In NFL free agency, cash is king, location matters and state taxes come into play. Do you want to wake up and shovel the driveway in Buffalo when it's 5 degrees outside or wear flip-flops and live on the beach year-round in Miami? Play in California? Man, those state taxes are no joke when they chop up your signing bonus. Where did all my money go? Yikes.
Those are just a few of the things on the minds of NFL players as they prepare to hit the free-agent market this week. Sure, money always talks, and we will get into that. But what other factors weigh into the decision-making process for players as they get ready to sign a new deal with a new a team in a new city? This is a life-changing move for players and their families. And the selection process runs deep.
Let's take a look at free agency from the perspective of an NFL player about to jump into the open market. It's college recruiting all over again -- but with bags of money and massive opportunities to further a career.
Take the money. Take all of it. That's the best advice I could give to a player hitting free agency this week. You've made it to the market, so now it's time to cash in. And I know how that sounds. It's greedy, right? It's guys playing for the check. Where did the passion for the game and the loyalty go? I get it. From an outside perspective, it looks, well, pretty selfish when a guy goes for the big payday instead of staying in town at a lesser deal with his original club.
But I also know how players view management. In reality, there is no such thing as loyalty in the NFL. Players don't trust the front office, and that will never change. Given the number of players who get cut loose every offseason (while under contract), this is the time to get as much loot as you can before eventually being shown the door for good.
Careers are short, players get seriously banged up in the NFL and those "prime years" create a tight window of opportunity. For the majority of free agents, this is the one time they have some leverage. Take advantage of that. It's OK to chase the money in free agency, because there will come a time where no one will pay you to play ball. That's the truth. Don't blast a guy for leaving for more cash. This is a high-risk, high-reward job that can't be compared to the common workplace.
Location, location, location
If the money and opportunity are somewhat equal on the market, we can expect free agents to jump at the chance to play in warmer weather or in cities that provide real entertainment off the field. The beach sells, and so do golf courses, 80-degree weather and nightlife.
Now I've played in Buffalo and Green Bay. Those are awesome football towns. And the fans reflect that. Loved it, I really did. Drink beers and play ball. That was a fit for me. But I would be lying if I wasn't a little jealous flying into Miami or Tampa or San Diego or Phoenix for road games. The sun is out, the weather is perfect, people are golfing in December and you don't have to dress for a polar excursion just to get to practice. The other top spots for free agents? Look at Atlanta, Dallas, New York or Houston (and now Los Angeles) -- cities with a lot to offer to young NFL players.
Yeah, that matters. These guys want to play ball and enjoy their time off too. They aren't robots or football machines who only think about game plans. Nah. These are some young dudes who want to see what the city has to offer in the offseason and on Friday nights during the season. I've seen the nightlife in Green Bay. It's a long wooden bar with a cold Old Milwaukee draft. And the summer starts on the Fourth of July and ends in the middle of August. In Buffalo, get a ride up to Toronto to get out in the big city. My point? It's more than just football to free agents.
The reality of state taxes
NFL players can't use the phone app from H&R Block to do their taxes this April unless they want the IRS to come after them. You need a real accountant, a guy to get through the loads of paperwork to file your taxes. You see, players are taxed for every individual game. It's not a flat rate, a deal from the government. That means you will pay different tax rates for a home game versus a road game. And free agents know this when they are selecting a team. That's eight home games where you could save some cash.
Because of that, the Cowboys, Texans, Jaguars, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Titans and Seahawks -- teams in states with no income tax -- rise up on the list of potential spots. That means more money in your pocket when the paycheck comes compared to California teams (13.3 percent state tax), the Jets and the Giants playing in Jersey (8.97 percent), the Bills in New York (8.82 percent) and even the Packers and that Wisconsin state tax (7.65 percent).
I remember playing out in San Francisco against the Niners during my rookie year in 2000. The paycheck on Tuesday? It was light. Real light compared to the home games in St. Louis with the Rams. Where did those extra bucks go? That's brutal. Welcome to the NFL, rook.
