You’ll hear a lot about free agency and the rules over the next three weeks. There will be breathless speculation over what will go down during the NFL’s so-called “tampering period,” a 48-hour stretch when teams and agents can legally negotiate for the first time. There’ll be clocks counting down to March 14 at 4 p.m.
Just know this: Pretty much all of it is for show. The deals that will be done in 20 days? Those are real. But most of the other stuff you’ll hear between now and then isn’t much above fiction.
Listen to the words of one prominent agent, who’s going back with us through a timeline from a few years back, when a client of his hit the market. At this point, the agent is recounting leaving the combine in Indianapolis, with a week left before the legal tampering period, and how he absolutely knew by then that: A) he had his financial figure, and B) at least two teams would pay it.
“I knew they were all in, like all in, more than before the combine—way more in,” said the agent. “There was still a smattering of others, but I wasn’t feeling overly confident that we were going to have five or 10. All I cared about was, Do I have the number that I predicted? By then, you don’t care who. The week before free agency, it’s more about, ‘Hey, I got my number.’ Everything else is smoke and mirrors.”
The made-for-TV song and dance will have you thinking there’s some furious dash to squeeze everything that goes into franchise-shifting and life-altering decisions for teams and player into those two days. The truth is what the agent here is saying: He knew what he had.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll delve into the Dolphins’ dilemma with the franchise-tagged Jarvis Landry; break down the idea of adding a bye week to the regular season for the sake of Thursday Night Football; explain why Jon Gruden is just what Derek Carr needs; look at the Panthers’ call to stick with no-longer-interim GM Marty Hurney; give you the two best players in the draft; and much more.
But we’re going to start with how that agent knew what his player was about to get, and even had a pretty good idea of where he was going, even though he wasn’t supposed to be talking to anyone except the rights-holding team about that player.
If you follow the NFL closely, and you were born before yesterday, you probably know that teams and agents alike treat the rules governing free agency like glorified yellow lights. What you might not know is to what degree everyone has their foot on the gas in advance of being able to legally contact the proverbial belles of the ball.
To illustrate that, we enlisted this agent to take us through the process he went through to make one of his clients wealthy beyond his wildest dreams a few years ago. Because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, we granted anonymity. It was the only way to write this story, given how blatant the rule-breaking is.
So we’ll start with the summer before the final year of the Player X’s deal.
• JULY: A position coach from (NFC Team 1), who previously worked with the player, calls the agent: “Hey, what are you up to? I wanted to come (there) and visit with some agents of guys we’re interested in. We’re looking to build relationships.” Strange, the agent thought, since he had no clients on (NFC Team 1). But it was intriguing enough. So he took the meeting.
The ensuing lunch lasted almost three hours. On the way out, the agent said, “I guess the old adage holds true, If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” The coach responded that (NFC Team 1) was trying to think outside the box. But the agent took a distinct feeling away after seeing what this team had just done for his player. “No matter what (Original Team) told me, I knew I’d have multiple suitors.”
• LATE AUGUST: The agent gets a message from the GM of (Original Team) saying they plan to meet with his player the next day about the contract, which sets off the agent. “Drove me nuts,” he said. “Those meetings are done to drive a wedge between the agent and player. They should be illegal.”
Nonetheless, before the start of the meeting, the agent lays out what he expects over the first three years of a new deal, and the team’s offer comes back with a full guarantee totaling just 28 percent of that figure. To that point, other teams haven’t called much. But he cuts off talks with (Original Team) after 28 percent offer. And word gets around.
• EARLY OCTOBER:On this Sunday, (Original Team) is playing (AFC Team 1), and the head coach for (Original Team) is standing a few feet away from the head coach and a coordinator for (AFC Team 1). The coordinator, who previously coached the player, brazenly walks right up to the agent, in front of everyone, and says, “I saw my boy! Keep him fresh for me. I’m coming for him!”
Later in pregame, the agent goes to his player. “Bro, (AFC Team 1 coordinator) just came up to me.” The player cuts him off, answering, “Yeah, yeah, we talked.”
A few weeks later, the agent is at another game, and a cap manager for (NFC Team 2) approaches him: “So what are going to do with (the player)?” The agent answered, “What are you going to do with him?” Which is met with, “I think we go after him.”
• NOVEMBER/DECEMBER: Such conversations at games pick up. By the end of season, the agent is being asked by almost any decision-maker he sees on the field about what (the player) will do in March. (NFC Team 3) tells the agent they’ll meet with him at the combine, and two officials from that club make a point of staying in constant contact. (AFC Team 2) has its general manager on it.
The agent comes out of the season with a list of a half-dozen teams he believes will be strong suitors for the player’s services.
• MID-JANUARY: For the first half of the month, while a host of teams get aggressive in courting the agent, (AFC Team 3) in particular asserts itself. This started with a simple text message in November. As time went on, the agent was told the team’s analytics department loved the player coming out of college, and the GM felt he’d fouled that up. And the GM now wanted to fix his mistake.
The agent is starting to get ballpark numbers, and so he implores (AFC Team 3) to “post a score.” But they won’t. So he knows at that point that he has a host of contenders, and a lead dog. What he doesn’t have is a definitive price.
The agent makes the call not to go to the East/West Shrine Game or Senior Bowl. He feels, for that point in the calendar, he’s done what was necessary and doesn’t need the solicitation that comes at those events. It’s right around then, too, that teams retreat. Pro staffs are putting together their free-agent boards, teams with new staffs are teaching scouts what they look for in players, and budgets are being set.
• SUPER BOWL: The agent and his wife run into the GM of (NFC Team 4) at the Nike Suite in a Super Bowl hotel. They have this exchange:
“Are you drinking?” asks the GM.
