This is when the poker game really begins. These next two weeks will test the patience of NFL front offices and will determine whether many of this year's free agents were right to bet on themselves in the open market.
As expected, the free agency signing period began with a flourish. With extra cap room, many teams went out and aggressively acquired players through signings and trades, and did so at a very high price point, generally speaking, and forked over more guaranteed money than most NFL personnel people thought we'd ever see in this game. What comes as a bit of a surprise is the depth of the signings (the numbers and level of players) and the fact that the prices remain high.
Every GM and capologist we talked to prior to the signing period figured that teams had learned their lessons in recent years and now had a good grasp on the financial and practical pros and cons of the big contract signings, and would be somewhat cautious in this new period of cap surplus. But here we are, two full weeks into the free agent signing period and the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the more cap-savvy teams in the league, have signed WR Kevin Curtis (Rams) to a $32 million deal with nearly $10 million in guaranteed money. This is a player who has started just 11 games in his NFL career, and had a mere 40 catches for 479 yards in 2006. Granted, Curtis had drawn some interest from several teams, and has not had a lot of opportunities to play while sitting behind two of the game's best WR's in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, but we can't help but wonder if Curtis was a player who could have been had for much less money a week from now.
Which brings us to the other side of the argument. There are still five teams; the Panthers, Bears, Bengals, Chargers, and Colts, who have not added a new player through 14 days of the signing period. We mentioned in this space last week that the market begins to turn in the teams' favor around the second week of April, when the draft looms and the player acquisitions finally begin to slow down. But what about the time in between? What about the two weeks that come in between the two weeks of big money signings and the closing of the window two weeks before the draft?
This is when the stare down takes place.
Right now, the players who are still on the open market are seeing that big deals, like the one for Curtis, are still getting done, and probably feel that they can command top dollar in their negotiations with teams. Remember, there are still some big name players out there like Seattle DE Grant Wistrom, Indy LB Cato June, and even RB Corey Dillon. That leads us to believe that we can expect the big money to continue to flow in the coming days despite the logic that prices should start coming down.
Meanwhile, the teams are working hard to hold their ground and hope to sign a veteran for less money. The longer they can wait, the more the tide turns in their favor. But there are several factors that can work against them right now. The biggest factor is the loss of their own free agents. The Eagles, for instance, lost out on WR Donte Stallworth, who signed with New England this week. With only Bethel Johnson as a potential replacement, Philly felt they had to address their need quickly and effectively. That certainly gave Curtis some leverage at the bargaining table.
But the same factors can work against the players at this time of year. The veterans who are still on the street will have some negotiating leverage as long as there is still a chance that they could sign a deal with their most recent team. But some players have lost that leverage. Seattle safety Ken Hamlin was in good negotiating shape until the Hawks signed two safeties in Brian Russell and Deon Grant. He now has to search for a job with a greater sense of urgency, especially considering there are three draft-eligible players that most scouts consider 1st round talents.
It will be interesting to see which teams cave and the coming days, and which teams will be able to hold their ground and make a cap-friendly deal two weeks from now.
TRYING ON THE NEW CAP
Each year at this time the NFL releases adjustments to each team's cap number. This is based on performance-based incentives in each team's player contracts from the 2006 season. These incentives come in two forms, likely to be earned and not likely to be earned. If a team had a clause that was considered likely to be earned (say a five-year starter who would receive bonus money for starting 8 games) but the player didn't earn it during the 2006 season, that money gets put back in the team's cap pool for the 2007 season and added to the $109 million number that was already set. Minnesota, Kansas City, Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Cleveland all benefited significantly and have more than $115 million of cap space.
Likewise, teams that had not-likely-to-be-earned incentives (for example, a rookie free agent who had a clause that would pay him bonus money for starting 16 games in 2006) that were met will lose money off this year's cap. That bonus money wasn't counted towards last year's cap because it wasn't expected to be earned. But if there were contracts where it was, that money will be taken off the 2007 cap number. The Jets and Titans were the two teams hardest hit and lost nearly $4 million in space, while the Dolphins, the Steelers, and the Chargers all lost nearly $3 million in cap space.
That just means that they had a larger group of players who over-delivered on their contracts in 2006, but expect that these adjustments will also have some effect on the way these teams approach the coming days of the free agency period.