What the NFL free agent frenzy was like
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
The strangest of free agent periods in NFL history is almost over. A few unsigned players remain, none of them stars — unless you believe Randy Moss won't stay retired.
So what was the feeding frenzy like and what impact on the NFL will it have?
Consider that the lockout forced the league to conduct business backward in 2011. Usually, free agency is just about done by the time the draft occurs in late April. As soon as the three-day grab bag of college talent ends at Radio City Music Hall, teams scurry to sign undrafted players.
Then come minicamps and offseason workouts, all designed to get newcomers up to speed with incumbents, and to create team chemistry.
None of that happened as normally scheduled, of course, with the free agency dynamics the most affected.
"There was none of the typical courting of free agents," said agent Eugene Parker, who with partner Roosevelt Barnes has represented dozens of NFL players and who had six veteran free agents this year. "Coaches were busy preparing training camps and couldn't get involved much, which is very unusual.
"We were calling teams right away when we were allowed to, and some were calling me right away. We'd have lots of teams on the phone at once. I don't think anyone got much sleep at that point.
"Everyone had done their homework and we were aware of who the teams were that might have interest. But players took visits only to take their physicals and sign. And then they couldn't practice, just watch, until the (CBA) was completed. The players were getting antsy because they were waiting around a long time."
Parker believes many free agents took short-term deals, even one-year contracts, figuring that in seven more months, they would be free again.
"It's really just a five-month season if you don't make the playoffs," he said. "And then you are free again, with all the opportunities in free agency of a normal year."
Parker noted that the new rookie wage scale was not the only way players' salaries were being slotted. He believes every team had a half-dozen or more players ranked at positions of need. If a player was fifth on a team's list, he wouldn't be approached until most of the free agents ahead of him were gone or deemed too costly. He cited cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who signed with Houston once the Texans decided Nnamdi Asomugha, the top overall free agent, was more expensive than they could afford.
Asomugha wound up with Philadelphia for $60 million over five years.
His agent, Ben Dogra, had 35 players up for bidding. Dogra is a partner with Tom Condon at Creative Artists Agency, one of the biggest sports representation firms. Their clients include Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
Dogra said CAA dealt with all 32 teams during the frantic period just after the lockout. It got a bit overwhelming for everyone.
"The craziest point came on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (July 27-29) when I literally couldn't keep with all the calls, emails, and texts," Dogra said. "There was honestly a period of eight to nine hours each day that it was completely nonstop. If I didn't live through it personally, I would say ... 'I don't believe it.' "
Dogra, Parker and most other top agents had enough experience in high-level negotiations with each club's general manager or personnel director that they could get down to negotiations almost immediately. That was essential given the time constraints.
"It helps to have those relationships with the key decision-makers to help navigate through the posturing and find out if there is a deal to be made," Dogra said.
Hundreds of deals were being made throughout the league. Dogra didn't have time to take his own notes, with colleague Mark Heligman keeping his calendar for which teams, clients, and families to call. Parker tried to keep everything simplified, even though this was the most complex two-week transaction period football — and perhaps any sport — has seen.
"The worst part was the uncertainty," Parker said, "but that's a one-year thing. And there won't be the biggest class of free agents like there was this year."
Dogra sees a more level playing field for the teams in future free agency periods. When All-Pros such as Asomugha are making their decisions based primarily on a telephone conversation, that's not the optimum scenario for anyone.
"For any high-level unrestricted free agent, that hasn't happened in recent years," Dogra said. "Typically, those players usually fly to the NFL team city on the morning of the opening day of free agency.
"I know for a fact that it placed some teams at a disadvantage, as well. For teams trying to sign their own unrestricted free agents, it was an non-issue for either party. For some of the better 'recruiting' teams, they didn't have the advantage of being able to showcase their overall package beyond the dollars.
"We may never see a free agency period like this again — or at least for 10 more years."