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Free-agency trends take shape

The pace of free agency and trades during the opening days of the new league year was so frenzied that most teams needed the weekend to reflect on what happened.

Contracts worth more than $1.32 billion were distributed to 76 unrestricted free agents during the first five days of free agency. Last year's total for the entire free-agency period was $1.43 billion, which was a free-agency record. Several of the 11 trades were surprising.

What have we learned so far from this year's free-agency period?

Teams are willing to give higher average salaries in exchange for less guaranteed money. Negotiators call it "the pay as you go" system. Most of the multiyear contracts are being constructed to allow teams to get out of them after one or two years. While this didn't affect Ndamukong Suh, Darrelle Revis or Jeremy Maclin, very few contracts included skill guarantees in the second year. In general, if a player doesn't play to his pay level, his team will be able to cut him after a year or two with minimal financial consequences.

The AFC East has been the most active and most exciting division. The New York Jets might have made the smartest moves. They acquired wide receiver Brandon Marshall from the Chicago Bears for a fifth-round pick and filled their talent-starved secondary with cornerbacks Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine and safety Marcus Gilchrist. The Buffalo Bills added LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin and Jerome Felton. Miami Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey was wheeling and dealing like crazy. He added free agency's best player, Suh, signed tight end Jordan Cameron and acquired wide receiver Kenny Stills in a trade. He also got rid of his top three receivers, including Mike Wallace. With the New England Patriots losing Revis and Brandon Browner, the rest of the AFC East teams are hoping to narrow the gap in the division.

Chip Kelly of the Philadelphia Eagles and Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints are shaking up their rosters. Upset with last year's 7-9 record and working with a tight salary cap, Payton made three trades, giving up tight end Jimmy Graham, wide receiver Stills, guard Ben Grubbs and a fourth-round draft pick, and getting back linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, center Max Unger and three picks -- a first-rounder, a third-rounder and a fifth-rounder. Since last year, Kelly has removed or lost four Pro Bowl offensive players from his roster -- DeSean Jackson, Maclin, Nick Foles and McCoy -- and he's trying to trade Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis. The Eagles handed out $51 million worth of contracts to add running backs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews to a backfield that already included Darren Sproles, who makes $3.5 million a year. Kelly also has added linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond to the Eagles' defense.

Jacksonville and Oakland were big spenders. The Jaguars led the way. They invested $175.5 million of contracts, including $43.45 million of cash for 2015, in six players: tight end Julius Thomas, defensive tackle Jared Odrick, right tackle Jermey Parnell, cornerback Davon House, linebacker Dan Skuta and safety Sergio Brown. The Jaguars and Raiders entered the offseason lagging behind the minimum spending requirement in the collective bargaining agreement, so they need to spend heavily. Not counting deals for quarterback Christian Ponder and cornerback James Dockery, the Raiders spent $48.75 million of cash for defensive tackle Dan Williams, center Rodney Hudson, safety Nate Allen, linebackers Malcolm Smith and Curtis Lofton, tight end Lee Smith and halfback Roy Helu.

Big contracts are watering down the trade value of players. Marshall went to the Jets for a fifth-round choice. The Dolphins were able to get only a fifth-round pick from the Minnesota Vikings for Wallace. The Saints could get only a fifth-round pick from the Chiefs for Grubbs. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, paired with a seventh-round pick, went from Baltimore to Detroit for a fourth-rounder and a fifth-rounder. Even though the Seattle Seahawks were willing to give up a first-rounder in the deal to get Graham, teams are reluctant to trade away draft choices in the first three rounds.

From the inbox

Q: I don't understand how the Raiders and Jaguars are going to make the minimum spending limit without overpaying undeserving players. What are the implications if they don't meet the minimum levels?

Joe in Los Molinos, California

A: If the Raiders or Jaguars don't reach the minimum spending limit before the 2017 league year begins, they'll have write a check to make up the shortfall, and the NFLPA will determine how to be distribute it to the players. Teams must spend at least 89 percent of the cap over a four-season stretch from 2013 to 2016, and Jacksonville and Oakland entered this offseason with plenty of ground to make up. The key is getting the free-agent signings right. They would lose ground in spending if they cut players with big contracts over the next two years. Quarterbacks Derek Carr or Blake Bortles will be eligible for contract extensions in February 2017, and that could help the Raiders and Jaguars close the gap if needed.

