“There was a lot of uncertainty,” said Jeff Allen, a first-time free agent in 2016. “You don’t know what city you’re going to be in. You don’t know what type of contract you’re going to have. It’s all speculation.”
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the days counted down to the start of the free agency in 2016, when he would be free to negotiate a contract with any team of his choosing for the first time in his career, offensive lineman Jeff Allen wasn’t making plans on how to spend his first big paycheck.
Allen was worried that his big payday, the one that could set up himself and his family financially for life, might never come.
“It was a stressful time,” said Allen, who started 36 games for the Kansas City Chiefs in his first four NFL seasons to earn the right to become a free agent that year. “There was a lot of uncertainty. You don’t know what city you’re going to be in. You don’t know what type of contract you’re going to have. It’s all speculation. It’s all based on what you think the market might be and how teams view you. Everyone has different views and opinions on you as a player and all those months leading up to free agency you just don’t know any of that. You’re just guessing.”
Things eventually worked out for Allen, who signed a sizable contract with the Houston Texans, and things will work out for many of the free agents who enter the market this year.
For all but the highest-ranked free agents at their positions, though, these are difficult days as the clock ticks down to the start of the signing period Wednesday. It’s an anxious time, particularly for those going through the process for the first time.
“The first time, you truly don’t know,” New York Jets offensive lineman Ben Ijalana said. “There were a lot of nerves, a lot of uncertainty. You take every little thing you hear, every rumor, to heart. You probably should just take it with a grain of salt. When you’ve been in the league for a few years and you’ve earned your right to free agency, you’re there to get your value, get your worth. That makes everything nerve-racking.
“The first time through, you really have no idea whatsoever.”
That uncertainty can make for some tough decisions. Former Chiefs wide receiver J.J. Birden went on the free-agent market in 1995, in the early years of free agency. His 1994 stats, 48 receptions and four touchdowns, look thin by today’s standards but were considered good numbers at the time in what was a run-based Chiefs offense.
Birden said he strongly considered re-signing with the Chiefs before free agency started even though he was disappointed with their offer.
“I wasn’t a Pro Bowler,” he said recently. “I wasn’t a big-time statistical player. I was totally worried whether anyone was really going to want me. I was very stressed out. It was a big relief to find out there were a couple of teams that did want me. It was Chicago and Atlanta and that was it. But that was enough and with the numbers they were throwing at me, it was a chance for my wife and I to be able to make a nice salary for the next year or two that I wasn’t going to be able to make with the Chiefs. I knew that was something I had to take advantage of.
“Free agency is such a gamble. You finally get your opportunity to go to the team you want. You get to make the decision. There is some high-level stress when you’re a free agent. The whole thing is so unpredictable.”
Birden wound up signing with the Falcons for what he said was considerably more than what he was offered by the Chiefs.
Like Birden, it’s not uncommon for players who aren’t stars to have to get their big payday in free agency.
“Free agency in football is a process that allows B-plus players to get A-plus contracts,” said longtime player agent Leigh Steinberg. “The best players, the real superstars in the league, either have their contracts extended before they become free agents or they get franchised. The players that are out on the market are the ones the teams have decided they can live without. It doesn’t mean they’re not good. But the auction mentality, having multiple offers, always drives the price up.”
As an example of what one sizable contract can do for an NFL player, former offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz estimated he made about 75 percent of his career earnings off the free-agent deal he signed with the New York Giants in 2014.
Schwartz, who played six seasons for four different teams, signed a four-year contract with the Giants worth $16.8 million. He was released after two seasons but still made more than $7 million from the contract.
“This is why guys play for that second contract,” Schwartz said. “Outside of the guys drafted in the first round, people don’t make life money in that rookie contract. You need that second deal. The second deal sets you up for life and probably your kids’ lives.”
Back in 2016 Allen signed a four-year contract with the Texans worth $28 million. He played two seasons with the Texans before being released, but according to overthecap.com pocketed more than $15 million from Houston.
“All it takes is one team to fall in love with you, but it’s tough,” said Allen, who was re-signed by the Chiefs after the Texans let him go. “We really didn’t want to leave Kansas City. We were there for four years. We had a lot of friends there. We knew the community. We loved the coaches. We loved the organization. Nobody really likes to move and we didn’t want to move.
“But you’re doing yourself and your family a disservice by not taking the money, especially the first time around. That first [free-agent] contract can set you up for life. Things can change quickly in this league.
“You’ve got to get paid when you have the opportunity.”
Allen wasn’t shy about acknowledging that money was the priority when seeking his first free-agent contract and that he was going to the highest bidder.
“It was being able to secure myself financially,” Allen said. “That was the No. 1 thing for me. The second thing was the football part, the place where I had the best opportunity to win. But if there was a team that was going to be better on the field but their offer was a few million dollars short of what the other team was offering … at that point in my career I hadn’t made very much money. It was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to take the money.’
“If I had been a top-10 pick and I was already financially stable, then my free agency would have been a lot less stressful. I wouldn’t have had to worry about the money as much. I would have been able to make a decision solely about football.”
Ijalana, who entered the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts in 2011, is 29. Allen, who has played six NFL seasons, is also 29. They’re both approaching free agency again this season, and like many players, their approach has changed. And much of that change has come from having already gotten that first big free-agent deal. Allen got the big contract from the Texans in 2016. Ijalana signed a two-year, $10.25 million contract with the Jets two years ago.
Ijalana’s stress level over free agency has changed so much that last year he wasn’t even aware the market had opened.
“I was getting all these alerts on my phone about players signing with new teams,” he said. “I called my agent and asked, ‘When does free agency start?’ He said, ‘About an hour ago.’
“Free agency for me now is boring. It wasn’t always that way. I’ve come back to the same club for the last four free agencies, which is kind of bizarre. I’m 29. I’m entering Year 9. Free agency is just a wait-and-see thing. Unfortunately, I’m coming off shoulder surgery but there’s no stress anymore on my part.”
Allen, because of his recent contract with the Texans, can say the same thing.
“I don’t have to make a decision based on money this time because of the contract I signed with Houston,” Allen said. “I can 100 percent make the decision based on what’s comfortable for me.”