Free agency: Is pot of gold elusive?

It sounds good in theory. An NFL player completes four seasons, his contract expires, and he steps into a career opportunity: auctioning his talent to the highest bidder. The market takes hold, and he is rewarded based on his accomplishments and potential for future success.

In reality, such freedom is available to a sliver of the NFL population. In three years since the league's new collective bargaining agreement went into effect, we've seen a sturdy pattern emerge.

As fans root for their teams to sign a star, most elite players remain locked down, either via contact extensions or the franchise tag. Some front-liners sneak into the market, unwanted or unaffordable by their prior teams, but only a few sign lucrative deals before the money dries up. The rest are relegated to an increasingly squeezed middle class, accepting short-term contracts in hopes of a future payday.

The 2014 edition of free agency was shaping up in similar fashion, at least before last week's unexpected salary-cap bump added $320 million in league-wide cap room. That infusion brought the concept and reality of NFL free agency to a crossroads. Will owners respond with more competitive bidding on a wider swath of players? Or will they remain true to the principles they've set over the past three years with a class largely devoid of true difference-makers?

A quick survey of NFL executives and agents late last week revealed a level of uncertainty about the new cap's impact. One administrator said the inherent competitiveness of owners left open the possibility of a more active market, but the consensus fell in line with a supplemental philosophy advanced by John Elway, the Denver Broncos' executive vice president/general manager, at last month's scouting combine.

"With free agency," Elway said, "we're always trying to get ourselves in a position where when we go into the draft, we don't have a glaring weakness where we are reaching for somebody in the draft. So I think it's important for free agency, in my opinion, to try to pick up the places where you think you have glaring holes and fill those holes and then when you go to the draft be able to draft the best players that you hope are going to have great careers in the NFL."

The foundation of the Broncos' Super Bowl team was a 2012 free-agent acquisition: quarterback Peyton Manning. But Elway supplemented his group with a number of "middle-class" signings last spring, from guard Louis Vasquez to linebacker Paris Lenon and defensive end Shaun Phillips. Lenon and Phillips started a combined 18 games last season and collectively earned less than $2 million.

The limited opportunities for players such as Lenon and Phillips incline one prominent agent to advise clients on the virtues of accepting the incumbent team's best offer before the market opens.

"There is a whole lot of value in re-signing with your own club," said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the interests of his clients. "Everyone thinks free agency is gold at the end of the tunnel. But if you can structure a deal with the team that knows you and still wants you, chances are that's where the best overall value is. Unless you are a big-time player, you get into free agency and there are 15 of the same player as you. That drives everyone's value down."

Let's take a closer look at where the concept of free agency is and where it might go.

What has happened?

The math is pretty simple. For six years, the NFL salary cap remained relatively flat. It was $116 million in 2008 and, after changes enacted in the 2011 CBA, just $123 million by 2013.

The concept underlying the new agreement was for a lower rookie scale to shift more cap space to veterans, but as it turned out, only elite players saw a bump.

In most cases they were quarterbacks who remained with their existing teams, whether it was the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees, the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco or the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers. The Miami Dolphins' signing of receiver Mike Wallace last year was the rarest of occasions: a free agent receiving a top-end contract (five years with $30 million guaranteed) from a new team.

The 50 highest-paid players in the NFL saw a 14 percent rise in their average annual salary (APY) between 2010 and 2013, by definition squeezing the rest of the league's players into a smaller piece of the pie.

Owners realized that young players, locked into low-paying contracts for at least three years under the new CBA, were cheaper labor than veterans who made it into free agency. (Teams have gotten younger, and the Seattle Seahawks, whose average player was 26.4 years old in 2013, were the second-youngest Super Bowl champion in NFL history.)

"We have definitely seen a disintegration of the 'middle class,'" Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said recently at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. "We know we are going to have to spend some time developing our young players to contribute." Later, he added: "We can't have our roster littered by a bunch of veteran talent."

Indeed, the average cash spent by NFL teams has decreased in each year of the new CBA, from $131 million per team in 2011 to $125 million in 2013. That blueprint doesn't bode well for a 2014 class whose top two players -- New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo -- are all protected by the franchise tag. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy already is off the board after signing his franchise tender on Tuesday.

"The cap is put in place to suppress spending," said Sean Gilbert, a former player who wants to replace DeMaurice Smith as executive director of the NFL Players Association. "Even if the cap moves up, you pay one or two players, and that justifies the meat of the business in free agency? That's spending money? This is a team sport, comprised of young guys and veterans. Guys who have proven themselves, they should have the opportunity to get paid for that, but that's not what's happening.

"The biggest free-agent signing in recent memory," Gilbert adds, "is Roger Goodell."

Gilbert is the author of "The $29 Million 'Tip,'" a book tracing how Goodell's salary as NFL commissioner skyrocketed after CBA negotiations were completed. Goodell received $73 million over the two most recent fiscal years, a tacit approval from NFL owners for the CBA's salary structure.

One of those owners, New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, spoke at length at the MIT Sloan Conference about the "competitive advantage" a team gets not by signing free agents but by finding starting players in the draft.