Q: To the fans who think trading Jimmy Graham was a bad move, I can make the argument that Drew Brees will now have to spread the ball around the way he did before Graham was drafted. What do you think?

Russ in Pineville, Louisiana

A: Brees is great at spreading the ball around. Here's my worry: Will the Saints be as effective going against Cover 2 defenses? I remember how Brees and the Saints had trouble against the Bears' Cover 2. That changed when they drafted Graham and later signed Sproles. If Graham was covered, Brees could get the ball to an outside receiver. If the receiver was covered, he could dump off a short pass to Sproles. Cover 2 defenses were helpless against those options. C.J. Spiller might be able to fill the Sproles role, but the Saints don't have a tight end to attack the middle of the field.

Q: Is there a rule against trading players you just signed? I'm reserving judgment on the Eagles until we see what their lineup looks like in Week 1, but Marcus Mariota just seems like too perfect of a player for Chip Kelly to pass on without exhausting all options. If he does actually want Mariota and just doesn't want to give up the next three first-round picks for him, would a package of the 20th pick, Sam Bradford, Murray, next year's third-round pick (which would be replaced by the Rams from how I read that Bradford-Foles trade) and a conditional second- or third-rounder the following year get them to the table with Tampa, Tennessee or Jacksonville?

Brian in Philadelphia

A: A team can trade a recently signed player any time it wants. But as Kelly said the other day, there will be no trade up to get Mariota. If the Eagles couldn't use McCoy, Trent Cole and draft choices to trade up from the 20th pick, they have fewer assets to trade now after the Bradford deal. A team drafting in the top five doesn't want to trade down to the 20th pick. The chances of getting a Pro Bowl-caliber player drop 50 percent when trading out of the top five to the 20th pick. Plus, if a team in the top five wanted Murray or another recently signed player, it would have signed Murray before the Eagles did.

Q: Long-suffering Bills fan here. This offseason has brought an excitement that I haven't felt in over a decade. With all the wheeling and dealing, our new coach, and a good defense, it can be easy to get caught up in the moment and project big things for the Bills. There is something that gives me pause, however. Buffalo's owner also owns the Buffalo Sabres. They were a mess when he bought them, and in his initial news conference he cited his three-year plan to bring the Sabres back to prominence. It is Year 4, and the Sabres are in dead last and probably couldn't beat the Rochester minor-league team. Should the state of the Sabres worry Bills fans at all about the future of their beloved football team?

Brian in Huntsville, Alabama

A: So far, you would have to say the Bills have done a lot of things right with their new owner. They landed Rex Ryan as the coach. They acquired McCoy and Harvin. They might be OK with Matt Cassel at quarterback. The defense is great. I like what is happening in Buffalo. Stay excited. They did have a winning season last year, and they retained Jerry Hughes, their top unrestricted free agent.

Q: How do incentives work within the salary-cap system? If Team A is right up against the cap but 10 players hit their contract incentives and the team has to pay out an extra $2 million at the end of the year, are there ramifications, or does this allow teams to pay players more without being constrained by the cap?

Ian in Indianapolis

A: The team has to monitor it and make sure there is excess cap room at the end of the season. The St. Louis Rams were up against the cap at the end of last season. They had to save some potential rollover cap room to accommodate those incentives. Teams do a great job of keeping track of those incentives to make sure they don't go over the cap at the end of the season.

Q: Why were the Giants standing around and not signing DeMarco Murray? They need a running back to take pressure off a very skittish Eli Manning, and they could certainly steal away a real talent from a hated rival. Just doesn't seem to make sense.

Michael in Corpus Christi, Texas

A: If the Cowboys weren't willing to keep Murray for more than $6 million a year, the Giants weren't willing to go to $8 million a year to sign him. That's not the way the Giants do business. As you've watched over the past couple of seasons, teams aren't willing to pay much more than $4 million a year for a running back. Maybe that's wrong, but that's the trend. We'll see if the Eagles get their money's worth out of Murray.