The Daily Briefing – Wednesday, February 8, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

With the media in high dudgeon over the current state of American politics, players are now expected to have coherent opinions or at least opinions that match those of the media.  

 

Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

For decades, NFL players have steered clear of political issues. And while there are signs that things are changing, change could come very, very slowly.

 

“[W]e are institutionalized sometimes,” Jets receiver Brandon Marshall explained last week in a visit to PFT Live. “We are. We’re told, “That’s not OK. You know, you can’t do that. It’s a distraction.’ And that’s a problem.”

 

The other problem, as Marshall sees it, comes from an apparent belief by the media that players should be willing at all times to share their private political beliefs, even if they don’t want to.

 

“Tom Brady got asked about his relationship with Donald Trump . . . and everyone gave him crap for it because he didn’t want to answer it,” Marshall said. “But what if I asked you right here on the show . . . ‘Hey, are you Democrat or Republican? Who did you vote for?’ That’s personal information. That’s like asking a woman her age, right? Like, you don’t go there. . . .

 

“But what did we do? We pressed Tom. We pressed Tom. We pressed Tom. They did the same thing with me like, ‘What are your views on Trump and who did you vote for?’ I’m not comfortable talking about that. Just because I talk about mental health and project375 and other things doesn’t mean that I have to give my opinion on something I may not be comfortable in or well-versed.”

 

That’s the other side of the coin that those who want athletes to express political views often overlook. Regardless of whether their teams or coaches encourage or discourage it, the athletes may simply not be interested in sharing their privately-held beliefs.

 

Still, those who would like to use their public platform for political purposes never should feel that they can’t, and as more players speak out without consequence (and there never should be a consequence), hopefully more will feel that they can, too.

 

However it plays out, it’s an issue that won’t be going away any time soon, especially with previously reticent players like Steph Curry and Russell Wilson choosing to speak out. And to the extent that any reticence to discuss personal views comes from an institutionalized aversion to “distraction,” maybe some players who currently prefer to keep their views to themselves will realize that they can speak without fear of reprisal.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

 

 

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

The Giants are getting a new deal for DC Steve Spagnuolo.  Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com:

 

The New York Giants have re-signed defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after a bounce-back campaign that saw his unit transform from the league’s worst to among the best, a source told ESPN on Wednesday.

 

Spagnuolo returned to the Giants prior to the 2015 season after a short stint with the Baltimore Ravens. His two-year contract ran out after the Super Bowl, but there was little doubt he’d return, as the Giants wanted him back and Spagnuolo wanted an opportunity to build on this past season’s success.

 

The veteran defensive coordinator led the league’s 10th-ranked defense this season after finishing last in yards allowed in 2015. The Giants allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL this past season and improved dramatically as the year progressed after receiving a significant injection of talent last offseason.

 

“He’s a guy that didn’t panic when things were going wrong and was never overly excited when they were great,” said All-Pro defensive tackle Damon Harrison in a text to ESPN. Harrison thrived in his first season with the Giants in Spagnuolo’s defense after signing a lucrative free-agent deal last offseason.

 

“He has this calm about him and assurance that everything would work out for the better defensively, and I think it rubbed off on everybody in our room,” Harrison added. “Great coach!”

 

Spagnuolo, 57, seemingly pushed all the right buttons until the second half of a playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.

 

He will be entering his seventh season as a defensive coordinator, and his third in two stints with the Giants. His previous tenure with the Giants in 2007-08 produced a Super Bowl win over the previously undefeated New England Patriots.

 

As teams have shuffled their staffs around the league over the past few weeks — even the Atlanta Falcons after reaching the Super Bowl — Giants coach Ben McAdoo is expected to keep most of his staff intact, although they’re still working through some things, according to multiple sources. The Giants (11-5) had a five-game improvement in McAdoo’s first season and returned to the playoffs for the first time in five years.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Jeanna Thomas at SBNation.com offers insight on the hiring of Steve Sarkesian.  We find the fourth-to-last paragraph interesting:

 

The Atlanta Falcons didn’t wait long to fill the vacancy created when Kyle Shanahan accepted the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers. On Tuesday, the Falcons announced that Steve Sarkisian will leave Alabama to join Atlanta’s staff as its new offensive coordinator.

