Coming into the end of the second week of 2013 free agency, big-name free agents like Charles Woodson, James Harrison and Brian Urlacher are still looking for a team. All three players are former NFL Defensive Players of the Year. How can these stars be out of a job this far into free agency? Teams should be fighting over these guys, but that just isn't the case in this depressed market.
These veteran defensive stars aren't alone. You can add a slew of other big names to the list like Randy Moss, Dwight Freeney, John Abraham, Antoine Winfield, Richard Seymour and Terrence McGee. They're out of work right now despite having played in 2012 and wanting to continue their careers.
Why is there such a glut of big-name players still available in the market? Why aren't teams that need veteran leadership and star players to sell tickets not snapping these guys up? Welcome to the wonderful, strange and wacky world otherwise known as 2013 NFL free agency.
This presentation will address a number of factors why market conditions are forcing players like Urlacher, Woodson and Harrison to do a gut-check and wrestle with their self-worth.
1) Laws of Supply and Demand
The 2013 NFL draft has swelled to 254 picks after the compensatory selections were added. There will also be hundreds of undrafted rookie free agents who will be signed to contracts, in hopes of realizing their dream to play in the NFL.
There will be roughly 300 rookies that make the final 53-man rosters or practice squads in 2013. For every new player who comes into the league, a different player from the prior season will clean out their locker and ride off into the sunset.
There will always be a portion of players from the prior year who are openly willing to retire. That is the nature of the game. The hits take their toll over the years, and you can only submit your body to so much physical abuse until it starts to break down.
Some players like Tony Gonzalez think they want to retire but ultimately give in to urging from teammates to change their minds. In Gonzalez's case, a $7 million salary doesn't hurt to put off retirement for another year or two.
But for the rest of the departing players, they had no plans to retire. They will leave the game kicking and screaming their way out the door.
There is no exact science as to how or why the 300 players were selected to depart the game. They could have originally been drafted in any of the seven rounds—it really doesn't matter which one. A new head coach or position coach thinks that this player doesn't fit the 2013 scheme, and he is gone. Players try to come back from serious injuries but aren't able to make it all the way back.
It probably isn't fair why certain players are weeded out from the NFL every year but since when is life always fair? For those who still think they have something left in the tank, they can wait to see if a spot opens up due to an injury. Some have to sit out an entire season and then come back the following year.
2) Waiting for the Big-Name Players and their Agents to Lower the Price Tag
Part of the problem with big-name NFL stars caught in this unemployment predicament is that they don't want to appear desperate. Once you accept a low-ball offer, the rest of the NFL knows this is now how much you are willing to play for. By signing a one-year deal to prove to the rest of the league that you are still viable, that low-ball salary will be the starting point in future negotiations.
NFL players aren't short on confidence, pride or ego. You don't survive in the NFL for 10 years or more without having supreme confidence in your skills and abilities. That high level of confidence also results in tremendous pride, and low-ball offers can feel like a slap in the face to your sense of self-worth.
Between a players' agent, his immediate family, extended family and his posse (for lack of a better term for the acquaintances that view NFL players as their meal ticket), there is tremendous pressure for players to earn as much as they possibly can. They will only be able to make this kind of money for a limited number of years, and then it is time to start the second career.
Case in point: Chicago Bears legendary linebacker Brian Urlacher. According to multiple reports, the Bears offered Urlacher a $2 million salary for 2013, which a number of NFL executives feel was more than generous due to Urlacher's recent level of play.
In an article by Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun Times, Urlacher didn't react favorably to the low-ball offer by the Bears. Jensen wrote:
‘‘What I factored in is what the Bears asked me to do. They talked about me being a great leader, a great locker room guy, but their offer didn’t live up to that. Their offer reflected me hanging out in the locker room and not [playing] any football, like being a coach. That’s a bunch of money, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not what I’m willing to play for the Bears for.’’
