Mike McGlinchey shares what it's like being a top NFL free agent

ByMike McGlinchey, Denver Broncos offensive tackle ESPN logo
Saturday, March 25, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After spending his first five NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, offensive tackleMike McGlincheybecame a free agent for the first time March 13.

The No. 9 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, McGlinchey started 75 games, including the playoffs, with a run block win rate of 75.4% -- tied for 11th best among all tackles in that time.

That production made McGlinchey, who was ranked No. 3 in ESPN's top 100 free agents, a hot prospect when the early negotiating window opened March 13. He landed a five-year, $87.5 million deal with $52.5 million guaranteed from the Denver Broncos. It was a whirlwind few days but ended better than even McGlinchey had hoped.

In terms of annual value, McGlinchey's new deal was the sixth largest of any free agent changing teams this offseason and made him the fourth-highest-paid right tackle in the NFL in total guarantees.

In his own words, McGlinchey told ESPN 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner about his experience as one of the NFL's most coveted free agents.

The 2023 offseason, Santa Clara, California

IF YOU'RE PAYING attention -- and believe me, I was -- it was easy to figure out that I wouldn't be back with the 49ers after this past season. To be honest, I knew for about a year. They had [left tackle]Trent Williams, making the amount of money that he does [$27.2 million cap figure in 2023], and this is just the way the team has always gone about its business.

There were no surprises, that's for sure. [Niners general manager] John Lynch and [coach] Kyle Shanahan kept me updated the whole time, and they were very clear about what was going to happen. But I definitely got a behind-the-curtain look at how the sausage is made in the NFL. After the 2021 season, they both told me, "We may even look to move you at some point. We're projecting into the future, and we think you're going to get priced out. We want to get something in return."

In a way, I got lucky. I don't know the percentage of players who play long enough and well enough to be in this position, but I know I'm fortunate. I stayed healthy enough to play out my fifth-year option with the Niners, to be home and comfortable and stay with the people that I worked with my whole career. And to play on a damn good football team.

But there were definitely moments of uncertainty. I had a major quad injury that clouded my future after my fourth year. My mindset was simple: fight back to the point where I could give myself a chance. I played well, and that's when I was pretty sure I was going to have an opportunity to be a pretty major player in this year's free agent market.

And then, what I expected became final during my exit interviews with John and Kyle after this season. They were clear that, barring something out of the ordinary, I wouldn't be back. It was a money thing, and they told me point blank. "We'd love to have you back, but we can't stretch ourselves too thin."

I almost felt like I'd attended my own funeral. I mean, in some ways it helps to have advance notice, but when you put so much into this one place -- a place that's all you've known as a professional -- you have feelings. You can't help but be a little upset. But I had to check those emotions and realize this was a really good problem to have. I could put the past behind me and start projecting into my own future, just the way the Niners did theirs. That's when the excitement started setting in; this is supposed to be the big moment in a career, everything you work for -- the right to become a free agent and see how all your hard work is valued by the rest of the league.

March 9, Philadelphia: Post-scouting combine and four days before free agent negotiations

FREE AGENCY IS a weird deal. The rules prohibit any talk of numbers or specifics with teams. You just kind of float along having conversations and gauging interest. And the worst part? I'm not even having these conversations. My agent, Tommy Condon, armed with the fruits of all his research, is earning his percentage by doing all of that for me while I wait around for the third-party replay. It's a f---ed-up process, but those are the rules, and I have almost no control over any of it. I have to sit back and trust everybody else's word.

Each night, Tommy would call and read off all the notes from the conversations he's having on my behalf. He'd say, "Here are the teams that we think are going to be really interested, here's who we think will be kind of interested, and here's who is probably out because of specific roster situations." There's your future playing out on someone else's laptop.

You tier it out, kind of how we get ranked as players. There are certain teams that are going to set the top of the market, others that are going to be there with a little bit less, and the rest of them out of the picture because of what the others are willing to pay. When we gamed it out, we came up with five or six teams we thought were going to be serious players.

