TEMPE, Ariz. – The 2013 NFL free-agency period has been unusually soft, with big-money contracts scarce for accomplished veteran players.
Defensive end Cliff Avril signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks a year after the Detroit Lions designated him their franchise player. Elvis Dumervil got just $12 million guaranteed from the Baltimore Ravens after racking up 63.5 sacks in six seasons with Denver, and former Falcon defensive end John Abraham and former Cardinal safety Kerry Rhodes remain unsigned.
Former Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney was certain he was headed for a big pay day this offseason, but when he signed a two-year, $8.75 million deal with the Chargers – one that didn’t come until after the NFL Draft – he lashed out at owners through CBSSports.com’s Mike Freeman, accusing them of collusion.
“I basically think the owners got together and decided not to spend the cash on free agents,” said Freeney, 33, who had five sacks last season. “I definitely think that’s part of it. I think the owners made a pact. There’s only 32 of them and none of them broke ranks. I think they all decided not to spend money.”
The NFLPA was so concerned about collusion that executive director DeMaurice Smith sent a memo to all player agents recommending that if they found proof of collusion, they should notify the union, Freeman reported.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, to prove the owners were colluding to keep the market low. The league has already denied it is occurring. But aside from the burden of proof, many NFL executives and players believe there are mitigating circumstances in this year’s free-agency period.
“There are various reasons why guys go unsigned or can’t get the deals they want,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. “Sometimes, it’s medical reasons. Sometimes, it’s off-field issues. Sometimes, it’s performance. It’s not always about the money, but ultimately it comes down to fair market value — what a team is willing to pay. “
The Cardinals signed a number of veteran players to short-term deals this offseason, including running back Rashard Mendenhall (one year, $2.5 million), linebacker Karlos Dansby (one year, $2.25 million) and defensive end Frostee Rucker (one year, $905,000).
“When we evaluate players, myself and (vice president of player personnel) Jason Licht, we put a value on them from a league perspective, and that’s how we’ll approach negotiations,” Keim said.
Keim believes this free-agent class wasn’t deep at a number of positions, but the biggest reason for the drop in signings might be the fault of veteran players themselves.
Dansby, who got a five year, $42.5 million deal from Miami the last time he was on the market, thought he was going to cash in this offseason. “But the numbers situation right now with the new CBA is totally different,” Dansby said. “The market changed; it had flipped.”
The primary difference in the CBA relates to offseason workouts. Under the new agreement, offseason workouts have been severely curtailed for veteran players — a move designed to keep them healthier. Teams are subject to fines if they violate those rules.
For the first two weeks, only strength and conditioning coaches are allowed to work with players on the field. Quarterbacks can throw to their receivers, but defensive backs aren’t allowed to cover them.
The restrictions continue for the next three weeks until after the NFL Draft, when coaches are allowed to conduct limited football workouts. Any type of offense vs. defense drill is banned.
The final four weeks that fall under the CBA’s “phase three” heading are still curtailed compared to previous offseason work. Teams can hold one minicamp and 10 organized team practice sessions. One-on-one drills between offensive and defensive players are not permitted, although special teams can be practiced provided there is no contact. Helmets are allowed, but shoulder pads remain outlawed.
There is irony in all the cutbacks for veterans.
“You want to extend that player’s career so he has greater earning potential,” NFL Players Association executive George Atallah told FOXSports.com.
But with all the added limitations, veterans changing teams have far less time and reps to acclimate to their new surroundings. And that could be contributing to the drop in signings and the size of the contracts.
While the veterans are getting fewer reps, rookie players who normally would have gotten fewer opportunities can now be out at training facilities for 10 hours, getting far more reps than in past years when the veterans took them. All the extra work gives rookies a better chance to learn a team’s systems, practice them to perfection and open the eyes of the coaching staff to the possibility of immediate impact from first-year players.
“Ain’t no doubt about it,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “That’s what the veterans did to themselves with this new CBA. They gave these kids a chance to take their jobs.”
The Cardinals’ example is even more extreme because Arians has been conducting dual practices to give younger players equal reps even when the veterans are on the field.
“Our rookies probably have gotten more reps already in OTAS than the rest of the rookies in the NFL put together,” Arians said two weeks ago. “It’s much easier for us to evaluate them and make decisions on what they might be able – or not be able to bring to the table right away.”
It may take a few years to accurately determine the wisdom of playing more rookies, even at a lower pay rate that saves teams money. NFL coaches are still judged on wins and losses, so if the long view determines it’s still wiser to sign free agents, the NFL could return to that approach. But for the present, at least, the tide has turned.
“There are trends in the NFL, and they’re always changing,” Keim said. “But I do think the new CBA was a bit of a culture shock for some players.”