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March 15, 2014

Follow the money in free agency

NEW YORK — Hidden money, dead money, funny money.

They all apply to NFL free agency, where the price tags never really are what the teams, agents or players say they are.

Sure, there are a very few deals that are exactly what they say on paper, such as standout cornerback Darrelle Revis’ one-year, $12 million contract with New England. No confusion on the length or the value.

Compare that to what the guy Revis is replacing with the Patriots, Aqib Talib, got with Denver. The Broncos offered Talib a six-year contract for $57 million, with $26 million guaranteed. An average of well over $9 million a season, right?

Uh, not quite.

The only money Talib definitely will see is the $26 million, which he’ll get even if he is injured and barely plays for Denver. In four years, he will be 32 and unless he plays like, well, a vintage Revis, the Broncos aren’t likely to have interest in the rest of this contract.

For nearly every agreement in free agency, that’s how it is. Follow the guaranteed money, be skeptical of the back end of all deals — especially the extremely lengthy ones.

Bill Polian, who built three Super Bowl teams (Buffalo, Carolina, Indianapolis), points to Green Bay as an example of how to approach free agency. Notice that the Packers barely have taken part in it this year, their usual course.

“Free agency is not free, it costs two things you never get back: time and money,” says Polian, now an analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM. “When you have a good team, and the Green Bay Packers have a good team and a good personnel department that drafts well ... then it behooves you to stay conservative in free agency. Sign your own and be in a position to make very good judgments on a few players in free agency.

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