 

This was a surprise hire for a few reasons. First, Sarkisian spent precisely one game as the offensive coordinator of the Crimson Tide, and there weren’t strong indications he was planning to leave Alabama after the National Championship loss to Clemson in January.

 

Head coach Dan Quinn likes the way Sarkisian’s approach fits the Falcons’ style of offense.

 

“As a play caller I felt like, No. 1, what an aggressive play caller he’s been through the years,” Quinn said. “He has a real familiarity, from the wide zone scheme, the play action, the keepers — that’s such a big part of what we do.”

 

That certainly was a success for the Falcons in 2016. Matt Ryan was named league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, and the dynamic offensive attack, which ranked atop the league in scoring, got the team to Super Bowl 51.

 

How does Sarkisian fit with the Falcons?

 

The history

Sarkisian has a history with Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, and so does Quinn.

 

Carroll is a trusted mentor to Quinn, who served as the Seahawks’ defensive line coach under Carroll in 2010. Quinn returned to Seattle after a stint with the Florida Gators to be the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator during the Super Bowl runs in 2013 and 2014.

 

Sarkisian worked under Carroll when Carroll was the head coach at USC. Sarkisian has also worked with legendary college coach Nick Saban at Alabama, serving as an offensive analyst for the 2016 season. He was promoted to offensive coordinator for the National Championship after Lane Kiffin’s departure.

 

That experience with two coaches Quinn admires helped influence this decision.

 

“Two of the guys I respect most in our profession are Pete and Nick, and being a part of both of their programs, I know what he stands for as a coach,” Quinn said.

 

The scheme

During Sarkisian’s lone year coaching in the NFL, as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004, he worked under head coach Norv Turner. The Raiders tended to throw downfield more, but that was Turner’s offensive philosophy. Sarkisian’s other stops as a play caller suggest his personal style is more consistent with the offense Atlanta has been running so effectively.

 

That’s good news for the Falcons. They are not planning to make wholesale changes to the scheme.

 

“One hundred percent, and that’s the style we’re going to feature moving forward,” Quinn said. “We love the way that we attack, and it took a lot of work to put that system in place.”

 

Matt Ryan thrives in no-huddle, hurry up situations, and the hurry up offense is a fundamental part of Sarkisian’s philosophy. Couple that with the play action Sarkisian employs — another hallmark of the Falcons’ existing offense — and you can see why Sarkisian emerged as a fit for this role.

 

Sarkisian is also adept with a two-back system. Atlanta’s dynamic tailback tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman should make Sarkisian’s job a bit easier on that front.

 

General manager Thomas Dimitroff said Sarkisian is just the type of candidate the team was looking for.

 

“Steve’s a very smart, very creative and very aggressive football coach and play caller, and that plays into line with what we’re looking for here as an organization,” Dimitroff said.

 

The concerns

The circumstances of Sarkisian’s dismissal from USC are broadly known, but here’s a quick rundown. Sarkisian initially took a leave of absence to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. USC then fired Sarkisian “with cause” after he reportedly showed up to a team meeting while under the influence of alcohol. Sarkisian ended up suing the program for not handling his addiction like a disability.

 

Quinn said the Falcons have no concerns regarding Sarkisian’s health or the measures he is taking to manage his addiction.

 

“Number one, we went through the process, and obviously to check and make sure everything would align with our organization in terms of culture and values,” Quinn said. “And honestly, he’s done a fantastic job, and there were zero hesitations, zero limitations heading into our approach today.”

 

Dimitroff echoed the sentiment and the confidence.

