Five months removed from his team's exit from last season's playoffs, less than two months before the start of training camp, Philadelphia Eagles senior vice president Joe Banner needs a vacation—badly. Banner, who is in charge of managing the Eagles' salary cap and contract negotiations, hasn't had a full week's break since joining the team three years ago. He hopes to take his wife, Helaine, and their three children to Cape Cod for the first week of July. "But I won't be able to do that," he says, "if I haven't signed all of our draft picks."
Welcome to the NFL, a league of uninterrupted activity since the inception of unfettered free agency in 1993. Thanks to a system that allows unrestricted free agents to begin testing the market on Feb. 14, setting in motion a game of musical chairs that continues until final roster cuts at the end of August, the NFL off-season has gone the way of the BABY ON BOARD signs: It still exists, but you have to look very hard to find it.
The music started up again on Sunday when teams, in an effort to free up salary-cap money to sign draft picks and/or free agents, began releasing players whose high salaries made them expendable. Before Sunday the remaining prorated shares of those players' signing bonuses would have counted against a team's '97 cap figure; releasing the players on June 1 or later allows clubs to count some of that money against the '98 cap, which should be higher.
For example, if a player who accepted a four-year contract in 1995 with a $2.8 million signing bonus was waived before June 1, the remaining $1.4 million of his prorated bonus would have counted against the '97 cap. By waiting until after June 1, the team can count $700,000 in '97 and $700,000 in '98.
Confused? So are productive, highly regarded veterans like former Chicago Bears safety Mark Carrier and former Denver Broncos wideout Anthony Miller. They were among 10 veterans immediately released, with at least 25 more—including Arizona Cardinals linebacker Seth Joyner and Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua—expected to be cut in the next few weeks.
Other prominent players, such as New England Patriots return specialist and third-down back Dave Meggett, may opt to avoid the waiver wire by accepting pay cuts. But there could be some other surprise cap victims in the coming weeks as teams examine a talent pool that also includes more than 100 unrestricted free agents, who have been available for the past four months. After an early wave of high-profile free-agent signings, the process slowed during April and May to the pace of a Bernie Kosar scramble as teams waited to see which players would be released after June 1.
This roster turnover in the middle of the off-season is possible because, unlike in the NBA or Major League Baseball, the vast majority of NFL contracts are not guaranteed. NFL teams now woo players with fat signing bonuses that are paid up front but for cap purposes are prorated over the life of the deal. This ploy reduces the impact of a rich contract on a team's cap figure. The downside for some players with those contracts is that they are eventually tossed overboard in the weeks leading up to training camp, when numerous other veterans are still looking for work, and then they have to accept a contract that pays less than their previous one.
Take Joyner, who turns 33 in November. In 1994 he signed a five-year, $14.5 million contract that called for a base salary of $2.75 million in '97. Joyner has expected for months that he would be released if he didn't take a substantial pay cut. He had hoped to hook on with the Green Bay Packers after June 1, but they went ahead and re-signed linebacker Wayne Simmons in late May. Now Joyner hopes another team, like the Cincinnati Bengals, will step up with a sizable offer, but a more likely scenario is that he'll end up signing an incentive-laden one-year deal for a base salary near the league minimum ($196,000 for players with three to five years of experience) with a contender such as the Dallas Cowboys.
This is the NFL's version of bargain-basement shopping, but most teams will merely browse because they have few cap dollars available. However, there are a handful of clubs—the Bengals, the Eagles, the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars—that have significant cap money available, and one of those, Philadelphia, is counting heavily on picking up players at reduced rates now that June 1 has passed. " Philadelphia thinks this is like shopping at a factory-outlet store," agent Leigh Steinberg says.
"We're looking for what we call incremental upgrades—guys who can help for maybe a year or two," says Banner, who on Monday landed free-agent receivers Michael Timpson and Russell Copeland and also re-signed tight end Jimmie Johnson. "It's not like you replace a D quality player with an A; it's more like a B-minus to a B-plus."