It's good to have information, but none of it means anything until concrete offers are made. This is our life, a bunch of assumptions and guesses. All you can hope for is to ride out that last weekend and be in a good position when Monday morning rolls around and the early negotiating window starts.

Throughout all of this, I was talking and fantasizing with my wife, Brooke. What do you think about this city? What's their team look like? How would I fit? Every player in the NFL knows everybody else's roster, so you can project it. I know the other right tackles in the league, and I know which teams need 'em -- and need me. You start from there and see where it takes you.

March 10-12, Kiawah Island, South Carolina: McGlinchey flies to South Carolina for his cousin John's bachelor party

MY BIGGEST CONCERN when I got to Kiawah was pretty basic: try not to look like Business A--hole all weekend. The last thing I wanted was to be sitting by my phone and taking calls on the golf course.

I was worried more about being the guy everybody hates than the actual stress of free agency. You dream about a different jersey every night and stress over the decision and wind up stressed over everything else. But everybody seemed to understand.

This was my cousin John's weekend -- not mine -- but my cousins and brothers are my biggest fans, so I think it might have even enhanced the weekend for them, too. At night when we'd be talking and joking around, they'd be fantasizing just as much as I did. Like, 'Dude, wouldn't this be cool? Wouldn't that be cool?' And they liked that they got to see a little bit of the insider trading.

I had one or two phone calls while golfing, but most of the time it was just more conversations at night with my agent. Tommy would run it all down: "Here's what I feel today, here's what we're thinking, here are the contract situations of the teams we're targeting." And it's all just hearsay and projections because you're not allowed to do anything. We're just making our best guesses off the conversations that he's having.

Otherwise, I did my best to be where my feet were. I've learned my lesson on the perils of social media and all of that kind of talk, so I tried to stay as far away from that stuff as possible.

We played three rounds over the weekend -- Cougar Point on Friday, the Ocean Course on Saturday and Turtle Point on Sunday. I was Business A--hole just once, when I had to run off the course at Cougar Point to take a call. I consider that a victory.

March 13, Campbell, California: The early negotiating window opens as McGlinchey and his wife wait at home

I FLEW BACK to the Bay Area on Sunday night, and that's when everything started to feel real. I slept for maybe two hours and found myself awake at 3 a.m., focused on trying to make the best decision possible.

Based on all of our work, we figured we were looking at maybe a handful of teams we thought would be serious players. That thought didn't last long because Denver wasted no time making it clear how much they wanted me.

The window opened at 9 a.m. PT and within 10 or 15 minutes, the Broncos reached out to my agent. They were able to talk to each other. What an amazing concept. Right away, it was very easy to see what was going on in Denver, and why playing for the Broncos is such an exciting opportunity.

Broncos coach Sean Payton is a Hall of Famer and a really good human being. Zach Strief, the O-line coach, is a guy that was in my shoes when he played 12 years for Payton. They have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Russell Wilson and a great defense.

The offer came with all of that built in. I didn't even really field another offer because Denver's was so good right off the bat. They were direct. "We're going to have the best offer to get you. If you want it, it's yours."

I didn't know what to expect out of this process. I'd never been in an open negotiation like this before, but I knew what the top right tackles were getting and I think I'm a top right tackle. I think other teams will agree, and this -- a big offer right at the start from a team that clearly agreed -- was obviously the best-case scenario.

And then Denver is a great city to live in. It was the closest one to the Bay Area. And there's a great fan base for a storied franchise with an ownership group that can kind of blow everybody else out of the water with their assets. And Coach Payton, seeing how invested they are in the team, and how much they want to win, seems convinced that they're going to become one of the greatest ownership groups in football. Anybody who's around the NFL knows how important that is; there are about 15 to 20 places that are an uphill battle on that front.

Denver felt right, and it was probably the most interested team since the beginning. When you prove to me that you want me and are going to be loyal to me, that goes a long way. In the end, despite all the agonizing, it was kind of a no-brainer.

About an hour after my agent talked to the Broncos, they called with the offer. Brooke and I were sitting on the couch and I told Tommy to make the deal.

