Six of the top-10 spenders during the 2017 NFL free agency period (Patriots, Titans, Rams, Vikings, Panthers, Jaguars) made the playoffs.
Over the past six years, the cap has jumped from $120 million to $167 million and it has climbed by at least $10 million year over year during the past four seasons.
After the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, rookie salaries also became significantly cheaper which opened up even more cap space.
The competitive balance changed dramatically as teams had to figure out how to use the new cap space.
“It’s the biggest untold story in football,” said former Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns president Joe Banner. “With the excessive amount of available cap space, close to a billion dollars—some teams can’t mentally keep up with that.”
The common wisdom just a few years ago that free agency was a bad investment for teams.
Sports Illustrated wrote just three years ago that some big-spending teams had learned that “shelling out cash to players who are nearing their 30s can end up backfiring in spectacular fashion.”
Multiple league executives, coaches, and experts told The Ringer that it is changing the way teams are built at an unprecedented pace and turned free agency from a last resort into a legitimate team-building strategy.
“I can distinctly remember the days when it was almost every year, you had to let people go because of money,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead said. “Nowadays, I don’t ever remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh, we’re up against the books here.’ Now, it’s more of a strategy. ‘If we keep this guy, what does it keep us from doing?’ It’s not, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta do some things just to get legal.’ I think that’s what has allowed you to make, let’s call it ‘strategic football decisions.’”