Did the Packers Overpay in Free Agency?

The Packers have been criticized for potentially overpaying edge rusher Za’Darius Smith.

The Packers have been criticized for potentially overpaying edge rusher Za’Darius Smith.

Narratives are a moving target. As soon as the ink was dry on the four contracts that ended the Packers’ long standing aversion to free agency, much of the national narrative had already shifted from “the Packers hate free agency” to “the Packers overpaid.”

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell raised price concerns about every one of the Packers’ major signings so far, and Za’Darius Smith landed on Bleacher Report’s “All-Overpaid” Team after inking his deal in Green Bay. Do these concerns hold water?

In short, yes. In long, perhaps, but maybe not. Let’s consider that question, particularly as it pertains to the Packers’ three biggest free agent signings.

Overpaying is part of the game

Let’s be clear about one thing: it’s at least possible that the Packers overpaid because overpaying is what you do in free agency. As much as fans and media members alike want to believe in free agent bargain shopping and one-year “prove it” deals, the simple reality is that most free agents are available for a simple reason: their teams don’t think they’re worth what it would take to keep them.

Players who truly deserve top-of-market contracts rarely reach free agency. But teams still have money to burn and holes on their roster to fill, so they pay a premium to get what’s available. It’s simple supply and demand: the supply of talent is not equal to the demand, so the talent gets paid. And paid handsomely, in many cases.

In short, as super agent Lee Steinberg says, free agency leads to A+ contracts for B+ players. It’s true that the Packers probably overpaid for some — perhaps all — of their new pieces. But it’s really no different than what anyone else is doing.

Market movement will change how these contracts are perceived

But there is a second aspect at play here: market movement. Over the past few years, the Packers have adeptly utilized market movement to reward their top end players while still achieving team friendly deals.

When the Packers extended David Bakhtiari, Davante Adams, and Corey Linsley, each player received a contract at or near the top of the market for their respective positions. Both player and agent could, if they so desired, take some time to crow about being one of the highest paid players at their position.

But in each case, the market has quickly rendered these deals much more pedestrian. Each is still among the highest paid at his position, but none reaches the tip-top of the market.

The Packers are hoping the same will be true for each of their three biggest free agent signings of this spring. Though Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos each approach the highest earners among edge rushers and safeties, respectively, the Packers likely believe that each will settle into an income bracket that better reflects their true value. Here’s how that could work.

First, let’s look at where these players rank in terms of the Average Per Year (APY) value of their contract. This number is mostly bunk. It’s based on the total value of a contract even though a player can lose most of that value at a moment’s notice. APY is thus tenuous bet at best for comparison purposes. Still, it’s what people often point to as what a player is “worth” at least right after signing. Here’s where Smith, Smith, and Amos rank among their peers in terms of APY over the next few years.

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As you can see, each of these players ranks pretty highly among their peers right now and their rankings only increase as their contracts wear on. But that’s to be expected, since there are fewer players under contract the farther we go into the future. It’s worth pointing out that there are still players in line ahead of Smith, Smith, and Amos at the ends of their contracts right now. The Packers really didn’t hit the absolute peak of the market with any of these players. None of them will ever top the league at their position in APY at any point in their contract.

Now let’s look at their cap hits. This is functionally what the Packers will “pay” each of their players, even if the actual cash flow is different. The cap number is really the only one that matters as the league could really care less what a player’s guaranteed vs. non-guaranteed money situation is, which are the figures that really control what a player gets paid and when. I’ve included rankings from both Spotrac and OverTheCap since they calculate rankings differently.

Here, the Packers do a bit worse. Right now, each of the Packers’ top free agents figures to count like a top-5 player at their position against the cap. No matter how you slice it, that’s pretty costly. If their play slips at all (or perhaps more to the point, if none of them improve at all) their cap charges could be wildly out of line for the kind of player who’s actually on the roster.

But that’s just part of the story. The Packers are counting on the market changing, and it will. Every year, more and more players are either going to be extended by their teams. Here is just a brief (and by no means comprehensive) look at the players who will either be extended by their teams or enter unrestricted free agency over the next three off-seasons. Players highlighted in green have been voted to the Pro Bowl. Those in blue have been named to the All-Pro team.

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It seems like a fair bet that most, if not all, of these players could surpass the deals given to the players the Packers signed. Some, like Von Miller, J.J. Watt, and Chandler Jones will probably miss out on another big payday just by virtue of their age. But on the whole, almost all of these players should at least be in the neighborhood currently occupied by the Packers’ new signings. And, by extension, the Packers’ deals become much more palatable by comparison.

Everybody overspends — the trick is not getting caught

If it’s true that some overspending is inevitable and that even bad contracts will be surpassed, what should we make of this entire exercise? Why worry about overspending at all?

It remains a nigh-immutable truth that all teams overspend in free agency. The trick, then, is to just not get caught being the team that overspends the most.

There is some concern that the Packers could be such a team. After all, they did dump more money into free agency this year than Ted Thompson did during more or less his entire tenure as general manager.

But these were calculated risks, and between the rise of the salary cap and the correlated rise of player salaries with it, they may not end up being that much of a risk at all.