How one team positioned itself to take advantage of free agency
Camps are more exciting this season with so many old faces in new places
A day by day look back at my camp visits so far; Fantasy sleeper advice
An early look at who could end up in the 2012 Hall of Fame class
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- You know what's particularly fun about NFL camps this year? The new.
On Thursday, I saw Albert Haynesworth jogging from drill to drill at Patriots camp. On Friday morning at Eagles camp, I saw Nnamdi Asomugha leap and pick off a pass from Vince Young; exactly a week earlier, neither had signed with the team. On Saturday, I saw a sight I never thought I'd see again -- the best 3-4 defensive end of this generation, Pittsburgh's Aaron Smith, jousting with and beating a good right tackle, Willie Colon, in a live scrimmage. On Sunday, it was this Bills weirdness: great pass-rush hope Shawne Merriman chasing great Wildcat hope Brad Smith in a small college town south of Rochester, N.Y.
In the magazine this week, I wrote about the strange, compressed week of free agent signings and team construction through the eyes of an NFL general manager, Atlanta's Thomas Dimitroff, and the haggling that went on in the final moments of a negotiation over guard Justin Blalock with agent Ben Dogra. "Come on!'' Dimitroff said to Dogra at 1:16 a.m. nine mornings ago. "We gotta close this deal!''
Now most of the deals have been closed, and I went out in search of how the players were adjusting to the odd year. After I tell you how the Eagles fit all those players under the cap, I'll go team-by-team with what I saw last week, and who I liked.
A preview, from Sunday at Bills camp: Last season, the Bills were not Wildcat-friendly. Now they have the master -- Smith, the run-pass threat who quarterbacked Missouri before going to the Jets. Buffalo pilfered him from the Jets while New York waited in vain for Nnamdi Asomugha.
On Sunday Smith stood in shotgun formation on a sweltering afternoon at St. John Fisher College, with four receivers spread across the line. At the snap he felt pressure, rolled right, took a step toward the line as if he'd run, then stopped in the face of a strong rush and flipped the ball ... 55 yards in the air. It fell shy of Stevie Johnson, but the message was clear, and the threat. Buffalo has a new toy.
"That guy's going to be so much fun to have around here, because he gives us such a different dimension,'' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said afterward.
Weird story how he got here. The Jets wanted to keep him, he told me, "but they wouldn't do anything until the Nnamdi thing was over.'' The Jets wouldn't have cap room for Smith if they made Asomugha a $10-million-a-year roster piece. But they wanted him to wait to see what Asomugha did.
Smith loves the Jets. He wanted to wait. The Bills didn't want to wait. They saw Smith throw a touchdown pass against them last year in one game, and run for 60 yards against them in the other. By signing Smith, they'd help themselves and hurt a division rival.
"I love the Jets,'' he said. "Why would I have wanted to go somewhere with the role I had there? But they told me, 'We're just going to wait on Nnamdi.' It's just part of this whole year.''
The Jets didn't get Asomugha, of course, and I asked Smith if he had any regrets, leaving a Super Bowl contender for a much lesser team. "Not at all. And I saw what happened with them not re-signing Jerricho [Cotchery], Shaun [Ellis] and Braylon [Edwards]. Things were changing there. And here, this might be a Super Bowl team too.''
Everyone can dream in August.
Are you sitting down? The Eagles can redo the contracts for Vick and DeSean -- and STILL be under the cap.
Question I've gotten from tweeters, e-mailers and even one general manager I respect a lot in the last few days, in the wake of Philadelphia signing so many top free agents: How is it possible the Eagles are under the salary cap? Or, as the GM put it to me: "The cap for the rest of us is $120 million. It feels like it's $220 million for them. I really don't know how they did it, but I'm very curious.''
Be curious no more. Be stunned, though. The Eagles, as of this morning, still have $7.79 million of cap room available, easily enough to extend dissatisfied wide receiver DeSean Jackson and to turn the one-year franchise tender of Mike Vick into a long-term deal without severe cap ramifications.
Here's how the Eagles made it happen, according to a league source who has seen the Eagles' up-to-date salary cap configuration for the next two seasons.
