NEW YORK — Hidden money, dead money, funny money.
They all apply to NFL free agency, where the price tags never really are what the teams, agents or players say they are.
Sure, there are a very few deals that are exactly what they say on paper, such as standout cornerback Darrelle Revis’ one-year, $12 million contract with New England. No confusion on the length or the value.
Compare that to what the guy Revis is replacing with the Patriots, Aqib Talib, got with Denver. The Broncos offered Talib a six-year contract for $57 million, with $26 million guaranteed. An average of well over $9 million a season, right?
Uh, not quite.
The only money Talib definitely will see is the $26 million, which he’ll get even if he is injured and barely plays for Denver. In four years, he will be 32 and unless he plays like, well, a vintage Revis, the Broncos aren’t likely to have interest in the rest of this contract.
For nearly every agreement in free agency, that’s how it is. Follow the guaranteed money, be skeptical of the back end of all deals — especially the extremely lengthy ones.
Bill Polian, who built three Super Bowl teams (Buffalo, Carolina, Indianapolis), points to Green Bay as an example of how to approach free agency. Notice that the Packers barely have taken part in it this year, their usual course.
“Free agency is not free, it costs two things you never get back: time and money,” says Polian, now an analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM. “When you have a good team, and the Green Bay Packers have a good team and a good personnel department that drafts well … then it behooves you to stay conservative in free agency. Sign your own and be in a position to make very good judgments on a few players in free agency.
“That is what the Packers have done through the years, made terrific decisions. They do all the right things. Fans want you to go out and play fantasy football now; that is the last thing you should be doing. That money if you miss is gone and you don’t get it back.”
How much money is actually gone is fluid, of course, and the ramifications of big spending almost always are felt down the line.
Look at the Broncos, who have committed $60 million up front to three defensive players: Talib, end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward. All good players — some would cast pass-rushing master Ware as a great player. They will upgrade a unit that could provide the needed balance for Peyton Manning’s offense, and lift Denver to the championship it missed out on against Seattle.
For Denver, there is an extra sense of urgency because Manning turns 38 this month. So vice president of football operations John Elway is pushing his chips to the center of the table, going all in.
And if five-time MVP Manning retires after this season or next? The Broncos will free up a huge chunk they have been spending on a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback, of course. But they also would be on the hook in a big way for those defensive contracts if they weren’t structured with so much money up front.
So when Manning leaves, if Denver goes into rebuilding mode, there’s far less chance the back ends of those deals will be carried out.
As the 31-year-old Ware said after leaving Dallas for Denver: “They’re trying to make a statement — a statement we’re a team to be reckoned with. Their mentality is a â€˜now’ mentality. Not looking forward to next season or the season after that, the time is now.”
For teams like the Broncos and Patriots and Saints, with aging but still dynamic quarterbacks, that’s true. Get it done while Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees remain elite players. Committing big bucks around them while avoiding overwhelming long-term implications, is understandable.
It’s when non-contenders put together such deals and become hamstrung by them, then try to solve their issues with more spending, that free agency becomes a pit.
The Jets, for example, will be paying receiver Santonio Holmes $2.25 million in 2014, even though they cut him last week. Holmes was a bust for New York. And if they eventually release Mark Sanchez, the cap hit for this year will still be nearly $5 million for the quarterback no longer on their roster.
“You want to avoid dead money,” Polian says. “People make a big deal out of dead money when you count it at the end of the year. It comes with the territory; you are going to have some always. As a general rule you would like to avoid as much of it as you can.
“How do you structure a contract that pays the player commensurately and is cap-friendly and at the same time avoids dead money? That is a very difficult equation to solve.”
The free agency frenzy might be over, but hundreds of millions of dollars (some of it real money) still will be handed out in contracts over the next few weeks. Remaining on the market and headed for rewarding pay days — if not quite as lucrative as they first imagined — are defensive end Jared Allen; receivers Emmanuel Sanders, James Jones, Hakeem Nicks and Julian Edelman; quarterback Michael Vick; cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; and running back Knowshon Moreno.
They mystery remains figuring out just who is actually getting how much.