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NFL Free Agency 2024: Increased Salary Cap, Running Back Market & More

Super Bowl-winning exec Scott Pioli, former NFL GM Mike Tannenbaum, and PFF’s Sam Monson discuss the biggest NFL free agency topics in 2024.

While NFL free agency doesn’t officially begin until next week, the football world is already abuzz with salary cap cuts, franchise tags, contract extensions, and an avalanche of rumors surrounding a fascinating group of impact players who could switch teams.

To preview free agency, Boardroom assembled a panel of experts: three-time Super Bowl champion executive Scott Pioli, former New York Jets and Miami Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum, and Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson, who discussed everything from the unexpected salary cap spike, the running back market, and more.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.


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Shlomo Sprung: The NFL’s salary cap number for 2024 is $255.4 million, more than $12 million higher than initial projections. What do you think the biggest impacts will be from this spike?

Scott Pioli: Teams that were feeling a crunch and the pressure of time to get in compliance with the cap now have a lot more time and space to make decisions that they weren’t projecting to be able to make. So, it helped all 32 teams. Unfortunately, a couple of teams made moves prior to that number coming out that they may otherwise would not have made.

Mike Tannenbaum: For the teams that were going to be stuck against the cap, it’s going to give them a lot more wiggle room than they expected. Teams like Kansas City and Dallas, in particular, will benefit from it.

Sam Monson: Teams weren’t prepared for that kind of jump. They’re all going back to the board and re-running all the numbers and recalculating everything they have planned. What makes it intriguing is that 32 of them are doing that, so it’s all very inflationary with more money going around. It will change the dynamic a little bit for a team or two where maybe they didn’t think they could get a move in or didn’t think they could apply a franchise tag.

Generally, it will just inflate certain contracts this offseason.

SS: It seems like the running back market is in the same place as last year, minus players getting franchise-tagged with lower-than-expected salaries despite a stacked free agent class. What do you think the state of that position looks like to you?

SP: It’s a very interesting dynamic. If you ask players in every position except for quarterback, they all think that their number is too low. And for some reason, last year, there was a lot of public attention given to that specific position. But again, players at every position think that the numbers should be higher. The skill positions that are uniquely fantasy football point generators are always in focus, and running back is one of those positions.

The other skill positions have gone up exponentially, and the running back position, there’s a lot of attention drawn not just the players at that position, but the agents for the players at that position, making sure that story gets told.

MT: There’s a tremendous amount of supply. And because of it, for Derrick Henry, Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, it’s going to put a ceiling on what they can earn because there’s just so much more supply than demand. You’re going to see a depressed market just because of the laws of economics. 

SM: It’s tough for running backs right now. It’s this unique position currently where the best years of a running back are the first contract, which almost invariably that’s not the case for any other position. You get the best years out of every other player on their second contract or even beyond, but running backs might be done by the time they hit that second contract or reaching a point where they’re potentially damaged goods. 

Saquon Barkley is a great example of that. He’s 27 years old and hitting that second contract, looking to get paid. But we’ve seen multiple season-ending type issues, and we’ve seen evidence that even when he’s playing great, he might not be able to move the needle in terms of wins and losses. So the landscape for an NFL team to throw him a giant sum of money the way they would have 15 years ago just isn’t there. Teams have smartened up to that. As good as running backs are, they’re probably not changing the dynamic of and losses unless everything else is already in place.

So you’ve got Barkley, Josh Jacobs, guys absolutely in their prime looking to hit that big deal, but I don’t know how many teams are willing to give that big contract. If those guys can’t get big-money contracts, then almost nobody can. 

Derrick Henry. who is all of the red flags rolled up into one, is an X-factor. He’s almost 30 years old. He’s got an insane amount of mileage on the clock. On the other hand, it’s Derrick Henry. And for his entire career, he’s been an exception. He’s been the guy that goes against the rules of everything you think you know about running back deals. So, I’m actually curious to see if somebody’s willing to give him a couple of years at good money on the basis that he just isn’t the same as other running backs.

SS: Who are some big names that we should be watching out for, not necessarily as the most obvious people on your radar, but who might move the needle the most in terms of the impact?

SP: Something that happened during the season that’s really going to impact a specific positional market is the backup quarterback position. When we look at how many starting quarterbacks were hurt and missed games this year and how many teams’ futures were put in the hands of backup quarterbacks, there’s always the haves and the have-nots with starting quarterbacks. Last season, we witnessed a case of the haves and have-nots with backup quarterbacks, and it made a difference. The backup QB market is going to change significantly, and there will be people paying high premiums on insurance.

MT: Who’s interesting to me is Tyron Smith. He’s an “A” player. He had some bumps in the road with injuries, but he’s a great player. It’s unusual for a player with his ability to be out there. Danielle Hunter can’t be franchised. He’ll do well because of his length and his production. He’ll have a pretty strong market as well.

SM: Plenty of players will probably get re-signed, like Mike Evans from Tampa Bay or Justin Madubuike from Baltimore, but there will be really intriguing players that hit the market. Guys like Tyron Smith, who’s still only 33 years old, which it’s not young, but we’re in a world now where offensive tackles are playing deep into their 30s, if not towards 40. He’s shown that when he’s on the field, he’s still one of the best left tackles in the NFL. Injuries are a constant risk or concern with him, but there are tackle-needy teams out there that could absolutely bring him in and immediately fix that position as long as he’s out in the field.

