How $1 billion in cap space could alter NFL free agency

If you're even moderately interested in NFL contracts, you know the salary cap has risen $10 million in each of the past two years. You've probably heard it will go up at least that much in 2016, giving it a 25 percent hike since 2013.

What you might not realize, however, is the cumulative effect of that growth and how it could change NFL free agency -- if all corners of the industry catch on.

Here's the bottom line: Give or take, there will be $1 billion in salary-cap space available when the market opens on March 9. That's a massive and unprecedented number, enough to pay the rosters of six full teams and an amount that will gift market-blowing contracts to the second- and third-tier players typically available.

As the chart shows, ESPN Stats & Information projects six teams having more than $50 million in cap space, and the median team will have $25 million based on a cap estimate of $154 million per team. (The precise cap limit might not be finalized for another two weeks.)

"This thing is just going to explode," said Joe Banner, the former Eagles and Browns executive who is now an ESPN analyst. "People are just not realizing what is sort of already happening and will keep happening."

Banner has been sounding the alarm on his Twitter feed for months, noting the steady rise of television rights fees and new revenue from over-the-top streaming and the league's return to Los Angeles, and suggesting that the annual cap surge is here to stay. He has been highly critical of agents and players who have re-signed with teams during this exclusive negotiating period, in essence rejecting the long-held paradigm that players almost always get their best offers from their current teams.

"With this much money available," Banner said, "you're going to be saying in free agency, 'This player got more than I thought he could ever get' if you have a good idea of who he is comparable to in the market. Guys are just going to be getting big increases over that."

(In a deep analysis this week, the website Over The Cap projected the increase at 20 percent on average. In other words, a player whose market comparison suggests he should get $10 million per season will be able to push it via bidding up to $12 million.)

The power of a flush open market was apparent but largely unnoticed last year. In signing cornerback Buster Skrine, the Jets blew past the top market value of $4 million per season for a nickel cornerback and paid him $6.25 million annually, an increase of 56 percent. Based on three-year averages, the Dolphins paid defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh a contract worth more than 40 percent what the Buccaneers paid Gerald McCoy just five months earlier. The Raiders made Rodney Hudson the NFL's second-highest paid center at $8.9 million per year, not because he is an elite player but because he was the best center available.

So, who stands to cash in next month?

"Everybody who hits the market," Banner said. "It's that simple. Someone has to get all this money. To me, it's almost malpractice not to see what could happen on the market. The money is going to be there. It has to be."

I realize that the only people who care whether an NFL player makes $10 million or $12 million per year are fellow players, agents, media members and the subset of fans who follow contract negotiations as an offseason competition of sorts. To me, the true value of any cap discussion is the extent to which it impacts player movement. We all care about who plays for whom. And these numbers suggest that expectations for NFL free agency could change in the future if more players sit tight and wait for the market to open.

Some would get the franchise tag, of course. Others might feel compelled to jump on an offer made a year before they are eligible for unrestricted free agency. But for the rest, patience might work -- even for those who could never contemplate playing for another team.

"If a team comes to you early and offers you money now, that means they want you badly," Banner said. "Players shouldn't forget that at this time of year."

Two teams have persuaded key players to do just that in recent weeks. The Eagles have signed four veterans to extensions, including defensive end Vinny Curry as he was approaching free agency. The Broncos, meanwhile, persuaded defensive lineman Derek Wolfe to sign last month rather than test the market.

If Banner's theory holds, those deals will be dwarfed in free agency by players of equal or lesser skill. So it's not impossible to envision a future when a Curry or a Wolfe waits for the market to open. The landscape would be populated by more impact players, pushing the flawed castoffs further down the chain and giving teams who hope to improve quickly -- or even just satisfy the NFL's spending floor -- a better chance.

In other words, these annual salary-cap increases wouldn't just make a few players disproportionately richer. They could alter the NFL's basic team-building model as well, if the industry catches on. Imagine big-time free agency as a way to truly improve a cap-rich team, rather than being simply a vehicle for overpaying another team's discards. Stay tuned.