 

“Dan obviously has a very good relationship with him, and we’re very comfortable with all the things you all asked in there with regard to any of the challenges that he’s had in the past,” Dimitroff said.

 

Sources told SB Nation that Sarkisian is leaving Alabama amidst disagreements with Saban over “system philosophy, but the Falcons aren’t concerned about that in the least with the new offensive coordinator.

 

There was a fear in Atlanta that the offensive success the team experienced this season would leave along with Kyle Shanahan, but that’s not necessarily the case.

 

The Falcons are wise to bring in a coordinator who can run a similar scheme. Ryan struggled in his first season in Shanahan’s scheme, but he certainly settled in for 2016. Starting from scratch and resetting all of that progress would be unnecessarily reckless and would jeopardize the immediate future of a team that’s hungry to avenge the worst Super Bowl loss in history.

 

The hire raised some eyebrows, but looking more closely at Sarkisian’s experience and offensive philosophy, it makes sense.

– – –

The DB doesn’t know what to make of QB MATT RYAN.  He has 33 game-winning drives in his career and he has a healthy career winning percentage despite an average supporting cast over the years.  But twice, in the 2012 NFC Championship Game and last Sunday in Super Bowl XLI, he’s been to the edge of the mountaintop and not closed the deal. 

 

The best analogy the DB can come up with is the golfer who holes plenty of clutch putts to get to the 72nd hole, but doesn’t make the one with everything on the line.

 

Still, it’s a small sample size and even the greatest (yes you Brady) have come up short from time to time.

 

Anyway, Brad Gagnon of Bleacher Report is not so kind.

 

This year was special for Matt Ryan. The veteran Atlanta Falcons quarterback cut down on the mistakes that plagued him earlier in his career, and he came into his own on deep and under-pressure passes. As a result, he led the league in touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and QBR, earning a Pro Bowl berth, first-team All-Pro honors and his first MVP award.

 

But it might surprise some of you to learn that Ryan was a great NFL quarterback well before putting together a career year in 2016. The 31-year-old was a Pro Bowler in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and he’s passed for over 4,000 yards in six consecutive seasons.

 

The problem is, Ryan developed a reputation for failing to deliver in clutch situations. And when you look at what happened in Super Bowl LI and in big moments throughout the 2016 season, you realize he’s done little to change that perception.

 

The Reputation Has Deep Roots

Ryan developed a reputation for choking by losing four of his first five playoff games and posting an 85.2 passer rating in those affairs.

 

He became known as a quarterback who failed to rise to occasions by posting an 82.9 fourth-quarter passer rating during the first seven years of his career, compared to 94.3 in the first three quarters.

 

Career Passer Rating by Quarter

Quarterback      1st        2nd       3rd        4th

Matt Ryan         102.6    94.2      97.8      85.3

Tom Brady        97.7      99.1      97.3      94.3

 

Between 2013 and 2015, 32 of Ryan’s 47 interceptions (68 percent) came in the second half of games, and in the last four years, he has thrown an NFL-high 11 interceptions in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.

 

Seven of those picks came in the final two minutes of one-score games that the Falcons would lose.

 

Atlanta has now blown an NFL-high four three-score leads in the last five years, with two of those chokes coming in playoff games.

 

And it was nearly five. The Falcons squandered a 17-0 lead against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship Game, losing 28-24 in a contest in which the offense generated zero points on five second-half possessions, with Ryan committing two turnovers during that stretch.

 

But they were only alive that day after rebounding from a major collapse against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. In that game, they let a 20-0 lead slip away, with their last four drives ending with an interception, a punt, another punt and a fourth-quarter field goal. If not for that field goal, they would have lost.

 

In the fourth quarter of those two tight 2012 playoff games, Ryan posted a 62.1 passer rating.

 

2016 Hasn’t Been Much Different

It might also surprise some of you to learn that Ryan’s crunch-time struggles didn’t go away this season. He completed only 54.4 percent of his passes while throwing two picks in the fourth quarter of one-score games in 2016. But because the Falcons had the seventh-highest-scoring offense in NFL history, he rarely found himself in those situations.

