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Barnwell's lessons from 2019 NFL free agency: How much are stars really worth?

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Lessons learned from 2019 NFL free agency (1:22)

Josina Anderson, Damien Woody and Field Yates examine how the free-agent signings in 2019 will impact the 2020 market. (1:22)

NFL free agency isn't over, but after a furious run of deals and a pair of historic trades involving wide receivers, the March veteran acquisition window is closing. Teams already have committed more than a billion dollars in guarantees toward signing free agents, and that's without considering franchise tags, trade acquisitions such as Dee Ford and the money that will go to players such as Ndamukong Suh and Eric Berry when they sign with new franchises this spring.

Each free-agent period provides insight into the metagame surrounding the NFL and into where coaches, executives and players alike perceive the game to be heading in 2019 and beyond. Some of those concepts were storylines most people would have been able to predict after the season, but there were plenty of surprises the past few weeks, even after you get past the Odell Beckham Jr. trade.

Let's run through some of the lessons from free agency and what they suggest about the next 12 months in the NFL. We'll begin with the biggest takeaway:

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Stars aren't worth what we might think in draft-pick compensation

Think about some of the biggest player-for-pick trades the past couple of years. Beckham was dealt -- one year after being signed to a massive extension -- with Olivier Vernon for a first-round pick, a third-round pick, safety Jabrill Peppers and guard Kevin Zeitler. Antonio Brown cost the Raiders third- and fifth-round picks. Marcus Peters and a sixth-round pick got the Chiefs a fourth-rounder and a subsequent second-round selection. Jimmy Garoppolo went for a second-rounder. Khalil Mack, the biggest acquisition of all, cost the Bears two first-round picks, a third-round selection and a sixth-rounder, but they got a second-round pick and a conditional fifth-rounder from the Raiders in return.

In virtually all of these trades, we've generally been surprised by how little the team trading its star player received. There were trades such as the Brandin Cooks deal, in which the teams seemed to get relatively fair value, but the only significant example of a team trading a premium pick and seeming naive is when the Cowboys sent a first-round pick to the Raiders for Amari Cooper, which ended with Dallas looking smart by the end of the season. (The Browns nearly sent second- and third-round picks for AJ McCarron, but I'm not sure we should be taking Hue Jackson seriously.)

Although it's usually easy to point to one of the parties being desperate in trades such as this, it's more appropriate to think about things the opposite way. No team -- besides the Bills -- was willing to offer more than a pair of midround picks for Brown. The Giants considered the Beckham offer one they "couldn't refuse," which suggests that no other team was willing to offer more or anything close. Two first-rounders for Mack and a second-rounder seems like a no-brainer, but the only team willing to top Chicago's offer was the 49ers, if you believe San Francisco GM John Lynch.

There will always be exceptions and poorly run organizations, but we're seeing a league that doesn't want to trade first-round picks for anything short of superstar players in their prime.

Are picks being overvalued? I'm not sure. Under the slotted system of the collective bargaining agreement, draft picks make a pittance compared to superstars at their respective positions. Mack is an incredible player, and the Bears should feel great about their trade, but when you factor in the expected value of the draft picks traded to acquire him, Chicago is paying its star pass-rusher close to $30 million per season.

Meanwhile, the Broncos used the fifth pick in last year's draft on Bradley Chubb and pay him just short of $7 million per year. Mack was the better player in 2018, but Chubb racked up 12 sacks and 21 quarterback knockdowns for a fraction of the cost. Mack was probably worth about what he cost last season. Chubb was worth far more than $7 million, and the Broncos held on to their draft picks while using their cap space elsewhere. Mack is unquestionably a safe bet to play better than a rookie with no NFL experience, but Chubb doesn't need to succeed frequently to make the math work.

I think we'll see teams such as the Bears and Browns continue to go after superstar pieces once they have strong cores of drafted-and-developed talent. The Rams have been aggressive in using their picks to acquire veteran talent, but despite concerns about the college developmental process and practice time, teams aren't trading away top draft picks for starting-caliber talent.

Some teams care more about compensatory picks

We knew this already, but it has been reinforced this offseason. The Rams are one of several teams that have a clear plan to amass compensatory selections, and the only way to do that is to either sit out free agency or go after players who were cut by their prior teams. It's no surprise that Los Angeles signed Eric Weddle, who was cut by the Ravens, in lieu of adding someone such as free agent Adrian Amos. The Rams did sign Clay Matthews, which canceled out the compensatory pick for Lamarcus Joyner, but they should still net a third- or fourth-round selection for Suh.

