Next days of free agent mayhem should be unlike any in NFL history
It's hard to imagine anyone being fully prepared for the frenzy that starts Tuesday
What's been a three-to-five month process is now just three to five days, or less
Collegiate free-agent rookies face even more of an uphill climb to impress a team
The irony, of course, is that the long-awaited return of labor peace in the NFL will set off perhaps the most tumultuous week in league history from a player movement standpoint. Starting Tuesday, things will be anything but peaceful in the NFL that Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith supposedly returned to normalcy with Monday's freshly-struck collective bargaining agreement.
After five-plus months of labor unrest, everybody's ready for some football. But could anyone be completely ready for what's about to descend upon the NFL, an unprecedented burst of player acquisitions that will fold free agency, the trading period, salary-cap cuts, rookie signing season and the start of training camp into one frenzied window of less than a week?
I couldn't help but wonder as Monday's happy news unfolded what it must be like in your typical NFL front office about now, with the details of the league's new timeline still emerging and general managers, salary cap experts, personnel men and coaches facing a week like none other? Gentlemen, start your engines. And leave them running full bore until further notice.
"I'm excited, because this is what we've wanted all offseason,'' said one club executive on Monday afternoon, less than an hour after the NFL owners and players announced their new CBA. "But the funny part of this is, when we look at our projections of free agency from March, nobody ever envisioned a three or four-day window where everything got crammed together at the very end. That wasn't something we necessarily ever prepared for. Nor could you have.
"But there's no use worrying about the timeline. The time frame is the time frame we have. You just have to trust everyone on your staff and delegate appropriately. Clubs know what they want to do, and now you're just going to have to be methodical about going about your work.''
Or perhaps maniacal. As in not sleeping for five days. There are teams out there that might have to add as many as 40 to 45 players to their roster in a few short hours, at least if they intend to take a full complement of 90 players to training camp later this week. A three-to-five month process just got shortened to three to five days, or less.
The frenetic pace of league activity promises to be breathtaking starting Tuesday morning, when teams can begin negotiating with any and all free agents, and are allowed to start signing their own draft picks and any undrafted collegiate free agents. Players at that point can also start reporting to team facilities for physicals and strength and conditioning work. By Wednesday, 10 teams will report for training camp. Ten more will follow suit on Thursday and Friday, with the final two clubs reporting on Sunday. At 6 p.m. ET on Friday night, free agency contracts can be signed and full-scale player movement will commence.
As one veteran club personnel executive described it, "Monday was pretty calm, but (Tuesday) will be mayhem,'' he said. "This is like the day before the draft, sort of. Kind of that same feel.''
But take the draft, and perhaps multiply it a few times, and that might begin to approximate the amount of activity that's about to unfold. And there will be challenges as every club multi-tasks its way through an extraordinary week. I talked to one club's cap specialist who was still waiting to hear from the NFL on the specifics of the new league year as late as mid-Monday afternoon. The NFL is known for taking things down to the wire, but this might have broken new ground on that front.
"It'll be unlike any other week in NFL history, but not necessarily because of the moves that will be made,'' the club executive said. "It'll be the volume of moves that we've never seen before. We've never had three unique signing periods overlap before (free agency, collegiate free agents, draft-pick signings).
"I still think the most amazing thing is you could sign a guy Friday and the first time you'll see him is Saturday, and he'll be a training camp already. Some team's going to sign (Raiders free-agent cornerback) Nnamdi Asomugha one day this week, and he'll be on the field with the fans able to see him the next day. That's a real change from the fans' perspective.''
But there's a belief within the league that the best teams will adapt to the unique circumstances of this summer, and still find a way to maintain their edge amid such tight deadlines. It will reward the well-prepared and best-organized teams, and punish those that don't crisply execute their plan of attack at the dawn of signing season.
"It's an opportunity for good teams to get better,'' said the personnel executive. "They'll find ways to best take advantage of the situation.''
If there was a theme I heard Monday, it was that the urgency of time constraints shouldn't dictate the decision-making, and that the best teams will stay true to the measured approach to free agency that they're known for (see Steelers, Colts, Patriots and Packers).
"There's an amount of uncertainty you're dealing with, but at the same time you shouldn't change your organizational philosophies or beliefs because of the accelerated time table,'' the club executive said. "You still have to know at what positions you pay, and what positions you don't, and where your roster's holes are. But those are all predetermined. It'll be busy, but I don't know how much of the decision-making really will change from the planning you did in February. Other than the fact you're doing free agency after the draft this year.
"We have the philosophy that the success of our 2011 team will be determined by the players already on our roster, and not by the additions we make in the next week. "We're looking to supplement, but I just don't know how much you can bank on any player coming in at this point and really changing the equation.''
Free-agent signees obviously aren't going to have the normal amount of time to acclimate themselves to their new surroundings and their new team, so the club executive's prediction of limited free-agent impact stands to reason. Another obvious drawback to this NFL timetable is that collegiate free-agent rookies face even more of an uphill climb to impress a team and make a 53-man roster this year.
"It's going to be really tough for an undrafted rookie free agent to make the team, and I'm just wondering if that waters down people's enthusiasm for signing them, or if it could change who you target?'' the club executive said. "There's going to be less opportunity for them to get reps this year. The players who need to get the practice reps are the ones who are going to be on your opening day roster. So there's very little advantage to keeping a guy who you think you're going to cut in the end. You don't want to be giving him reps that would go to the guy who's going to have that roster spot.''
The NFL's new rules regarding the lessening of full-pads contact in training camp is also going to factor into a collegiate free-agent or late-round draft pick's chances of making a roster. Those players figure to have fewer opportunities to impress coaches this preseason.
"They've kind of neutered the coach's ability to make these guys practice hard,'' said a veteran NFL agent. "For an undrafted collegiate free agent, he'd have a better chance with 80 players in camp than this year's 90, and he'd have a better chance with more two-a-day padded practices because you really have to get a lot of reps to show something and take a veteran's roster spot. Some will make a team on potential, but no undrafted free agent is going to earn his way on to a 53-man roster based on some spectacular amount of plays he made in practice this year. He's not going to have that chance.''
Most free-agency periods feature a big splashy first wave of signings, and then a smaller but still significant second wave later in the process. But this year, the compressed time frame will fit only the former stage in the process, not the latter.
"I can see only one wave this year, and it's really going to be the big free agents first, and then an emphasis on signing your own players to new deals,'' the veteran agent said. "A team like the New York Jets, with Santonio Holmes, and Braylon Edwards and Antonio Cromartie, they've got a lot to do right now, but they've probably got a shot to re-sign all their own free agents instead of chasing everyone else's free agents.''
The reality of this 2011 player acquisition season is that quick decisions will be mandatory. There will be no time to browse or window shop during free agency or the trading market. It's already late July, and the season has arrived.
"I think the hardest part will be adapting to the curve balls,'' the club executive said. "Everyone knows who the free agents are, and we know who the rookies are. But the curveballs will be who gets cut, who gets traded, and where do you fit those into your time line? If you're on the phone with someone and you see someone gets cut, you don't have time to react and say 'We're pulling back this offer in order to make this offer.' The compressed time line means you have to make quicker decisions.
"Do players even take visits? If a player doesn't take a visit and you've never met them before, how comfortable are you in signing them? I'm very curious to see how this works with a window where you can talk to players before you can sign them. I think it will be fascinating. If you're the first team to call when the doors open, do you do a deal or do they take your offer and shop it? And the difficult part will be knowing at what point you make your last best offer to each free agent. Free agency is essentially a silent auction. Do you want to be the first person to put your name on the sheet, or the last person?''
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