One guy that’s I think one of the most important players in this free agency is Bryce Huff, the edge rusher from the New York Jets. He’s neither the best edge rusher on the market nor the biggest name. Those would be Danelle Hunter or Brian Burns if he hits the market. But Huff has been one of the most effective pass rushes in the NFL over the last two years in terms of a per-snap basis. His pass rush win rate has been ridiculous. He’s been part of this Jets defensive line rotation, which has been incredibly strong, but if a team is willing to give him the kind of Cameron Wake treatment and say, “Let’s scale up his work, let’s see if this still works.” As an every-down player, he’s a potential star for a defense.

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SS: What’s an important free agency trend that people may not be talking about that you think will come to the forefront next week?

SP: The way the Baltimore Ravens handled free agency last year, signing a number of veterans to short-term deals that paid dividends. Since they only got the players for a year, the players tried to perform. It’s exactly what we used to do in New England in the early 2000s, and some teams tried to pick up on it. In 2001, our first Super Bowl year, we signed 23 free agents, many of them very short-term veteran contracts. The benefit is that you get the player at a good, fair price. If the players succeed, they get rewarded not only in the moment but with the next contract. And then the team also has a chance to get additional compensation on the other side through the compensatory pick system. The Ravens brought this strategy back to people’s minds.

MT: The lack of quarterbacks besides Kirk Cousins and getting Justin Fields resolved. Most teams are going to have to look towards the draft for a quarterback. Assuming Baker Mayfield resigns with Tampa Bay, there’s going to be six quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft.

SM: Free agency this year is a real opportunity for teams to fix offensive lines, and there’s a few teams out there that really need that to happen. It’s a good draft for offensive linemen as well, but a general team-building strategy is that the less you run into a draft with needs, the better shape you’re in. You want to try and fix holes with free agency and give yourself the flexibility to just draft the best players. This free agency presents teams with a real opportunity to go and attack offensive lines. While it’s not big on style power, this group is actually quite deep with capable, solid starting offensive linemen at a variety of different positions that won’t break the bank.

There are teams out there, say the New York Jets, with a desperate need to overhaul an offensive line before next season, and they can do that without that much money in free agency. It’s kind of the way the Cincinnati Bengals improved a couple of years ago. After Joe Burrow got destroyed in his rookie season, they went out there and signed three offensive linemen that first free agency.

SS: Who are some of the biggest players you think can change teams next week, or players that will receive contracts that turn some heads?

SP: Look out for Christian Wilkins from Miami, Chris Jones from Kansas City, and Danielle Hunter from Minnesota.

MT: Danielle Hunter‘s going to do real well. Jonathan Greenard from Houstons can do really well, and Kirk Cousins will get a deal north of $40 million a year.

SM: With the Chiefs tagging L’Jarius Sneed, Chris Jones is almost certain going to hit the market. I don’t see any reason why he would re-sign with Kansas City on the eve of free agency because it’s only going to cost him money. Jones is absolutely a top-tier free agent available. He’s still under 30, and he’s arguably been the best interior pass rusher over the last couple of years, even superseding a guy like Aaron Donald, who’s one of the best of all time. There’s a team out there that’ll give Chris Jones a crazy contract, and he’ll probably justify it for at least two or three years or so.

Kirk Cousins is the obvious one as well. He’s the only high-quality starting-caliber quarterback available as a veteran. If you don’t have a quarterback and you’re not in the first couple of draft picks this year, Cousins is your guy. So a team like Atlanta, picking at No. 8 overall in the draft, if you don’t think you can maneuver for one of those top quarterbacks or you don’t like them, the Falcons have a team that’s ready-made to be good.

The Vikings don’t want to go where Cousins does in terms of contract, whether it’s overall costs or structure. He wants a repeat of the kind of deals he’s been getting, the three-year fully guaranteed contracts, but at 35 years old, coming off an Achilles injury, it’s understandable the Vikings don’t want to go there. But some team probably will, whether it’s the Falcons, Raiders, Patriots, or some team out there willing to do the type of deal Cousins wants that could be pretty huge with the increased cap.

SS: What else is on your radar that we should be looking out for?

SP: Due to the unexpected significant salary cap increase, that extra space not only allows you room to sign players, but room to move on from players, particularly teams with new coaches or new leadership groups in the front office. When you bring in a new head coach or a new head coach and GM, there’s always players that the new regime wants to move on from but can’t necessarily do it.

MT: Because of the increase in cap, and we saw it with Mike Evans, the bigger money will go to players that are returning to their teams, between the franchise tag and long-term extensions. The increase in the cap gives flexibility to structure around their own players.

SM: It’s going to be interesting for teams searching for wide receivers. It’s not the best wide receiver group. You’re already down to Marquise Brown, and then it gets pretty weak after him. But there’s always trades. And trades are the interesting element of free agency that we tend not to focus on too much heading into it.

All these guys that got franchise tagged are potential trade candidates, as are players reaching the end of their deals. Wide receiver is one of the most important positions in the NFL. It’s a great draft. A lot of teams will be looking to fill that need there, but if you’re searching for an impact number one guy, maybe a trade is the way of making that happen.

I know Tee Higgins has been the subject of some trade speculation rather already having got the franchise tank. But a guy like Brandon Aiyuk who’s reaching the end of that deal, the 49ers already have five or six guys with a $20 million cap hit next year. Aiyuk’s an amazing player. I’m sure they’d love to have him back. I’m sure they could bring him back, but at some point, they’re going to have to pay Brock Purdy a big money deal, and maybe they would prefer a first-round pick, reset the clock at that position, and get a bit younger and cheaper.

So trades are always the big X-factor in free agency, and we don’t have a great line of sight on them until they happen.

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Shlomo Sprung

Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.