One player's perspective

In 2013, Lawrence Jackson was caught in the NFL's shrinking middle class of free agency. He had finished a three-year run with the Detroit Lions and offered teams a commodity they routinely value: pass rush. He had 13 sacks and 37 hurries while playing about a third of the Lions' snaps over that period, according to Pro Football Focus. But potential suitors faced a familiar dilemma.

As a player with five accrued seasons, Jackson would have to be paid at least a $940,000 base salary for 2013 -- about twice what a player in his rookie contract would receive. Jackson was experienced and manned a valued position, but were his skills worth twice that of a younger player?

The market answered that question. Two months after the start of the free-agent signing period, Jackson signed a minimum contract with the Minnesota Vikings. He was released before the final preseason game and did not play in 2013.

Jackson recently said he maintained a realistic notion of his situation and suggested "a lot of players have a misunderstanding of their value." Like it or not, he said, money won't be spread out equally.

"I look at it from a business perspective," he said. "I put myself in the shoes of the owner, the president, the general manager. A team is nothing but a car. Some guys are spark plugs. Some guys are engine coolant. The quarterback is the engine. You invest in getting a good one of those. A lot of the other stuff, it can be replaced and those parts are interchangeable. If you don't have a realistic value of what you bring the table, free agency is a brutal place for you."

This year?

Jackson was one of many recent free agents who once projected their career arc around an anticipated salary-cap bump in 2014. Those hopes petered out in recent years as internal NFL projections suggested a continuation of the flat cap, and many marketable players have decided that they won't beat their incumbent team's offer on the market.

The 2014 bump surprised most everyone in the industry; it raised each team's limit to at least $133 million before carryover calculations are made. Now that it has arrived, however, it's difficult to identify more than a small group of players that teams might spend on amid anticipation of what longtime Pittsburgh Steelers executive Kevin Colbert has called the deepest draft he has ever seen.

There isn't a single quarterback available who spent 2013 as his team's primary starter. For the moment, the class is topped by Michael Vick and Matt Cassel. If a team wants to sign Graham or Orakpo, it must surrender first-round picks in 2014 and 2015.

The receiver class has some notable names, from Eric Decker to Hakeem Nicks to James Jones. But that group will be compared directly to a talented group of potential draft picks that includes five members of Mel Kiper's top-25 Big Board. What would you do? Would you pay Decker, say, $8 million per season or draft Oregon State's Brandin Cooks for a fraction of that cost?

"Maybe a few guys will get paid a little more," Jackson said. "But the real winners were the guys who re-signed with their teams early, or guys like Charles Johnson, who signed back [with the Carolina Panthers in 2011] when teams weren't sure how things were going to go. He is a great defensive end, but I don't think guys like that will cash in now like that much. Things have settled down since then."

A deep cornerback class has had some fans intrigued, but the Miami Dolphins took Brent Grimes off the market Monday, and it's not certain how many of the other top names -- Aqib Talib, Sam Shields, Vontae Davis and Alterraun Verner, among others -- will make it to free agency.

Defensive lineman Michael Bennett seems ticketed for a significant payday after an 8.5-sack season with the Seahawks. But it's worth wondering how high teams will bid after they sat on their wallets last year -- when he was a year younger (he's 28 now) and coming off a season with more sacks and starts than he had in 2013. After a nine-sack season in 2012, he signed the Seahawks' one-year offer for $5 million and will take another run at free agency this spring.

The overall uncertainty brings a natural question, namely ...

How will cap money be spent?

At the beginning of the week, NFL teams had some $650 million in available cap space, an average of about $19 million per team. Eight teams had at least $30 million, almost half had at least $20 million and only two -- the Steelers and Dallas Cowboys -- were over their allotment.

In discussing this space with those who understand the cap, it seems clear that the number to focus on moving forward is not the cap limit ($133 million) but the cap floor. Between 2013 and 2016, according to the CBA, each NFL team must spend 89 percent of its total cap space in cash. There is no obligation to spend beyond, and there is no requirement to carry over any remaining space to the following year.

To stay on track for that 89 percent figure this year, NFL teams must spend at least $118.4 million in cash. If they spend less, they can make up for it in 2015 or 2016 to ensure their four-year minimum. If they spend more, they can adjust downward accordingly for the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of accounting methods to consume large quantities of space with a single player if necessary. Consider the Chicago Bears' contract extension with quarterback Jay Cutler, completed shortly after the season. The deal pays Cutler a $22.5 million base salary in 2014, giving him the highest 2014 cap number of any player under contract at the moment. Cutler's cap hit falls to $15.5 million in 2015 and $16 million in 2016, when the Bears can terminate the deal with no further cap acceleration. In other words, the Bears are consuming more 2014 salary-cap space than they need to with his deal.

So as we sit on the precipice of free agency, it seems clear that NFL teams have more opportunity to spend on free agents but no more incentive to do so than in recent years. The money is there to spend on veterans, but whom should it be spent on? And why? Those are questions NFL teams are facing this week, but a pattern to the contrary already seems largely set.

(ESPN.com NFL Nation reporter Jeff Legwold contributed to this article. All salary numbers in this story are from ESPN's Roster Management System.)