Ed Reed wrestled with a similar scenario when he was forced to decide between accepting a lower offer from the Baltimore Ravens or a higher offer from the Houston Texans. Reed finally opted to join the masses and leave the sinking ship in Baltimore for a team that is in a better position to contend in Houston.
3) Popularity and Recent Growth of the NFL
Despite President Obama's recent comments about not wanting to let his son play football due to safety issues, the NFL game is as popular as ever. The NFL continues to develop new fans here and abroad.
Football is attracting a larger number of athletes who want to try out for teams. The regional scouting combines held at 10 different locations around the country prior to the draft are increasing in size every year. This year's tryouts even included female kicker Lauren Silberman, who flopped in her tryout at Florham Park, New Jersey.
The last time that the NFL expanded was in 2002 when the Houston Texans joined the league. It isn't out of the question that the growth and popularity of football is attracting such a large number of athletes that veterans are being kicked out of the game while they are still useful players.
Players like Jimmy Graham are leaving basketball to play in the NFL. If you are big, athletic and you can run, an NFL team will have an interest in granting you a tryout.
If the NFL puts an expansion team in Los Angeles, look at the talent it could add in free agency right now to be competitive in the first year. Nobody else seems to be in a rush to sign these players, so why not our little expansion team?
On Offense: QB—Kevin Kolb and Jason Campbell. RB—Ahmad Bradshaw and LaRod Stephens-Howling. WR—Brandon Lloyd, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Laurent Robinson. TE—Fred Davis and Dallas Clark. Offensive line—Sebastian Vollmer, Eric Winston, Brandon Moore, Eben Britton and Todd McClure. Vollmer can start at left tackle, and Bryant McKinnie can rotate in off the bench.
On Defense: Defensive line—Dwight Freeney, Elvis Dumervil, Richard Seymour and Alan Branch. Linebackers—Karlos Dansby, Nick Barnett, Brian Urlacher and James Harrison. Secondary—Brent Grimes, Nnamdi Asomugha, Charles Woodson and Quintin Mikell. Use Antoine Winfield as your nickel corner and bring in Osi Umenyiora and John Abraham to rotate up front.
Special Teams—Brian Moorman as the punter, Lawrence Tynes as the kicker and Josh Cribbs as your return man.
Get Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher to coach, and I would gladly pay to watch this team play. Okay, that was my pipe dream, to be a general manager for five minutes. But you get the point, there is still very good talent available at the end of the second week of free agency. All these players were available when this went to publication.
4) Salary Cap Management Issues
Take a tour around the NFL and you will see one team after another forced to release veteran players due to problems managing the salary cap.
When Joe Flacco signed his huge deal before free agency began, the Ravens were left with no real operating room against their salary cap. They watched free agents leave the organization, one key player after another. There wasn't much they could do about it other than to wish them well and thank them for their years of service.
The New York Jets had a horrendous salary cap situation and needed to release a number of starters from the 2012 team. As a consequence, their depth has taken a very big hit for 2013.
Other teams have been forced to restructure a number of contracts to get under the 2013 salary cap limit. New Orleans and Dallas are examples of teams that required major work to get under the cap by reworking veteran deals.
Not all restructure situations have a happy ending. The Pittsburgh Steelers asked James Harrison to take a pay cut, and when he refused, the team released him. Elvis Dumervil was approached by Denver to take a cut in pay, and he agreed to do it. But the now infamous fax machine incident by Dumervil's agent led to his release, and Denver taking on a $5 million salary cap hit they didn't plan for.
So when the money simply isn't there in free agency, what other options can these free agents pursue?
5) Playing for a Super Bowl Ring
When players aren't getting offers in the range of what they're worth, it is time to revert to Plan B. Plan B is to take less money, play for a contender, and hope you wind up in the playoffs with a shot at winning a Super Bowl ring. Every player wants to have at least one opportunity before his career is over to have a chance to be on a championship team.