 

The Falcons won a conference-high nine games by 13 or more points, which is why Ryan was forced to throw only 534 regular-season passes—his lowest total since 2009. During the regular season, he threw fewer passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games than 19 other quarterbacks.

 

And he didn’t have to face a lot of fourth-quarter pressure in either of Atlanta’s first two playoff games, because the Falcons led handily against both the Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers. 

 

Here’s a summary of Ryan’s trials and tribulations in tight situations this season:

 

Trying to come back from a seven-point deficit against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Ryan threw four consecutive incomplete passes in the final two minutes.

 

In the fourth quarter of a close game against the Seahawks in Week 6, he took an unacceptable sack on third down, threw an interception to Earl Thomas on the following possession and again threw four consecutive incomplete passes in the final two minutes.

 

The following week, with Atlanta leading the San Diego Chargers by three points in the final four minutes, he threw a baffling first-down interception to Denzel Perryman.

 

He did lead a beautiful game-winning touchdown drive late against the Packers in Week 8, but even that came after he took sacks on back-to-back snaps with the lead earlier in the fourth quarter, cuing up a Green Bay touchdown drive that temporarily put the Falcons in a hole.

 

The Falcons led the Philadelphia Eagles 15-13 with 11 minutes remaining in their Week 10 matchup, but Ryan completed just six of his final 15 passes as Atlanta finished the game with two punts, a turnover on downs and an interception. Philadelphia won 24-15.

 

With Atlanta leading the Kansas City Chiefs by a single point late in the fourth quarter in Week 13, Ryan threw an interception to Eric Berry on a two-point conversion attempt. Berry returned it for a Kansas City two-pointer, which was the difference between a win and a loss.

 

The Falcons blew a 17-point lead in Week 7 against San Diego. And on Sunday in Houston, they became the only NFL team this season to blow two three-score leads.

 

After the Falcons took a 28-3 lead in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, their Ryan-led offense finished the game with three punts and a fumble, despite the fact they were in field-goal range on two of those drives.

 

Ryan took bad sacks that moved Atlanta out of field-goal range on both, and he coughed up the ball on a strip-sack as well. He completed five of his eight passes during that stretch for 92 yards, but his two fourth-quarter incomplete passes were ugly. Both came on third down, though that hardly matters when you take three second-half sacks and turn the ball over anyway.

 

The reality is Ryan wilted quite frequently in big spots this year, and the MVP disappeared in the biggest of spots this weekend.

 

Don’t be fooled by the broad numbers. He was better than ever overall, but he did nothing to shed that choker label.

 

If he plays a full 10th season in 2017, he’ll have started as many career games as Terry Bradshaw (158 apiece), and more than Hall of Famers Bart Starr (157), Y.A. Tittle (152), Bob Griese (151), Sonny Jurgensen (147), Ken Stabler (146), Bobby Layne (145) and Steve Young (143).

 

He’s already started more games than Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Namath (129), Kurt Warner (116), Otto Graham (114) and Roger Staubach (114).

 

Pretty soon, it’ll be too late to reverse the damage he’s done to his legacy.

 

Nobody can take Ryan’s accolades away from him. He can now say he’s a first-team All-Pro, an Offensive Player of the Year, the league’s MVP in 2016, and—at the very least—a four-time Pro Bowler. He holds the fifth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history (117.1 in 2016) and is the 11th-highest-rated qualified passer of all time (93.6).

 

But for the better part of a decade, he has flopped during the vast majority of his signature moments. And unfortunately for Ryan, those who judge him aren’t wired to remember numbers. We’re wired to remember big moments.

 

Big moments and Ryan haven’t usually gotten along, and he’s only got so many left. There’s a chance he never reaches a Super Bowl again, which would make it impossible to achieve redemption. But if he does get another opportunity, he’ll have to be practically perfect.

