Business as usual in NFL free agency

Business as usual.

The absence of a salary cap has caused little change in how NFL
teams approach the early stages of free agency.

There still has been a spending spree, highlighted by the $42
million guaranteed the Chicago Bears gave defensive end Julius
Peppers on the first day he became unrestricted. And, as always,
backup quarterbacks have been on the move, following a money trail
that led David Carr to San Francisco, A.J. Feeley to St. Louis and
Jim Sorgi to the New York Giants.

Solid starters such as cornerback Dunta Robinson and defensive
end Kyle Vanden Bosch are landing solid deals. Proven veterans,
even those coming off injuries such as DE Aaron Kampman and DT
Jamal Williams, are getting lucrative contracts.

But the baseball-style bidding wars and stratospheric salaries
some predicted simply haven’t occurred.

“I see contracts being done as if there is a cap,” says player
agent Peter Schaffer, who represents Joshua Cribbs, Joe Thomas and
Larry Johnson, among others. Schaffer just worked out a
restructured deal with the Browns for Cribbs, who went from a
six-year, $6.67 million contract to receiving $7.5 million in
guaranteed money and could earn as much as $20 million by meeting
incentives. Such an agreement would have looked the same in
previous years.

“I see two things at work here. Instead of signing bonuses,
teams are giving a roster bonus and when they kick in those bonuses
under a salary cap, there will be no proration and their cap number
won’t be threatened. And I see teams preparing for a cap in the
next CBA.”

The current contract between the NFL and the players association
expires after next season; there is no set date, although the
league’s business year normally begins in early March. When the
owners opted out of the 2006 agreement two years ago, it meant not
reaching a new deal before this month would trigger an uncapped
season.

Aside from Peppers, there have been no astonishing eye-openers.
Yes, Detroit gave Nate Burleson, normally a No. 2 or No. 3
receiver, $10 million guaranteed as part of a $25 million,
five-year deal. Nice money for a second banana to Calvin Johnson,
but not outrageous compared to deals for wideouts in recent
years.

And Karlos Dansby, probably the top talent in this diluted crop,
received $43 million in a five-year deal that nets him $22 million
guaranteed; Dansby gets $27 million over the next three years.

Again, hardly outrageous for a playmaking 28-year-old linebacker
in his prime.

“Free agency gives a team a chance to go to their fans and say,
`We stockpiled players and we’re doing all we can to put a winning
team on the field. Come support us, we might go to the playoffs.’
Every team can legitimately say that,” Schaffer said. “But the
reality in terms of the cap and contract negotiations is teams are
spending to a budget whether there’s a cap or not.”

What has changed, of course, is just who is available and the
length of contracts being offered. Under the uncapped system, it
takes six years in the NFL to become an unrestricted free agent
rather than four. That left 212 players who would require
compensation if they signed with another team, a market that has
been virtually untapped so far.

The attractiveness of such players as Houston linebacker DeMeco
Ryans, San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson and New Orleans guard
Jahri Evans is unquestioned if they are completely free. They’re
not, and they aren’t seeing any windfall.

“So many players have been taken off the market because of the
extra years added to free agency,” said Ralph Cindrich, agent for
the Steelers’ James Farrior, the Giants’ Steve Smth and the Colts’
Jeff Saturday among others. “There are less players available than
last year and years before because of it.”

Many of the contracts are front-loaded so teams aren’t penalized
down the road if a salary cap is included in a new CBA – something
considered likely.

“It seems throughout the league that they’re all doing the same
thing – it feels like we’re the NFL version of the Stepford Wives;
all the teams are going with one year deals. Maybe it will open
up.”

Tom Condon, who along with partner Ben Dogra represents Ryans,
Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, Jets receiver Braylon Edwards
and several other prime restricted free agents, thinks the market
could open up in April.

“For the restricted guys, we’ve not seen anything so far,”
Condon said. “Nevertheless, potentially as we get closer to the
draft maybe some of the final eight teams who are picking very late
may see value in these guys, regardless if it’s a first- or second-
or third-rounder they have to give up (as compensation).

“There’s absolutely no question that there are a lot of players
who are in their prime and they got restricted, and right now it
doesn’t look they are going to move. We should know more closer to
the draft.”