The usual suspects show up here. The Patriots, who once used a comp pick to draft Tom Brady, will likely net a pair of third-round picks for Trey Flowers and Trent Brown, per Over the Cap's projections. The Eagles will pick up a third for Nick Foles and a fourth for Golden Tate. The Seahawks are in line for a third (Earl Thomas) and fourth (Justin Coleman).

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One exception to the usual pack is the Ravens, who have been amassing comp picks for years. New general manager Eric DeCosta could have theoretically netted a pair of third-round picks, a fourth-rounder and a fifth-rounder if he had stayed away from free agency, but the team made a rare splash by signing Thomas, Mark Ingram and Justin Bethel. The Ravens are still owed one of the third-rounders for Za'Darius Smith.

On the other side, the Dolphins helped fuel their rebuild by staying away from free agents; they're projected to add a third-round pick for Ja'Wuan James and a fifth-rounder for Cameron Wake. The other projected third-rounders are off to the Texans (Tyrann Mathieu), Giants (Landon Collins), Steelers (Le'Veon Bell) and Vikings (Sheldon Richardson), though that's subject to change.

Teams that added plenty of free agents have no hope of amassing comp picks, so the Bills, Jets, Lions and Raiders couldn't have come into this offseason expecting to generate extra selections. (When you consider how often the Patriots amass compensatory picks and how New England outposts such as Detroit and Tennessee make annual forays into free agency, it makes you wonder.)

Other teams made moves that seemed at odds with logic. Take the Bucs, who would have been in line to net a third-rounder for Kwon Alexander and a fourth-rounder for Adam Humphries, as well as two other later picks. Tampa's front office handed out a series of smaller contracts that canceled out these valuable picks by signing Shaquil Barrett, Breshad Perriman, Bradley Pinion and Deone Bucannon. If Tampa had signed only one or two of those players, it could have added talent while retaining the higher compensatory selections.

It looks like the Eagles wiped away a fourth-rounder for Jordan Hicks by signing Andrew Sendejo and L.J. Fort, though I would trust Howie Roseman to be on top of compensatory selections as much as any GM in football. The Eagles will be rooting for Jay Ajayi to attract an offer that would cancel out the Sendejo signing, and depending on how Tim Jernigan's contract was worded, a deal for him might also qualify for a compensatory pick. I suspect the Eagles will end up getting that fourth-round pick in the long run. The Giants also took away a fifth-rounder due for Jamon Brown by signing Tate to a deal that made no sense at the time.

Positional scarcity is fluid

Some positions are always going to be worth more than others. The fifth-best quarterback in the league is going to make more than the fifth-best kicker in the league because quarterbacks are more valuable than kickers. (No disrespect, kickers.) Besides those obvious cases, the positions in the middle of the pile are more subject to change than we might think from year to year.

The obvious example here is safety. Last year, the safety market turned out to be a disaster, as starters such as Kenny Vaccaro and Tre Boston lingered in the market for months before settling for one-year deals. Mathieu's one-year, $7 million deal was the only contract to clear a $5 million average annual salary, and Kurt Coleman -- signed by the Saints before the free-agent period began -- was the only unrestricted free agent at the position to come away with at least a three-year pact.

With a glut of talented safeties on the market this offseason and a league that didn't seem interested in paying the position, it seemed like there might be a buyer's market in 2019. That was out the window once Collins signed a six-year, $84 million deal to join Washington. Nine safeties signed contracts of three or more years. Five came away with average annual salaries topping $10 million.

You might rightly point out that players such as Collins and Thomas weren't on the market last season, but this isn't strictly a talent issue. Veterans such as Mathieu, Vaccaro and Eric Reid had to settle for one-year commitments last offseason. They picked up multiyear pacts this time around.

We also saw slot receivers have a moment. Organizations have generally preferred to pay wideouts capable of operating outside the hash marks, but we've seen the league begin to pay slot receivers the past couple of free-agent periods. In 2018, it was mostly just the Dolphins, who paid more than $13 million combined to Albert Wilson and Danny Amendola.

This year, while Amendola netted a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Lions, slot weapons such as Tate, Humphries and Jamison Crowder took home contracts with average annual salaries at or north of $9 million per season. Cole Beasley came in just behind at $7.25 million. Even Randall Cobb, who declined in each of the four seasons of his most recent contract with the Packers, came away with a one-year, $5 million deal.

