As a former agent (for Matt Hasselbeck, Ricky Williams) and team vice president (Packers), TheMMQB.com's Andrew Brandt has seen both sides of the free-agency frenzy. He provides a look at what will happen behind closed front-office doors when open season kicks off
MARCH 10 is New Year's Day on the NFL calendar, and it's the time for front offices—general managers, scouts and cap/contract managers—to shine. This is when teams are built into the product that you see in the fall.
In approaching the off-season, every team's top priority is retaining its own key players before the free-agency bell rings. Some franchises have been trying to secure contracts for months with little success, but deadlines spur action; several pending free agents will inevitably be taken off the market in the days leading up to the signing period. Smart agents know that front offices rarely reveal their best offers until the cusp of free agency, and a relatively new "legal tampering" window (three days of legalized pre-free-agency negotiations between agents and outside suitors) gives them a somewhat accurate picture of what other bidders might do.
As teams prepare to acquire from outside, they've already been active with player deletions: Across the league hundreds of millions of nonguaranteed dollars have been shed from payrolls through terminated contracts, including players who were once marquee free-agent additions (see: Reggie Bush, axed by the Lions on Feb. 25). A glance at the waiver wire this week can serve as a cautionary tale for teams tempted to test the free-agent waters.
Throughout this process relationships with agents are critical, and a trusting, cultivated connection can pay dividends both ways. For example, a team might receive from a cooperative agent an unofficial right to match competing offers. Conversely, negative relationships can infect a player's view of a team. Front offices keep dossiers on every agent; they know how much of what he says to discount based on past dealings. They'll even call out bluffing agents to competitors when they feel used, telling another team's executives, "Just in case he's telling you we're chasing that player, we're not."
It's important to understand that teams don't look at potential free agents in terms of how good they are in a vacuum. Rather, pro personnel departments evaluate how a free agent might fit their system. That makes NFL free agency much more schematic and less seamless than free agency in, say, the NBA or MLB.
The best-managed clubs eventually have agreement from all three sides of their football operation (player personnel, coaching, cap/contract) on any plan to acquire an outside player. Teams get into trouble when, for whatever reason—the thrill of the chase, the emotion of winning a player over a rival—they stray from the plan. In March 2005, with the Packers, I watched our free-agent guard, Marco Rivera, leverage the bidding of two of the NFL's most emotional decision makers: the Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Lions' Matt Millen. In just one hour Marco's signing bonus went from $3 million (our number earmarked to retain him) to $9 million. Jones gleefully "won" that negotiation.
WHILE THERE'S undoubtedly a thrill in the chase, several teams tend to tread lightly in free agency. That was my experience with the Packers; the Patriots, Chargers, 49ers and Bengals often act similarly. These teams watch and wait out the first few days of free agency, where the "stupid money" is spent, then they look for more reasonable prices. That's how we acquired Charles Woodson in 2006: We noticed that he wasn't being run (chased, in front-office parlance) a few days into free agency, and we capitalized on the lukewarm market.
Bottom line: Everyone is trying to gauge where free agents will end up, looking at other teams' schemes and the financial horsepower of rumored suitors. Cap room is a consideration, but everyone in the business knows that's an accounting mechanism, not a predictor of activity. The Saints were among the most cap-constrained teams in the NFL last year, yet they acquired the most expensive (in terms of guaranteed money) free agent in safety Jairus Byrd. If a team really wants a player, the soft NFL cap—it's more of a yarmulke, I'd say—will not stand in the way.
The free-agency bell is about to ring. Gentlemen, open your wallets.
"The waiver wire this week can be a cautionary tale for teams tempted to test the free-agent waters."
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
PACKED UP? Will Green Bay dig deep to retain free agent Randall Cobb? If the Pack get outbid by a deep-pocketed suitor, it won't be the first time, says Brandt.