 

Otherwise, Matt Ryan will forever be remembered as a great quarterback who couldn’t get it done when it mattered most.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

There won’t be an assistant with the title of offensive coordinator on Kyle Shanahan’s staff.  Josh Alper at ProFootballTalk.com:

 

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has a lot of experience as an offensive coordinator and he will reportedly be putting that to work in his new role.

 

Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reports that Shanahan is not expected to hire an offensive coordinator to his first 49ers staff. It’s not unusual for head coaches to call offensive plays, but the lack of an offensive coordinator is outside the norm as 30 teams have them or are expected to have them on staff in 2017 with the Browns as the only team that is going without the title.

 

Per Rapoport, the 49ers plan to hire Falcons offensive assistant Mike McDaniel as their “run-game guru” and Rich Scangarello as their quarterbacks coach. Scangarello was on the Falcons staff in 2015 before moving to Wagner College as their offensive coordinator. He’s also worked for the Raiders on the NFL level.

 

The 49ers will formally introduce Shanahan as their head coach at a Thursday press conference and his plans for the rest of the coaching staff will surely be on the agenda when he meets the media.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Give the Browns credit for realizing the value of their product declined in 2016.  Mary Kay Cabot in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

 

The Browns are giving their long-suffering fans a break.

 

They’ve decreased many of their season tickets prices at FirstEnergy Stadium in 2017 to thank season ticket members for their loyalty.

 

“We are incredibly grateful for the passion and support we receive from our fans and felt it was appropriate to adjust our ticket pricing at this time,” Browns spokesman Peter John-Baptiste said in a release. “We have decreased a significant percentage of ticket prices because it was the right thing to do for our fans.”

 

Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam thanked season ticket members in a letter, and outlined reasons the club is optimistic about the future.

 

Details from the Browns release:

 

All sections’ season ticket prices will see a decrease or remain the same in 2017; no section’s per game season ticket price will increase for the upcoming season

 

The Browns are expected to rank either 31st or 32nd in the NFL for per game season ticket price for the 2017 season

 

40 percent of the stadium will see a decrease in per game season ticket price

 

More than 90 percent of per game season ticket prices in the upper bowl will decrease for the 2017 season

 

Price decreases range from $5-$15 per game, depending on location

 

The Browns have also hired veteran coach David Lee to mentor the quarterbacks.  He spent his last two seasons with Rex Ryan’s staff in Buffalo working with TYROD TAYLOR among others.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report says WR ANTONIO BROWN is a good guy who is sorry for the problems caused by his narcissim:

 

Antonio Brown is sorry.

 

The Steelers star receiver said it over and over again in a lengthy conversation with Bleacher Report. It wasn’t programmed or fake. He wasn’t apologizing because it was the political thing to do. As we talked about his controversial video of the Steelers’ post-playoff win locker room celebration, and the subsequent reaction, Brown seemed genuinely regretful.

 

“It was a dumb mistake,” Brown said. “Can’t believe I did it, and it won’t happen again. I promise you that.”

 

Brown created a stir around the league when he streamed video on Facebook Live of Mike Tomlin’s profanity-laced postgame locker room speech to the Steelers following their divisional-round win over the Chiefs in Kansas City. Though Tomlin’s speech was intended to be private, his remarks about the Patriots, whom the Steelers were to meet a week later in the AFC title game, irked many in New England. Brown apologized to Tomlin, but Pittsburgh lost 36-17 in Foxborough.

 

“The big thing I learned is that I have some growing up to do, and I’m going to do it,” Brown said. “I learned a lot from it and will keep learning. I’m going to rebuild the trust with my teammates and my coaches. I promise you that, too.”

 

This was easily one of the most overblown stories of all time. What he did was wrong, but it’s not like Brown shot someone. Or assaulted someone. Or put mayonnaise on a hot dog.