That money has to come from somewhere, of course, and in the case of slot receivers, we don't have to look far. The top of the tight end market has been stagnant for years. Rob Gronkowski's six-year, $54 million extension marked the largest total value on a deal, and he signed it in 2011. Julius Thomas' $21 million in guarantees at signing is still tops for tight ends, and that deal is four years old. Both of those guys are now out of football. Jimmy Graham became the first tight end to hit $10 million per season and $30 million due over the first three years of his deal in 2015, and though he matched those figures with his Packers contract last offseason, nobody has topped that mark.

Safeties also seemed to take money from their brethren at corner. In a relatively weak class, just one corner -- Kareem Jackson -- managed to top $10 million per season in average annual salary, and he might be playing safety for the Broncos by 2020. With the likes of Peters, Xavien Howard and potentially Jalen Ramsey in line for extensions this offseason, I suspect this was a one-year aberration.

The cornerbacks who got paid more than we expected were in the slot. Justin Coleman took home a four-year, $36 million pact from the Lions after the Ravens gave Tavon Young a three-year, $25.8 million deal. It's clear that a higher percentage of teams are treating the third wideout and cornerback spots as starting roles, which makes sense given that they're on the field more frequently than fullbacks/H-backs or strongside linebackers.

Teams still don't seem interested in paying running backs

The Bell megadeal never materialized. Although he ended up taking home just north of $13 million per season and $27 million in guarantees over the first two seasons of his deal with the Jets, the former Steelers star didn't come close to justifying his 2018 holdout and came up short of the extension Pittsburgh reportedly offered last season.

After Bell, the middle tier of the market was flat. Ingram hit an average annual salary of $5 million. Adrian Peterson settled for half that. Tevin Coleman, who it seemed might get a multiyear guarantee as the Plan B for whoever missed out on Bell, ended up signing what amounts to a one-year, $3.6 million deal with the 49ers. Ajayi, Isaiah Crowell and T.J. Yeldon are among the running backs still unsigned.

Ezekiel Elliott is going to get paid, but you have to wonder whether front offices looked at the big-money signings of the past year and weren't impressed. Jerick McKinnon, who got $12 million in year one from the 49ers, tore his ACL and missed the entire season. David Johnson was bottled up on one of the league's worst offenses in Arizona. Even Todd Gurley II, who looked like an MVP candidate at midseason, slowed during the second half and seemed to be ably replaced by C.J. Anderson, who was cut by two teams during the campaign.

If we look at multiyear deals signed under the current CBA, six of the 10 largest contracts by three-year value were for players who are no longer active. The active deals are Bell, Gurley, Johnson and LeSean McCoy, who signed his contract extension with the Bills in 2015. Rams (and nearly the Steelers) aside, we're not seeing the league's smart organizations invest significant resources at running back.

Teams might not love this edge-rushing draft class as much as the public

Every team needs more pass-rushing help, and this offseason seemed to yield a banner crop of options. Free agency held the possibility of Ford, DeMarcus Lawrence, Frank Clark, Jadeveon Clowney and a handful of others, and the draft class was teeming with edge-rushing talent. When the offseason began, it wouldn't have been shocking to see defensive ends Nick Bosa and Josh Allen picked in the top two by the Cardinals and 49ers, respectively.

Well, things changed. All four of those star edge rushers came off the board, but the second tier of pass-rushers all got paid like they were franchise defenders. Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million deal to join Matt Patricia in Detroit, but even that wasn't much of a surprise, given that he is widely regarded as underrated and how desperate the Lions were for edge-rushing help and locker room support.

At the same time, the market pays for sacks, and it's fair to note that the next time Flowers hits double-digit sacks will be his first. He wasn't the only one. The Packers dumped Nick Perry and moved on from Matthews by making a twin signing of Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith. The latter Smith wasn't an every-week starter for the Ravens, and the Packers will pay him $34.5 million over the next two seasons.

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Nick Bosa has all the makings of a No. 1 overall pick

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It's particularly interesting that the Packers decided to go after edge rushers in free agency, given that they hold the 12th and 30th overall picks and could have used at least one of those selections on rookie edge-rushing talent. Instead, they were willing to pay several multiples of what those picks would have cost in salary to go after players who haven't proved themselves to be upper-echelon edge rushers. (More on the Packers in a second.)

Green Bay isn't the only team that would have been in line for defensive talent and appears to be heading in a different direction. The Cardinals are seriously considering Kyler Murray with the No. 1 pick. The 49ers, who were guaranteed at least one of the two top edge rushers at No. 2, traded a second-round pick for Ford and signed him to a five-year extension. They could still draft Bosa or Allen and team one of them with Ford, but that's no longer as obvious of a fit.