The only problem with Plan B is that the contenders only have so much money available with their salary cap and limited roster openings. Case in point right now is a quartet of pass-rushing free agents: Osi Umenyiora, Dwight Freeney, John Abraham and Elvis Dumervil.
According to an article by Mike Klis of the Denver Post, Umenyiora, Freeney and Dumervil are all represented by the same agent, Tom Condon. Condon would like to orchestrate where his guys land. Ideally, Umenyiora would sign with Atlanta, where he owns a home. Dumervil would sign with Baltimore, and Freeney would take the place of Dumervil in Denver.
That would leave Abraham to sign with New England.
Certain teams have history with agents to the point that they will pass on a player based on who represents him. In this case, this quartet is creating a logjam, and teams will move on to other options if they don't see enough progress or if they think they're being played by the agent.
We saw ex-Ravens safety Ed Reed sign this week with the Houston Texans. He didn't get the amount of money he thought he was worth, but he was willing to compromise because he was going to another contending team.
For the non-contender teams, they can only keep working hard to shake their label and change their image. Until an organization starts posting winning seasons, free agents will only consider them if they are paying more than anybody else or all other options have been exhausted.
6) Cheaper Options Available Through the Draft Thanks to New CBA
Another real issue facing big-name free agents is the inevitable new blood coming into the league that will be much cheaper for teams to retain. Thanks to the latest collective bargaining agreement signed with the NFL owners and the NFLPA, salaries for rookies are much more affordable. The rookies represent significant savings for teams with limited salary cap space.
Forward-looking front offices around the NFL have to weigh difficult decisions. Do we invest $2 or $3 million in a free agent who is on the wrong side of 30, or do we use a pick in the first two rounds to fill that position and have that player under our control for the next four to five years?
In many cases, that is an easy decision to make, and it doesn't favor the veteran free agents.
7) Big Money Went to the Younger Up-and-Coming Stars of the Game
Look at where all of the big money was spent in the first wave of free agency this year—the ages of the players are in parentheses.
Mike Wallace (26), Andy Levitre (26), Louis Vasquez (25), Jared Cook (25), Martellus Bennett (26), Danny Amendola (27), Dannell Ellerbe (27), Paul Kruger (27), Brandon Gibson (25), Philip Wheeler (28), Cliff Avril (26) and Dashon Goldson (28).
It wasn't until the second wave of free agency that the older players like Greg Jennings (will be 30 in September) and Ed Reed (34) signed. But even then, it was for less money than they wanted.
8) Big-name Free Agents Best Days are a Thing of the Past
The final point to address is the very nature of why these big-name free agents are at this juncture in their career to begin with. They're on the wrong side of 30, and their best days are behind them.
A number of the big-name free agents we identified didn't have a great 2012 season. If you look at their ranking or grades in 2012 from Pro Football Focus, they were all in the bottom-third of PFF rankings for their position. (subscription required):
WR Kevin Walter (69), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (62), LB Calvin Pace (31), LB Shaun Phillips (53), LB Keith Brooking (37), LB Brian Urlacher (44), DT Casey Hampton (77), CB Aaron Ross (89), CB Nate Clements (91), CB Nnamdi Asomugha (101), CB Quentin Jammer (107), S Dawan Landry (69) and S Roman Harper (87).
All of these players will be facing an uphill battle to find a favorable contract in free agency this year. Combine advanced age with so-so results on tape doesn't provide much leverage in negotiating a new contract.
After they have hit 30, NFL veterans try to make up for the loss of speed and quickness with their intelligence and experience. But that isn't always enough to get the job done.
So teams bounce low-ball offers past the agents, and they do their negotiations dance until one party finally gives. Entering the third week of free agency, NFL teams will hold the upper hand as the big money that was supposed to be available in free agency has all but disappeared.
As you can see from the issues we presented, there are a number of factors that are going against these big-name free agents. Hopefully for their sake, they can salvage a deal before teams go full-time into draft mode.
Thanks for checking out the presentation. Follow me on Twitter—@DanVanWie