 

Brown made the mistake of thinking that in the closed, paranoid, militaristic (and as an Army vet, I use that word with pride) world of the NFL, you can SnapFace or TweetGram something live from a locker room.

 

Brown is a good dude. You don’t hear stories about him having off-the-field issues. You know why? Because they don’t exist. They never have.

 

Yet it’s also true that in speaking with several Steelers players, it’s clear some felt Brown’s ego was starting to get out of control. They added that some coaches, including Tomlin, believed the same. Some in the organization thought Brown cared too much this season about his stats.

 

To be clear, Brown still has unbelievable support in the locker room, the Pittsburgh players explained, and they insisted he is still extremely well-liked and respected.

 

To me, it appears the Facebook moment has shaken Brown a bit, and righted his course. We’re going to see a new Brown next season, a player who realizes how rare it is to win, who knows statistics are important, but winning is utmost. See: Brady, Tom.

 

Will he play in Pittsburgh next season?

 

“I’m a Steeler for life,” Brown said.

 

Of course, it isn’t entirely up to him, but Brown is too good for the Steelers to let go. At least, for the moment, it seems that way.

 

“My goal is always to get better every day,” Brown said. “No one will ever outwork me. That’s how it will always be for me. That will never change.”

 

And if he’s true to his word, Brown next season may be better than he’s ever been.

 

This shouldn’t come as a huge shock, but there are teams wondering if they can swing some type of trade for Brown.

 

I’m told several teams have asked the Steelers if Brown is available, and according to two teams, the Steelers have said hell no.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

SIGNAL READERS

Tony Dungy has to explain that watching the motions of opposing coaches and making educated guesses what they mean is not cheating.  Mike Wells of ESPN.com:

 

Tony Dungy said the Colts never cheated during his years as coach of the team after Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders accused Indianapolis of doing so.

 

Sanders, an analyst for NFL Network, made the comments after Sunday’s Super Bowl about the Colts cheating when colleague LaDainian Tomlinson said some might question New England’s success because of Spygate, the 2007 incident in which the Patriots broke the rules by videotaping the opposition’s signals from an unauthorized location.

 

“Those same critics, did they say anything about the wins that the Indianapolis Colts had? You want to talk about that, too? Because they were getting everybody’s signals,” Sanders said on NFL Network. “Come on, you don’t walk up to the line and look over here and the man on the sideline giving you the defense that they’ve stolen the plays of. We all knew. LT knew. Everybody in the NFL knew. We just didn’t let the fans know. That was real and that was happening in Indy.”

 

Dungy was on “Pro Football Talk Live” on Wednesday to explain that the Colts, like all other teams, did steal signals, but never cheated.

 

“I think we have to go back to what is cheating,” Dungy said. “People accusing us of cheating? I don’t think that’s the case. Stealing signals? You can go back to the 1800s in baseball, you can go anywhere there were signals done, and people were looking and watching and trying to get signals.”

 

The Hall of Famer Dungy, who led the Colts to a Super Bowl title and at least 10 victories in all seven of his seasons as coach, said Sanders probably used to see who was calling in signals during his 14-year playing career.

 

“And that’s what happened,” Dungy said. “And you looked over there because you wanted to know as a defensive player: Is it going to be three wide receivers? Is it going to be two tight ends? Who’s in the game? There’s a person over there signaling and Deion Sanders and every other defensive player would look at the offensive sideline to get that signal.

 

“So that is football. And I’m not sure what Deion is referring to, really. … That’s all part of the game, but doing it legally and illegally, that’s the difference. I hope Deion is not saying we did something illegally. Of course we got signals when we had an opportunity to do that, and so did Deion.”

 

“I think it’s laughable and funny,” former Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett told ESPN about Sanders’ comments.

 

“I think the sophisticated teams, everyone knows what play is going to get ran. Then it comes down to execution and what team has been coached the best and has the most disciplined players that can execute the game plan. Deion played on some successful teams. If you’re watching game film and you see different signals that offenses and defenses are doing, that’s just you studying and putting in the work to be really good and be successful on the field. You sending a camera guy out at practice to film us, now that’s over the line.”

