

"I see good players (Jeudy!) getting traded for fifth- and sixth-round picks. Why is it never us Darren? New GM. New era. Same old thing. It's never us trading a throwaway pick for a heckuva player. I read on Twitter a reporter say the Cardinals wouldn't pursue the likes of Christian Wilkins because they "aren't one guy away from the Super Bowl." MAJOR GRIPE about that. You have to grab the top guys when they are available. A top 5 DT does not become available every year. If ever the No. 1 CB in the NFL becomes available (who knows why), you better go get him. It's an insane perspective to think you can pick and choose when elite talent hits the free market. We need an elite DT now and tomorrow and three years from now. Here's one available now. GO GET HIM NOW."

Couple things here. One, you are assuming that major talent is OK coming to a team that might not win right away, and if you are a stud player and the money being offered places is about the same, are you doing that? (I'm not saying the Cards offered Wilkins.) Bigger picture however, there is opportunity cost. The more capital/cap space you plunge in now, the less you have later. I get frustration. But it's the team-building Monti believes in. The Cardinals just had a GM who was making a lot of choices like that and it didn't work out.

From Dhruvraj Parmar:

"Say two GMs discuss trading up or down. One GM says they are trading up to get a QB verbally so other GM agrees to trade down. Then they come up and take a WR that the first GM wanted instead. How do you trust the other guy? Has this ever happened?"

Doubt it has happened because if it did, not only would GM2 ruin his reputation with GM1, that story would make the rounds so fast his rep would likely be trashed around the league. It would be a stunning bit of hubris. 

From Mark Aragon:

"Is it just me or do others feel Kyler Murray is overrated. What is the point of signing a contract and a few years later renegotiate. Paying Murray over $200,000,000 is insane. Instead of looking for an outstanding QB that would give this team a chance you guys up Murray's salary. Just remember this email down the line when you trade or cut Murray."

You'll have to ask "others," Mark, but dang, did this email get stuck in your outbox and it was just released after it was written in August of 2022? That's when Kyler got his extension. Quite a lot of time has passed since then. As far as "signing a contract and a few years later renegotiate," that's what an extension is. That's literally the definition.

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