When the dominoes started falling this week in this one-of-a-kind free agency period, the operative word for teams all over the NFL was easy to identify: re-signed. As in the process of clubs prioritizing the pursuit of their own free agents, an occurrence we saw played out time and time again in the market's opening days.
Flushed with spending money after last year's salary cap purge, Carolina moved quickly to retain both defensive end Charles Johnson and running back DeAngelo Williams. Baltimore refused to let guard-tackle Marshal Yanda get away, Pittsburgh jumped in hastily to keep cornerback Ike Taylor off the market, the Jets made sure receiver Santonio Holmes stayed at home, and San Diego won a bidding war with a couple teams to ensure itself the continued services of safety Eric Weddle.
And those were just some of the most prized headline names in the free agent market. There were plenty more examples of players who decided the grass really wasn't greener elsewhere this year: Santana Moss, Doug Free, Tyson Clabo, Drayton Florence, Davin Joseph and Lance Moore, to name just a few.
All told as of Friday mid-morning, I counted 54 of the reported 90 free-agent signings (or a whopping 60 percent) as players being re-signed by the teams they played for in 2010. That number obviously is changing by the minute as deals continue to stream in, but the percentage was even higher in the opening two days of the free agent negotiation season, before teams started to turn their attention more so to trades and the rest of the free agent market on Thursday.
The reasons behind this year's sign-your-own trend in free agency are several, and it's not just a case of clubs suddenly deciding to love the one you're with. It has plenty to do with the unique circumstances of this year's post-lockout free agency, a scenario that has greatly altered the thinking of many teams.
"It really is the perfect storm of circumstances this year,'' one veteran club executive told me this week. "It's a very rare year with a different set of considerations, and it may never happen this way again. With the entire offseason wiped out, teams really want players who know the system, know the playbook, know the city, know the building, know the locker room. And that's your guys. You know them, they know you, and you know what you're going to get from them.
"All things being equal or close to equal with the money, when you're getting a similar type player for about the same money, and you already know what he can do, why wouldn't you re-sign your guys this year of all years? It's worth it to you if it's even close in terms of money.''
By the very nature of the time constraints inherent in this year's free agency period, teams looked at their own priority free agents as the natural place to start their roster building for 2011. For starters, you didn't have the time or the ability to set up visits with free agents from other teams as in every other year. Free agent visits with players from other teams can only commence at 6 p.m. ET Friday night, the official opening of free-agent signing season. Only negotiations and agreements have been allowed since Tuesday morning.
With free agency, the trading period, draft pick and rookie collegiate free agent signing and the opening of training camps all happening virtually at once thanks to the late-arriving labor deal, teams had little choice but to dance with the one they brought.
And there was another time-sensitive factor to consider this year. With the new CBA not expected to be fully ratified and in place until Aug. 4, signing a free agent from another team means the first time he can practice with his new club is barely a week to 10 days shy of its first preseason game. No wonder teams were hesitant to go after some of the big fish in this year's free agent pond, with virtually no time to acclimate them to their new surroundings. All of this year's rules and circumstances seemed to encourage teams re-signing their own players.
"We [the teams] didn't get that exclusive three-day window to negotiate with our own free agents that the league wanted [in the CBA], but we kind of did any way,'' the club executive said. "Because the way it worked out this year, the system really favored you dealing with your own guys. With this timetable, it made it easier to be able to talk to your players than other teams' players. You couldn't meet with those guys this week. You could meet with your guys.''
As one NFL head coach characterized it via email Wednesday, this just wasn't the year to take big risks in free agency, throwing stacks of money at players you don't know well, and who might have been sitting around on the couch for the past five months: "You just don't have time to get an unfamiliar big-money guy up to speed this year, with no OTAs or offseason program,'' he wrote. "So it's a big risk to bring them in and have them sit out the first week of practice, then expect them to live up to expectations.''
But it wasn't a case of just the clubs having an advantage in sticking with their own players, the club executive said. That dynamic swung both ways, and many free agent players realized the wisdom of re-signing with their own teams rather than making a last-minute move in late July or early August.
"Yeah, it scares some of these guys,'' the club executive said. "They've been out of football for so long. They're not fresh. They're anxious to get back. Their families are anxious. They want to be comfortable, and that's part of this too. We've had more of our own free agents tell us that they want to come back and they want to get it wrapped up with us. We may not want them all back, but they want to come back.''
Teams such as Carolina, Tampa Bay, Detroit, San Diego, New Orleans, Atlanta and Pittsburgh jump out as the most aggressive teams this week in terms of keeping their own priority free agents. That's a spectrum that runs from the lowest rung of the current NFL hierarchy -- the 2-14 Panthers of a year ago -- to the defending AFC champion Steelers.
The sheer volume of this year's free-agent class -- more than 500 players -- has worked against the signing frenzy that some predicted. Though the pace of the action has picked up as the week has gone on, the level of activity still has been lower than expected.
"Teams made contract offers to a lot of their own players before the lockout began, and some of them were very good offers,'' the club executive said. "But very few guys took those offers. I think the smartest teams left them on the table after the lockout was over. But the circumstances are different now. Before the lockout, nobody knew what the cap was going to be. Nobody knew it was going down to $120 million [per team]. Now, in this cap environment, some of those early offers were good offers, and they got accepted [after the lockout]. Things have changed.''
The impact of numerous salary cap cuts, many bestowed upon quality veterans, has only further diluted the market and prompted teams to take some time before they shop, knowing that the talent pool is deep and bargains can be had if you are patient. All in all, it seems to be a bad year to hit the free agent market. Some players have told fellow players that they're happy to be locked up this year, and not out there fighting for free-agent attention and dollars.
"All the cap casualties this week, they're only going to drive down the prices in free agency,'' the club executive said. "There have been some very good players who were cap cuts, and they're not going to be getting as much elsewhere as they were scheduled to make with their old teams. They're going to be playing somewhere for less money, and there's enough of them to affect the free agent market. You can find good players in this market, and not for the very top salaries.
"There have been a few big deals, but not that many so far, and nothing really silly. It's been pretty reasonable, not like I thought it might go. Teams have been pretty selective. And history says the deals are only going to go down from here. They're not going up. They're usually as high as they're going to get from the start, and then they go down.''
In a year like none other in the NFL, the lockout continues to impact the league even though it has finally lifted and labor peace has been reached. One obvious ramification has been felt in free agency, where the early trend of teams locking up their own players first and foremost has been a very popular maneuver. Football is indeed back, but for scores of free agents, the wait continues.