 

Brackett said the Patriots deserve credit for the success that they’ve had with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

 

“People want to say the Patriots are so good, but they cheat,” Brackett said. “No, they’re really good. I don’t necessarily like them, but I respect the hell out of New England’s greatness. We’ve witnessed greatness. They had the issues before, but you can’t deny they’ve gone out and dominated for well over a decade.”

 

 

FREE AGENCY

Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com doesn’t think much of the free agent class of 2017:

 

NFL free agency is fool’s gold. Always has been. Always will be.

 

Now more than ever. Forever and forever.

 

Amen.

 

I’ve been singing this chorus and preaching this sermon for roughly a decade now, and nothing has changed. Except, well, the free-agency classes grow shallower and shallower. The number of true impact players available plummets and plummets. The number of ill-advised contracts grows steeper and steeper. The chasm between the supply of truly significant players on the open market vs. the demand for such players grows deeper and deeper.

 

When it comes to team building, you can say your prayers and swallow your vitamins and eat your Wheaties and hold your nose and write those massive checks, but in the NFL, less than nothing is guaranteed (not even the contracts). And the plight of the would-be big spender is getting only more bleak.

 

Year after year, I feel as if I proclaim that this is, unequivocally, the weakest free-agent class ever, and year after year I am proven wrong. Because there is always another pot of would-bes, could-bes, never-weres and maybes who prove me wrong and show that they are actually less efficient and valuable than the free-agent class that proceeded them.

 

So why should this year be any different? Well, let me give you a heads-up: This year won’t be any different.

 

In fact, with the salary cap now rising at a rapid rate and about to jump roughly $15 million, and with all teams now forced to spend at least 89 percent of the cap, and with this collective-bargaining agreement no longer sneaking up on anyone, and with the franchise and transition tags still in place, and with rookie-contract wages now so concrete and finite that players on their first deals are steals … well, the rules (through incentives) encourage extending your own young players now more than ever.

 

The best players get new deals after their third or fourth years (as will be the case with guys like Odell Beckham Jr. this offseason), and the also-ran teams are left to pick through the leftovers of the weaker drafting teams.

 

Welcome to Darwinism, NFL style.

 

There are no more adjustments to be made regarding how this CBA operates. Everyone is five years into these rules now and understands exactly how the various workplace stipulations function. There is no excuse for losing premier talent to free agency, by and large, unless your roster is truly overwhelmed with young studs, and even then if you are as proactive as you should be in identifying your top candidates for extensions, then you will still prosper under this CBA.

 

Therefore, before we look forward, let us all look back.

 

The heaviest spender in free agency in 2016, Giants GM Jerry Reese, kept his job by pouring hundreds of millions of free-agent dollars into his roster, but he had no 2016 playoff victories to show for it, and still has many holes to fill. Of the final remaining playoff teams, the Super Bowl champion Patriots signed restricted free-agent receiver Chris Hogan — whom Buffalo could have kept had they spent a few hundred thousand more to put a second-round tender on — and Chris Long, who was cut by the inept Rams. The Steelers did basically nothing, as usual, and the Packers re-signed a few of their players. The Falcons signed a new center (Alex Mack) and a possession receiver in Mohamed Sanu. But the teams most often involved in the final two weekends of NFL football (New England, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Green Bay) basically eschew free agency and focus on retaining their own.

 

By the time late February arrives, and players like Le’Veon Bell of Pittsburgh, Kirk Cousins of Washington, Chandler Jones of Arizona, Dont’a Hightower of New England, Terrelle Pryor of Cleveland, Kawann Short of Carolina, A.J. Bouye of Houston, Dontari Poe and/or Eric Berry of Kansas City are all off the market with the franchise tag or new deals, this already bereft market of impact players will look even more challenged than it does now.

