Like clockwork, the tide of the NFL’s salary cap is set to rise again — this time to a reported $187-191.1 million in 2019.
In accordance with the popular aphorism, it’s supposed to “lift all boats” — an analogy that comes up short with regard to today’s NFL, as all but a select few “boats” remain tied firmly to their contractual “docks” each year. But, this coming March, as that annual salary cap tide rolls in, NFL super agent Neil Cornich — the man who represents Patriots star edge defender Trey Flowers — will be pulling into the free agency marina armed with a sturdy pair of rope-cutting shears.
The salary cap increase — which will be narrowed down to an exact figure and reported at some point after the 2018 season concludes in February — will mean that since 2016, the league salary cap has increased by no less than 20.4%, and by as much as 23.1% (not too shabby for a “failing” league). In addition to this explosion, teams are rolling over more unused cap space than ever before. The league is also entering its third year of the four-year, 89% cash spending window — a provision in the CBA that forces teams to spend at least 89% of the four-year league cap total in cash from 2017 through 2020.
All of this is very, very good news for Neil Cornrich.
If his name sounds familiar, it could be because the Cleveland-based lawyer and Ohio State alum has represented quite a few New England Patriots over the years; names like Tom Tupa, Mike Vrabel, Adam Vinatieri, Rex Burkhead, current “consultant to the head coach” Bret Bielema, and — perhaps the prize of his portfolio — the head coach himself, Bill Belichick.
Cornrich’s client list also boasts player names like Marshall Yanda, Riley Reiff, Brandon Scherff, Avery Williamson, and Ted Ginn Jr., as well as a few NFL general managers. But, he is as highly-regarded, if not more so, for his representation of head coaches like Barry Alvarez, Bo Pelini, Todd Graham, the Stoops brothers, Kirk Ferentz, Glen Mason, and the aforementioned Bielema and Belichick — just to name a few.
According to a 2010 piece by Bill Reiter of the Kansas City Star, Belichick referred Ferentz to Cornrich in the wake of the Browns’ organizational dismantling. Ferentz was surprised by the recommendation, as the agent had an “unprintable” nickname in the halls of the Browns facilities — a moniker reportedly derived from his unrelenting negotiating style.
It’s that very same style that has made Cornrich such a success in his field. He successfully negotiated large, multi-million dollar buyouts for poorly performing coaches like Ron Prince at Kansas State and Mark Mangino at Kansas. He also has a knack for setting precedent, as he inked contract extensions for former guard Mike Wahle and tight end Dallas Clark, making each the highest paid player at his respective position.
“His passion is negotiating,” Kirk Ferentz told Bill Reiter, “He is always on the cutting edge. Back in ’93 when free-agency began, he understood the way (it) was going to work and the bylaws of the NFL probably better then a lot of coaches and NFL executives did.”
With that, we circle back to Trey Flowers — who could actually have very little competition at the top of the 2019 free agent market.
The presumption is that DeMarcus Lawrence will be extended in Dallas, and that Jadeveon Clowney will either get Houston’s franchise tag or also be extended this offseason. In Seattle, Frank Clark has put together a dominant 11-sack season and developed into a core component of the Seahawks’ defense — also making himself a prime candidate for an extension or the franchise tag.
Perhaps the best edge defender on the market this spring will be Brandon Graham. The former Michigan Wolverine will certainly garner a lot of interest, but turning 31 in April certainly limits his opportunity to sign a high-dollar, five-year contract — although Calais Campbell’s market in the spring of 2017 yielded the 30-year-old a deal worth $15 million per year. There is also Ziggy Ansah, whose career once looked so promising in Detroit, but has since been stymied by ankle, knee, and shoulder injuries for the past two seasons. He was just put on IR this week, and he also turns 30 in May.
The likelihood is high that Trey Flowers could conceivably hit free agency with Kansas City’s Dee Ford as his primary competition. Ford, who turns 28 in March, has shown flashes of brilliance intertwined with patches of mediocrity in his first five seasons with the Chiefs. But, as Pro Football Focus’ seventh-highest graded edge defender this season, he has amassed 11 sacks in 13 contests, as well as six forced fumbles — more than enough to warrant a hefty deal from one of the many cap space-rich organizations looking to add some punch to their defensive front-sevens.
Flowers, who doesn’t turn 26 until the middle of August, is Pro Football Focus’ eighth-highest graded edge defender in 2018. He plays everywhere on the line of scrimmage with equal effectiveness at each spot, and is as consistent against the run as he is in creating pressure on the quarterback.
Here’s how the young careers of each player have stacked up in the stats department, according to Pro Football Reference:
- 64 games played in five seasons, 38 starts
- 1.05 QB hits per game
- .45 sacks per game
- .48 tackles for loss per game
- 43 games played in four seasons, 34 starts
- 1.28 QB hits per game
- .47 sacks per game
- .56 tackles for loss per game
So what kind of deal is Trey Flowers likely to get on the open market, and where does all of this leave the Patriots?
When looking for comparable players and contracts for which to draw parallels to Flowers and his current situation, look no further than Olivier Vernon. Vernon hit the open market in March of 2016 at the age of 25 after four strong seasons in Miami in which he put up numbers very similar to Flowers:
- 1.15 QB hits per game
- .67 tackles for loss per game
- .45 sacks per game
Stylistically, the two players are very similar. The are both excellent run defenders in addition to their prowess as pass rushers. They share a similar body type — 6’2” and weighing around 265 pounds — with Flowers actually edging out Vernon in arm length by about 1.25” according to the NFL’s Combine website. And interestingly enough, when you search for Trey Flowers on MockDraftable.com, Olivier Vernon is the fourth name to pop up in the comparable athletic profile section.
The deal Vernon signed in 2016 was worth a total of $85 million over five years, with $40 million guaranteed at signing and another $12.5 million becoming guaranteed at the start of the 2018 league year. Remember, the league salary cap was $155.27 million in 2016 when his deal was signed. Here’s what the figures would look like if they were extrapolated and signed against the 2019 league cap range reported on Tuesday:
Against a $187 million 2019 League Salary Cap
- $102,370,065 total value over five years
- $20,474,013 average per year
- $48,174,148 guaranteed at signing
Against a $191.1 million 2019 League Salary Cap
- $104,614,542 total value over five years
- $20,922,908 average per year
- $49,230,372 guaranteed at signing
Will Flowers touch $20 million per season? It’s not likely. The Giants clearly jumped the gun in 2016. But, it does prove how wild things can get on the open market. And, in an offseason with the factors mentioned above that will have agents licking their chops, it’s not an impossibility.
Realistically, Flowers’ deal will probably come in somewhere in the $17 million per year range, with players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Jadeveon Clowney projected to ink extensions around $20 million per year now that Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald have set the bar at $23.5 million and $22.5 million per year respectively. But, on the open market, with multiple teams bidding for Flowers’ services, anything can happen.
For the Patriots, things don’t look so hot with regard to keeping the former Arkansas Razorback. The organization’s history of paying top-dollar for pass rushers is well-documented, and according to Miguel Benzan of The Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots are only projected to have around $19.4 million in 2019 cap space. That’s before taking into account the signing of the 2019 draft class, and the $4-7 million that is typically used for in-season operating costs. The franchise tag for Flowers will be well north of $17 million next season, so it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots take that option off the table.
However, if there is one wildcard in this whole process, it’s Neil Cornrich. Given his role as a representative of the player and the GM in the Flowers negotiation process, the paths of communication on both sides couldn’t possibly be more open.