But it's also another thing to consider when picking a spot to play in free agency. You sign with the Niners, Chargers, Raiders or the new-look Rams, and it's time to pay up. Your paycheck will take a hit for every single home game. Even those garbage preseason checks. Yeah, Uncle Sam will get to those too.
Playing for a winner
Everyone wants to play for a winner, right? A chance at a ring? Maybe. Sometimes that is a fake narrative. Now I will say this is a factor for the older vets, the guys who have already made some real money in the NFL. I'm talking about players entering or already into their 30s. These are the proven veterans who might have a couple of good years left. That's it. And they want to have one more shot on the postseason stage to play for a Super Bowl title.
The money probably won't compare to the free agents who sign deals on the first day. That's where the majority of the cash goes. And with the cap continuing to rise, good players who hit the market get paid like Pro Bowlers. But there is still some coin left for veterans who take their time and are selective when picking a new destination. And if they are smart, they can end up on a team with a legitimate shot at making a run in 2016.
Given the parity in the NFL, there are no guarantees in today's league when it comes to picking a winner. But vets will start to look at the Patriots, Seahawks and Steelers -- teams with established coaching staffs and quarterbacks. That's the key: Nice landing spots for vets in search of a team that can compete for real.
Familiarity with the coaching staff is important to NFL players. They want the sense of comfort and the accountability that comes with a coach they know. Because of that, players are likely to sign with a team where they have a connection. Maybe it's a former position coach or even a coordinator. Yes, every player is going to speak highly of the head coach when they sign a new deal, but those assistant coaches are the ones with whom they spend the most time.
One of the main reasons I signed with the Bills as a free agent in 2006 (besides the fact that they still wanted to pay me to play football) was the idea of working with defensive backs coach George Catavolos. He was my position coach under Steve Spurrier in Washington, and I loved playing for the man. Plus, I knew what to expect in terms of how I would be coached. From the technique to the game plan to the drills on the field, I understood what the demands were coming into Buffalo.
Again, if a team is going to offer you a treasure chest of money, you will go work for anyone and play anywhere -- even the North Pole. We all understand that. But if the contract offers are similar, a lot of free agents will sign with a team that provides some familiarity through the coaching staff.
"Careers are short, players get seriously banged up in the NFL and those 'prime years' create a tight window of opportunity. For the majority of free agents, this is the one time they have some leverage. Take advantage of that." Matt Bowen, on why money talks in free agency.
This is where some careers run into a dead end and we start labeling free agents as busts because they are suddenly exposed to a new scheme and new program. Obviously, if you sign a player from a championship team or playoff squad, they aren't allowed to bring all their Pro Bowl buddies with them. That can be trouble for a player who can't produce the same numbers without the protection of superstar talent around him. And it happens every season.
With the playbook, these free agents should be selective. If you are a Cover 2 safety or a defensive back who plays in the box, don't sign with a heavy man-coverage or man-pressure team. That's not going to work when the new coaching staff tells you to man up a receiver in the slot and you get roasted over the top. Strike up the band. That's another six points -- over your head.
The point here is simple: Players want to find a new team that will cater to their skill set. Find a playbook, and a program, that puts you in a position to produce. If you don't, those massive contract numbers leaked to the media by your agent will vanish when you get cut in two years.
For the players who have families, signing with a new team is a major move. That's a game-changer when players have to scout new school districts for their children and find a new house. Does your wife work? Can she find a new job there? Are you moving farther away from extended family? Grandparents?
Now, those teams will set up players and their families. They don't have to do all this stuff on their own, but it can still be a challenge and also weigh heavily on the selection process. Players want to find a new team that also checks off all the boxes for their family needs.
For the young guys, the single cats in the league, it's time to pack a bag and go. Play football and check out the new town. Rent an apartment, a furnished one preferably, and just roll with the new program. But that's much different than moving an entire family with school still in session. And finding that perfect spot is part of the process during free agency.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.