Understand this principle to start: The Eagles were not in bad cap shape to begin with. When free agency opened they were at $99 million in commitments to veterans and draft choices. (More about those later.) They had shed big veteran salaries over the last couple of years -- including quarterback Donovan McNabb's -- and by opening day 2010 had the third-youngest 53-man roster in football. Young means salary manageable.
As of Sunday morning, the Eagles' projected roster (there's some guesswork here, but it's close) consisted of 35 players with cap numbers of $1.5 million or less. And only six players -- quarterback Mike Vick ($16.1 million cap number), cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha ($10 million), cornerback Asante Samuel ($9.34 million), tackle Jason Peters ($6.54 million), and defensive ends Jason Babin ($5.3 million) and Trent Cole ($5 million) -- had cap figures of $5 million or more.
Club president Joe Banner explained to me Friday how the market fit into the Eagles' modus operandi. "This was a massive buyer's market,'' he said. "There were something like 500 free agents, and we knew a lot of teams that normally might be in play for many of these guys wouldn't be able to spend much because of their cap situation. So we knew there'd be some spectacular opportunities.''
What's impressive about how Banner and GM Howie Roseman have worked the architecture of the team is that 24 of the top 26 players on the roster today are signed for at least the next two seasons. Only Vick and Jackson are not signed beyond this year from the 26 number.
I expect Vick will get done sometime this year. Jackson might and he might not; he'll report to camp today after a brief holdout, and he'll press to have the last year of his contract ($938,000) renegotiated into a long-term deal. We'll see. Point is, the Eagles may have chemistry issues with this All-Star team, but they won't have the sort of cap issues most people expect.
"This is not one of those Hail Mary passes for one year,'' Banner said. "If something doesn't work out, we'll be in position to adjust.''
Let's examine some of the contracts Banner and Roseman did. Here's where the opportunities came in.
Not including Asomugha, the eight free agent signings and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who came from Arizona in the Kevin Kolb trade, have zero dollars promised to them for 2012 and beyond. There are years remaining on contracts, yes. But guarantees, no.
Point is, this is the kind of cap situation that can absorb Vick at $16.1 million this year, and Asomugha at $10 million this year and $11 million next year. And the kind of cap that can accommodate a very good player like Cullen Jenkins, the best rush defensive tackle on the market, who never saw the market develop for him the way he thought it would.
Jenkins thought his first-choice team, Philadelphia, wouldn't sign him after giving Asomugha a four-year, $48-million contract. The Eagles convinced Jenkins they still wanted him badly, but just couldn't pay him what they'd been discussing pre-Nnamdi. After a night to think about it, Jenkins decided he'd rather play where he wanted for $4 million than to go to a Cincinnati-type team for more money. Jenkins figures he'll still have another payday if he outperforms this contract in the first year or two. The reputation of the Eagles helped -- as did some players' desire to play on Vick's team.
One more thing about the Eagles' cap. It's not the league's number of $120.38 million per team. It is actually $125.58 million. That includes $2.2 million in what the league calls "reallocation credits'' from the last capped year, 2009, when the Eagles didn't spend to the cap, and the $3 million every team can borrow from a future cap year to support veteran player costs this season
And, yes, they can fit in Jackson and Vick and not leave themselves hamstrung for the future. That's what happens when you have a guy the organization trusts to set the overall compass for personnel priorities in Andy Reid, two experienced cap and negotiation handlers in Banner and Roseman, a personnel staff led by Ryan Grigson, who can tell the front office the draft outlook a year ahead of time ... with a smart checks-and-balance business guy in Jeff Lurie, the owner. Even with a good football man and GM like Tom Heckert leaving to take the reins in Cleveland, the Eagles turned to Roseman and moved on. A continuum.
One last point for you capaholics: The logic for redoing Vick, at least part of it, would be to lower his cap figure from $16.1 million to some manageable figure maybe half that size. The same league source told me that won't happen. The Eagles will keep Vick's cap number at the same level as it is currently, because if they reduce it, that is money they'll have to include in some other year of the cap. Why not allocate it to the 2011 cap if they have room, so they can have maximum flexibility in future years with Vick on the payroll?
That's right -- the Eagles are in such good shape with their cap that they can afford to redo Vick's deal and easily afford to keep his number at a gargantuan level. That's a team with a plan.