I was shaking when I got off the phone and explained the offer to Brooke. I told her what was happening and she was really excited and maybe a little nervous, too. She's never lived outside the Bay Area, so she can thank me for changing that. But I think we'd both been preparing for this for more than a year. We looked at each other and just kind of said "Let's go Broncos."

It was mind-boggling, just pure disbelief. I teared up a little bit because the words coming out of my mouth -- five years, $87.5 million -- were almost unbelievable. Brooke and I had a huge hug and she congratulated me. Then I made the rounds; I called my mom and dad, my brothers and my cousin Dan. They joked that nobody was getting any work done because they were all online buying merchandise and reading up on how to be a Broncos fan.

You think about these moments your whole career and wonder how you'll handle them; Brooke and I looked at Zillow for most of the day. But we also were inundated with calls and texts. [Broncos tackle]Garett Bolles reached out right away.

Russ [Wilson] was one of the first people to text me. He welcomed me to the team and then later in the afternoon, he was on his way home from the dentist with his wife and kids and we talked on FaceTime for about 20 minutes.

It's funny how this league works. Russ broke our hearts numerous times in San Francisco and now I'm talking to him on FaceTime about how we can get to work and try to build a great offense in Denver.

After things settled down a little bit, Brooke and I went to dinner at one of our favorite spots, Be.Steak.A in Campbell. We ordered a little bit of everything, but I splurged for the Wagyu ribeye for our celebration meal.

March 14, Campbell: McGlinchey says goodbye to the 49ers

PLAYING FOR THE 49ers has meant the world to me. I had so much damn fun here and have met some of the greatest people. Obviously one of them is my wife -- and thank God for that. The Niners are a first-class operation the whole way down. I just think it's such a cool place to play.

Kyle, John, [49ers offensive line coach] Chris Foerster and [assistant general manager] Adam Peters all sent really nice, thoughtful messages. Too many teammates to count -- both current and former -- reached out. I could really feel the love and it means so much to hear from these people I spent five years building relationships with.

And I fell in love with the Bay Area. It's now my home, where Brooke and I plan to stay and raise a family. And I couldn't have been prouder of what I did here and the battles that I fought, both as a team and by myself. It's well-documented that I had my struggles, but I'm just so proud to have turned my career around and to have been part of all the success -- from 6-10 and 4-12 to three NFC title games in four years and a Super Bowl appearance. An unbelievable run.

With a day to really digest what happened, Brooke and I made plans to fly to Denver as soon as possible. Because we hadn't signed anything yet, we booked our own tickets to head there Wednesday afternoon and make everything official. After all the waiting, you just have to flip the switch into the next chapter of your life almost instantly.

March 15, Denver: McGlinchey signs with the Broncos

WE LANDED IN Denver on Wednesday afternoon, headed to our hotel and grabbed lunch before we made our way over to the Broncos' facility. I signed the deal and, honestly, it felt a little different when I put pen to paper on such a life-changing document.

When they presented me with the contract, they cleared the room and gave me, Brooke and Tommy about 20 minutes to go over it. That's when it really starts to hit you how real this is. It's such a cool moment to just go through it, initial all the pages and then just let out the most satisfying sigh of relief.

With the business part done, we had dinner with Sean and [Broncos general manager] George Paton. Some of the other new guys were around too, so we got to sit with [guard]Ben Powers and his wife and Zach [Strief] and our assistant O-line coach Austin King and then had drinks with [defensive lineman]Zach Allen and his girlfriend. Brooke and I wanted to jump right into house hunting on Thursday, so it was a pretty relaxing night with plenty of room for reflection.

Now that the deal is done, I don't feel any different. It's the Forrest Gump thing: one less thing to worry about. This isn't the end goal. I want to be the best in the world at what I do, and I'm still on that journey. The amount of money I make doesn't change that. My family's future is secure, and that's a pretty sick feeling.

It's been a whirlwind, but my family and I are obviously so juiced up and excited. When you start your career, you can never imagine s--- like this happening to you.

I'm happy to be a Bronco. This is one wild process, one that I'm honored to have gone through -- and one that I'm damn glad is over.

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