Money Matters: Crazy Days

This must be an exciting time of year for accountants; as we careen toward the crunch time of tax season, pro football franchise are also lining up to help young men coast to coast join the ranks of the nation's wealthiest.

When else can Tommy Kelly, a decent-but-uninspiring former undrafted free agent defensive tackle, coming off of a torn ACL, find his earning prospects improved to the tune of $50 million?

That's been the craziest deal yet this off-season, but it hasn't been the only insanity, and surely won't be the last. Indianapolis signed Dallas Clark, a fine and athletic tight end—but surely not among the league's very best—to a deal paying him a reported $27.55 million over the first three years. That tops the previous three-year high at the position, signed by Tony Gonzalez just one year ago, of $18.75 million. That's a nearly 50% increase over the future Hall of Famer, whose nine trips to the Pro Bowl are nine more than Clark has accumulated in his five seasons.

We might see even crazier deals before I finish this very paragraph, and I won't hold out much hope that what I'm writing now will still be relevant by the time you're reading it. The money flies so fast and furious, I am literally checking the news between every few sentences, in the vain hope that I won't miss anything important before this goes "to press."

It's interesting that even while some position markets and individual contracts have hit such ridiculous figures, others are getting done within the realm of lucidity. An unimpressive guard like Derrick Dockery commanded $7 million a year during Crazy Guard Market 2007, with a whopping $18 million guaranteed, but sub-studly tackles like Travelle Wharton and Sean Locklear have been locked up just weeks away from free agency for around $6 million a year and $12 million guaranteed.

Why are fair-to-middlin' guards landing better money than uninspiring tackles? It could be that the market is correcting itself a little after last year's excesses along the interior line. After all, Justin Smiley just "settled" for a mere $5 million a year and $9 million guaranteed from Tampa Bay. Ryan Lilja agreed to a very palatable five year, $20 million deal with less than $6 million guaranteed to remain with the Colts, which must help to sooth the burn from the heinous act perpetrated upon them by Clark's agent. Smiley had less going for him than the quartet of big-money guards last year, but Lilja seemed to boast a comparable résumé.

On the other hand, Alan Faneca is sure to land a jaw-dropper in the very near future, and the great Jeff Faine, once chased from the AFC North by the actually-great Casey Hampton, has reportedly become the league's highest-paid center at $6.25 million a year. So, maybe the "correction" was temporary, or wishful thinking. It makes the situation with Max Starks interesting to watch unfold. Will the Wharton and Locklear deals set the parameters for Starks' next contract, be it with the Steelers or someone else? Or, will their removal from the market drive up the price tag for the best remaining young tackle who can be had without spending draft picks?

Pittsburgh's moves as free agency approached suggested to me that the organization feels as unsettled about the offensive line situation as do many of the fans. Taking a huge bite out of the available cap to keep Max Starks around, and tendering Chris Kemoeatu at a second-round level tells me that they want to keep as many bodies around as possible in an effort to figure out a starting combination that works. Unfortunately, immediate help along the line simply does not appear to be available in free agency, unless you think that blowing more money on players who aren't any better than they've already got constitutes "help."

It seems to me that the real swell in free agency (and pre-free agency) dollars over the last two seasons hasn't gone to the Pro Bowl types; those guys get paid top dollar, but apart from those that cross Bill Polian's desk, the increases over prior benchmarks haven't been outlandish. Nate Clements' seven-year, $64 million deal with San Francisco was rightly touted as a blockbuster, but it topped the previous high-watermark set by Champ Bailey in 2004 by just $145,714 a year.

The real boom has been in the money paid for second- and third-tier players, who all of a sudden are getting paid like the cream of the game's crop. Free agency has long been overpaying lesser players, but I don't remember seeing so many wholly unremarkable guys setting new benchmarks as I am now. I mean, the league's two highest-paid defensive tackles are now Tommy Kelly and Cory Redding. Not Marcus Stroud, or John Henderson. Not Jamal Williams, or Kevin Williams, or Pat Williams. Not Casey Hampton, Vince Wilfork, Shaun Rogers, Rod Coleman, or Haloti Ngata. Tommy Kelly and Cory Redding.

Oh, and Kris Jenkins just joined their $7 million-a-year ranks. Like, thirty seconds ago.

I'm not sure what it all means, except that the tried-and-true focus on building through the draft makes more sense now than ever. I can spend all year predicting where players will go, and how much it'll cost, and who can afford it, and in the end it's a fluid and unpredictable marketplace. At this point, just pull up a chair and enjoy the show.

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