Earl Thomas and Ndamukong Suh among NFL’s free agency mysteries

Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas stands on the field during warmups before a game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 23.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

The signing period for NFL free agency begins at 1 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, but that’s almost ceremonial now. Already, teams have perused the aisles — in some cases filling their carts — and are waiting in the checkout lines.

This shopping spree doesn’t require a starter’s pistol. Teams are like quarterbacks sauntering up to the line of scrimmage. All the thinking takes place before the snap.

There are a few remaining mysteries, notably the next teams of Earl Thomas and Ndamukong Suh. But for the most part, in the modern NFL, a lot of the presents get opened on Christmas Eve.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was among those who received an early gift. ESPN reported late Tuesday that Bell had reached an agreement with the New York Jets.


We also know the New England Patriots are losing defensive end Trey Flowers to Detroit and offensive tackle Trent Brown to Oakland; that New York Giants safety Landon Collins is heading to Washington; that Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley will wind up with the Jets; and that Houston safety Tyrann Mathieu is going to Kansas City — if only by the “Honey Badger” meme tweeted by Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

There’s big news on the trade front too, with Cleveland striking a deal for star New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The Browns reportedly gave up the No. 17 pick in this year’s draft as well as a third-round pick and safety Jabrill Peppers. That’s a far steeper price than Oakland paid for former Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown, giving up picks in the third and fifth rounds.

No trades become official until the start of the new league year, at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

Some teams dive headlong into free agency, while others merely dabble. For the most coveted players, it typically translates into a huge payday.


“Free agency allows B-plus players to get A-plus contracts,” agent Leigh Steinberg said, noting the league’s superstars rarely reach free agency, either because their deals are extended by their current teams or those teams use the franchise-player designation to keep them.

In the early 1990s, at the inception of free agency, the process was leisurely. Players would schedule multiple visits with teams, meet for hours with coaches and general managers, luxuriate over their options. Time was on their side.

But that changed, Steinberg said, with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the late 1990s. Michael Huyghue, then a top executive with the team, would compile a short list of top players he wanted, offer them generous take-it-or-leave-it contracts, then quickly move on if that player didn’t sign on the spot. The onetime leisurely process became a mad scramble.

Now, it’s standard for teams to move quickly, decisively and aggressively, spending top dollar, especially with the salary cap climbing from $177.2 million per club in 2018 to $188.2 million this year.


“Here you have the combination of a big cap increase and teams that are organized, mobilized and ready to move with lightning-fast speed,” Steinberg said.

“It’s a game of musical chairs. Right now, you have multiple chairs to land on. But this spurt of up-front deals will end rapidly. Those players who do not sign in the signing frenzy of the first five days will find the deals drying up.”

As for Suh, the rumor mill has him heading in all sorts of possible directions — Minnesota, Seattle, Cleveland, the Chargers ...

According to, Suh has $138.7 million in career earnings, second only to Eli Manning’s $235.3 million among active players. In other words, Suh can afford to wait.


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