 

Which explains why desperate teams go to desperate measures, and why guys like Brock Osweiler get $37 million guaranteed, and why malfunctioning owners will be chasing around another group of lacking free agents with open checkbooks and damning smiles again this March.

 

Don’t get me wrong here — this crop of players stinks even if it weren’t getting cherry picked by the teams that currently hold these players’ rights. But after the fact, it will be the least exciting free-agent class since the mid-1990s. It’s downright perilous once you factor in the top talent that clearly will not be leaving its existing team. This is like trolling for guppies, by and large, which is why stalwarts like Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang and linebacker Nick Perry — while not exactly household names — are in line for some of the biggest paydays of 2017. And the Cardinals — who will keep Jones, undoubtedly, but could lose defensive lineman Calais Campbell and defensive back Tony Jefferson — stand to lose the most of any team in the NFL as others chase their players in earnest..

 

As always, teams will be spending big money and crossing their fingers.

 

Can Jason Pierre-Paul get it done on a long-term deal in the aftermath of his 2015 fireworks disaster? Does DeMarcus Ware have anything left in the tank despite empirical evidence he probably does not? (Ditto for Julius Peppers.) But considering how few pass rushers are ever available on the open market, and the steep price the Giants paid for the rare young one who pops free (Olivier Vernon a year ago), you know someone will bid high for their services.

 

Can Alshon Jeffery stay healthy over any real period of time? Are DeSean Jackson’s bouts of selfishness enough to counter his ability to break a game open with an 80-yard bomb at a moment’s notice? Is there a team out there that somehow opted not to watch the film of Adrian Peterson’s last eight games before he got hurt this season — it’s painful, and he gained only 2.5 yards per carry — who then decides to spend more than like $3 million guaranteed to sign him? (Yeah, there will be, this league is nothing if not inefficient).

 

Someone will break the bank for Melvin Ingram of the Chargers, feeling like he will be the true pass rushing ace of this uber-limited class over time. Another team will figure Dre Kirkpatrick will live up to his pre-draft billing once he leaves Cincinnati (probably not). If the Bengals let Kevin Zeitler hit the market, he will cash in, but the team that signs him had best already have a competitive line in place given the position he plays, and, again … well, those truly top-echelon teams abstain from big free-agent deals for players not already homegrown. And if you are looking for a young receiver with a pedigree to suggest he could do anything at the NFL level at all, you are left with hopes and scraps after Pryor (whom the Browns have no excuse not to franchise even though they drafted five receivers a year ago).

 

As far as edge players, maybe you kid yourself into thinking Dion Jordan can stay off the league’s perpetually suspended list (and that he can actually play), or that Charles Johnson has much left at age 30. Personally, I would rather take a chance that Lorenzo Alexander — an exemplary human being and longtime special-teams stalwart who emerged as a pass rushing beast for the Bills in 2016 — can duplicate his improbable breakout. If you are looking for a corner who can actually cover, you had better go all out to sign the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson the way the Giants signed former Rams corner Janoris Jenkins a year ago, because the class of corners is ridiculously weak beyond him and Bouye.

 

Frankly, this is without a doubt the most suspect, unproven, and most likely inept group of free agents I have seen since the post-Plan-B free-agency era, and it might not even be close. Yeah, some team will do very well with under-the-radar finds like Rams running back/return specialist Benny Cunningham and Ravens fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but that’s not exactly the kind of “sexy” signings that get fans churning and get the message boards humming.

 

But particularly in times like these, those are the very players I would be approaching, as there are far more misses than hits lurking out there in the free-agent waters in 2017, and beyond. So avoid this plague, do the right thing, and pray to the NFL gods that your general manager doesn’t get lurked into thinking there is some quick fix out there in 2017. Because there is not.

 

Explore trades whenever possible. Look for bargains and fits on the waiver wire. And stay away from the first week of free agency, because the risks invariably outweigh the rewards.