NFL free agency reaches point of value spending

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Bargain shopping:</span> The Dolphins were able to sign former Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno to a relatively inexpensive one-year, $3 million deal.
Bargain shopping: The Dolphins were able to sign former Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno to a relatively inexpensive one-year, $3 million deal.

How rough is it out there right now for NFL veterans still without a job?

An agent who prowled the halls at last week’s annual meeting joked that his still-unemployed clients should go vacation in Europe until mid-May.

Odds are they won’t be working until then.

We’ve now reached the stage in free agency where teams are only willing to spend if it’s a great value. And if they don’t find it, they’ll happily look to the draft to fill their needs.

That means established, yet unemployed, NFL players will have to wait until the dust settles in late May — and teams determine whether if what they have is enough.

Said another league source: “I believe free agency is still active leading into the draft but teams are definitely more selective. It is important to get free agents signed before the draft.”

Often, the source continued, there is another (albeit smaller) run on veterans right before the draft, as players don’t want to risk being left out. The downside: their contracts are probably for much less than what they expected two months before.

This is all a reflection of the modern NFL, where the top 10 percent get paid handsomely, and the middle class continues to get squeezed out.

There were three examples of this very phenomenon just last week.

Knowshon Moreno was the first Broncos running back to ever rush for more than 1,000 yards and catch 50 passes last year. And yet, the Dolphins got him on a one-year, $3 million deal.

Mark Sanchez got a similar deal from the Eagles — despite twice leading the Jets to the AFC Championship Game.

And Maurice Jones-Drew was not so long ago one of the most dynamic backs in the game. But the Jaguars let him leave for Oakland.

Teams have made the gamble to go young, as the CBA has made it again cheap to build through the draft.

First-round picks no longer get the massive contracts that made missing on one crippling for a franchise (such as the Raiders and JaMarcus Russell). This is doubly true of teams that dedicate some 10 to 15 percent of their salary cap to the quarterback position.

The Dolphins aren’t in that boat — at least not yet. Ryan Tannehill is still working on his rookie contract; backup Matt Moore actually will make nearly three times as much this year.

That value gives the Dolphins flexibility. Even after signing eight players to contracts that total more than $120 million — with some $70 million guaranteed — the Dolphins are still roughly $16 million under the salary cap.

Some believe they will spend some of that on at least one more offensive lineman. They have only three clear-cut starters currently on their roster, with plenty of serviceable, cheap options still out there.

Tyson Clabo, who started 15 games for the Dolphins last season, needs a job. Eric Winston might be the new NFLPA president, but he doesn’t know where he’ll play in 2014. And Bryant McKinnie, who is both local and willing to line up on the right side, also is looking for work.

Again, it comes down to economics. The rookie minimum is $420,000. Either of the three aforementioned options would cost at least twice that.

Team owner Stephen Ross might have inadvertently tipped his hand to the Dolphins’ thinking last week when he told the Miami Herald “we’ll get a right tackle in the draft.”

But who?

Dolphins representatives were among the 75 coaches and scouts who took in Texas A&M’s Pro Day. A dream scenario would be offensive tackle Jake Matthews falling all the way to 19, but that’s not going to happen.

A more likely scenario would be Taylor Lewan (Michigan), Zach Martin (Notre Dame) or Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama) in the first round, Morgan Moses (Virginia) or Jack Mewhort (Ohio State) in the second round or a player such as Charles Leno (Boise State) in the middle rounds.

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