Even the Jets, who would have been in line to see one of the top rushers fall to them at No. 3, tried to sign away Anthony Barr from the Vikings before Barr changed his mind and returned to Minneapolis. At the very least, we're seeing teams we thought would have been first in line to draft pass-rushers pursue other options.

Teams can change their spots

The three teams least likely to make a splash in free agency over the past decade have been the Bengals, Packers and Steelers. All three have been heavily focused on drafting and developing talent and have rarely made meaningful additions in free agency. Charles Woodson looms as a notable exception for the Packers under former GM Ted Thompson, and the Steelers signed Joe Haden when he was released by the Browns, but nobody would have considered free agency to be part of the business model for these three franchises.

New Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst has shattered that image. Last year, he signed Graham to a significant deal and brought in Muhammad Wilkerson on a one-year pact. This year, he made more multiyear signings in one day than Thompson seemed to make in a whole decade by bringing in the two Smiths, Amos and Broncos guard Billy Turner. Packers fans who grew frustrated with Thompson's plan have to be delighted.

But should they be? I'm not so sure. Wilkerson went on injured reserve in September, which nobody could have anticipated, but the first year of Graham's deal wasn't especially impressive. The former Pro Bowl tight end was expected to be a red zone weapon for Aaron Rodgers, but he scored just two touchdowns on 89 targets.

One year of free agency doesn't mean much, and the Amos signing looks like an inspired piece of business, given how much free safeties around the league garnered, but paying $11 million in Year 1 to a utility lineman in Turner, who looked to be replacement-level talent before last season, seems desperate. Committing $30 million or so in annual average salary to two edge rushers who haven't combined for a single season of 10 or more sacks is addressing a need, but the Packers are paying the Smiths for the edge rushers the team is hoping they'll become, not what they have proved to be. Although those deals occasionally work out, they tend to be disappointments.

I've seen arguments that the Packers need to go after players in their prime to maximize the final years of Rodgers' window, but other organizations have managed to mostly sit out free agency with veteran quarterbacks and win. The Packers didn't go all-in during the final years of Brett Favre's career; they did sign Woodson, but he was an exception. They also used a first-round pick to draft Rodgers in lieu of maximizing the talent around Favre, and that worked out well. The Patriots, too, have been selective in free agency despite the fact that Brady is on the wrong side of 40. They're doing fine.

Meanwhile, if you had asked the Steelers whether they were going to be players in 2019 free agency 12 months ago, I suspect they would have said no. Things changed.

Pittsburgh gave Chiefs cornerback Steven Nelson a three-year, $25.5 million deal after 2016 first-rounder Artie Burns took a step backward and was benched for the second half of his third season. The Steelers had that cap space only because they were able to carry over the $14.5 million Bell never claimed on his franchise tag last season. Likewise, they signed Donte Moncrief to a two-year, $9 million pact to help shoulder the workload after they traded Antonio Brown.

The Bengals didn't spend anything close to what the Packers or even the Steelers committed, but they made moves by their modest standards. Cincinnati signed two unrestricted free agents who would qualify for draft-pick compensation in guard John Miller and cornerback B.W. Webb after signing a total of four the previous five years. As a result, the Bengals aren't projected to take home any compensatory selections for just the second time in the past six drafts.

The Saints are all-in

Let's finish by acknowledging that the Saints once again see the salary cap as a speed bump. It seemed that GM Mickey Loomis & Co. wouldn't have much to do this offseason, but the Saints have been players in free agency. Part of that is owed to the unexpected retirement of Max Unger, which created nearly $7 million in cap space, and the need to sign Vikings center Nick Easton, but New Orleans has managed to bring back Teddy Bridgewater while signing Malcom Brown and Jared Cook. It also signed a veteran replacement for Ingram by inking Latavius Murray.

The Saints got there by leaning on Drew Brees, who converted $21.6 million of compensation between a roster bonus and base salary into a signing bonus. The move freed $10.8 million of cap space, but when Brees' contract automatically voids after this season, the team will have $21.3 million in dead money on its cap.

In the past, the Saints have been able to push Brees' dead money into the future by extending the future Hall of Famer, but there's no guarantee that the 40-year-old will be playing come 2020. There's a plausible scenario in which the Saints owe that $21.3 million for a retired Brees in 2020 with J.T. Barrett as the only quarterback on the roster. Flags fly forever, so nobody will care about this if the Saints win the Super Bowl, but make no mistake about what they have done the past month.