NFL free agency primer: 5 things to watch and know
NFL free agency begins Tuesday, which means fireworks.
Except when it doesn’t. And it usually doesn’t.
By a rule implemented last year, teams have been legally able to negotiate with agents — but not the players themselves — for 72 hours in advance of the 4 p.m. ET Tuesday start of the league year, which means free agents become officially free, trades are allowed and rosters for 2014 (and beyond) are shaped for teams with money to spend and holes to fill.
Below are five things to know and watch about the beginning of the player movement period, including why it often isn’t the holiday it’s portrayed to be and why even teams with money to spend might choose to go the cautious route…
1. A group of players will really cash in, probably as soon as Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning. This is why Twitter has been buzzing for a week (or more) now. This is why NFL Network will treat the kickoff of free agency like a presidential election. But that group — it might be six players, it might be 16 — is kind of the exception to the rule. Especially since the new CBA put the rookie wage scale in place, the most successful teams are more reliant on the draft and signing their own players to extensions before they can ever hit free agency. Signing free agents is still important, but enough teams have won with bargain free agents and shrewd moves that don’t make headlines that enough other teams have noticed. There’s still going to be a rush to sign certain players, and lots of phones will continue ringing. A few agents will toast really nice glasses to the kind of $11 million guaranteed deal D’Qwell Jackson got from the Colts last week to kind of kick this thing off, but many more will want to save the good stuff for the draft and after.
2. These guys — even the coaches and general managers, but specifically the players about to achieve free agency for the purposes of this article — are human. That’s sometimes easy to forget, but they are. They have human friends, human relationships with coaches and systems and bodies that eventually are going to break down. Most NFL players only get a shot at one really big payday, and for most of that group, this first foray into unrestricted free agenct is it. Home team discounts do exist, because a player who’s succeeded in a certain city and a certain system is often smart to not take that for granted. But it’s also human nature to explore, to wonder what else is out there, and in the possible case of the Browns and Donte Whitner, to get that final big payday while also coming home in a literal sense. It’s important to remember the grass isn’t always greener but money always is green — and money always matters most.
3. Buyer beware. Always. For example, cornerback is a premium position in today’s NFL. If a veteran cornerback is hitting the unrestricted free agent market, it’s because he’s demanding an exorbitant amount of money or his current team is willing to let him leave. Often, it’s both. Overpaying is part of the free-agent business — it’s both understood and unavoidable. Not everybody hitting the market is going to get really big money or an immediate deal. Some guys know they won’t sign until this weekend, at earliest, because teams will prioritize other players and issues. Some guys won’t sign until this weekend and don’t know it. The market will fluctuate. Prices will come down, and some teams simply won’t make a real move until they do. Another very interesting spot to watch is running back, where almost all the top potential free agents have tread on the tires or other injury issues, and the value of running backs (minus a very few in the elite group) just isn’t what it used to be. But this draft provides teams a very bland bunch of options at running back, and though those guys come cheap, once the money starts flying for a couple days don’t be surprised if a couple of free agent running backs still get nice deals, even if they are incentive laden.
4. Yes, the Bengals have a lot of room under the salary cap. No, they’re not going to spend it on an A-list free agent from another team. The Bengals just don’t do that and they won’t start now. The Steelers don’t do that, either, though this time around they’re just trying to breathe under the cap. The Browns have money to spend and will go after at least one big-name, big-ticket player because they pretty much have to. Whether that player is a guard, a linebacker, a cornerback or a safety remains to be seen. It’s possible that the Browns themselves don’t know which of their top targets really wants to sign up. Especially with new coaching staffs, players with past ties to those new coaches from other franchises are often prioritized. Again, these are more likely to be B and C-list players — a backup quarterback, a backup linebacker/special teamer, an extra defensive back — than elite, high-dollar free agents, but every case is different. Soon to be former Bengal Michael Johnson landing a big deal with Mike Zimmer and the Vikings could be one of those exceptions, but we’ll have to wait and see.
5. The Browns are an interesting team to watch not just because they have money to spend, but because new guys are calling the shots (again) and that always leads to change. The team placed the transition tag on Alex Mack, and that makes the Browns even more interesting as they wait to see if another team signs Mack to a viable offer sheet or if he suddenly shows up and signs a one-year tender for more than $10 million for 2014 with the intention of becoming a free agent next year. To a lesser extent, new GM Ray Farmer and new coach Mike Pettine have to know there’s at least a chance they, too, could be free agents next year based on recent history and will want to make a splash in this free agent group. By Monday night, Mack’s agent was talking and planting the seed that he believes he can get another team to make a real offer to Mack. That, like everything else with whispers and reports, is to be believed at your own risk. Some of these rumors are simply the product of the NFL’s never-ending news cycle and the need to have something to talk about. Some are strategic, planted by teams or agents as potential leverage. This new "legal tampering" period opens the door for more agents to take more calls from teams before things really heat up — and to make more teams believe the door is open on a certain guy and/or a certain deal.
Finally, March 11 is here. We’ll soon know where there was real interest, and where there was just smoke.