“Hell yeah,” the agent answers.
“I love you,” the GM responds.
“I love you too,” the agent shoots back.
“Will my love and friendship get me (the player)?” the GM says.
“Yeah, that and (gigantic dollar figure) per year,” the agent says.
“It’s gonna be that high, isn’t it?” says the GM.
The figure the agent throws out was 15 percent more than the three-year outlay he proposed to (Original Team) five months earlier. And the GM’s acceptance of the figure serves as a turning point. “It was the first time my number made sense,” the agent says.
The two had been tepidly talking about the player for a couple months. They leave the suite with an agreement to keep talking.
• MID-FEBRUARY: The agent sets up meetings with all 32 teams for Indianapolis, as clubs come out of their personnel meetings and the lines of communication reopen. And the trip is made to Indianapolis with the agent having ballpark knowledge of what the player is worth, and an idea of who the suitors will be.
• LATE FEBRUARY: When all’s said and done, 27 meetings happen on a variety of the agent’s clients. All bring (the player) up. Who’s serious crystallizes. (NFC Team 3) and (AFC Team 2) are clearly out. (NFC Team 1) is out too, after a coaching change and moves to re-sign its own players. And so is (NFC Team 4), which has taken care of its need. That said, there are two meetings that stand out.
The first happens at a bar in Indy. An exec from (NFC Team 5), which hasn’t shown previous interest, says, “Buy a drink.” The agent asks, “Aren’t we having a meeting?” The exec comes back: “No, we’re not having a meeting, get a drink,” before bringing in another team exec. Then, the exec says they’re at the same per-year number the agent had proposed to (NFC Team 4) at the Super Bowl, “So get a drink.”
The second is with negotiators from (AFC Team 1). The agent and an associate get interrogated about what they’re looking for, to the point where, in the middle of the meeting, the agent writes on a legal pad for his associate to see: I’m telling you, they’re spies for (GM of the Original Team). Five minutes after the meeting ends, (Original Team) calls the agent and makes a verbal below-market offer.
• POST-COMBINE: The agent leaves Indy knowing roughly what his client will get, with a good idea of where he’s going. He sees (NFC Team 5) and (AFC Team 3)—one a new contender, the other a favorite throughout—as the leaders in the clubhouse with, as he described at the top of this story, a handful of teams hanging on the fringes.
The agent tells his player that in the interim, those days leading into the tampering period, things will likely be quiet, a dynamic he believes teams use to make players uneasy and drive down prices. He assures his client they know his worth, and it can only go up from there. And it does.
• TAMPERING PERIOD: A third serious suitor emerges. It’s (AFC Team 1), which comes with a strong proposal. As a result, the price rises. But the whole thing comes down, as expected, to (NFC Team 5) and (AFC Team 3). The deal is finalized on the back end of the tampering period.
The player’s three-year take winds up being 38 percent better than what the agent asked from (Original Team) in September, and 20 percent better than what (NFC Team 4) and (NFC Team 5) said that they were willing to pay in the weeks prior.
The winner? It’s the latecomer to the party, (NFC Team 5). And by latecomer, we mean that team got involved at the combine. Which, of course, is still before anyone is supposed to be talking.
Just another yellow light that everyone speeds through.
FIRST AND 10
1. Titans LB Avery Williamson and Panthers G Andrew Norwell are two good examples of the inequities of the franchise tag. Because the linebacker number (about $14 million) is based on pass rusher salaries and the offensive line number (a little more than $14 million) is based on left tackle salaries, those guys have a better chance than they would to spring free. No such luck for tight ends (not grouped with receivers) or safeties (not grouped with corners).
2. You want news on the catch rule? Well, you might not get it next week, but at the very least it will be discussed. The competition committee has it on its agenda for its meetings at the combine.
3. Colts QB Andrew Luck didn’t just start his rehab work with throwing coaches Tom House and Adam Dedeaux in Orange County. I understand their first session was the day before the Super Bowl (almost three weeks ago), and that was after Luck got a physical assessment out there. Is that good news? Well, yes, in that he’s been out there awhile without a setback.
4. Does Trevor Siemian actually have trade value? He should have a little. At $1.9 million, he’s exceedingly cheap in this era for a backup quarterback, and he has 24 starts under his belt. Plus, he has experience in the Shanahan iteration of the West Coast offense, which is popping up all over the NFL.
5. Pro Football Talk dug up Josh Gordon’s status in regards to free agency Wednesday, and it’s great news for the Browns. He’s an exclusive rights free agent now, which means he’s going nowhere. If he signs the one-year tender, then he’ll be a restricted free agent next year, which gives the team two full years of control, and an extended chance to see if Gordon truly has gotten his life right.
6. Based on this week, it’s clear that the Lamar Jackson debate will be a lively one over the next two months. Bill Polian isn’t the first football person I’ve heard suggest a position change, which isn’t in any way to say it should happen. But it is clear teams have questions about Jackson’s consistency as a passer. He’ll have to answer for those next week, and throughout the process.
7. I’m not sure that any team will hitch its future to AJ McCarron, but that won’t be necessary for McCarron to get paid. The template for McCarron might be Philly in 2016 or Chicago last year, where a veteran (Sam Bradford, Mike Glennon) gets paid before the team in question drafts a quarterback high. That over-investment in the position is trendy now, and could be part of the idea for Cleveland or Arizona or Denver (if the Broncos strike out on Kirk Cousins).
8. Texans LB Brian Cushing, after nine years in Houston, tells me he’s full speed ahead and planning to continue his playing career, despite all the injury problems.
9. The Eagles’ promotion of receivers coach Mike Groh to coordinator comes as no surprise to the guys on staff. Head coach Doug Pederson gives each offensive coach a little piece of the big picture, and last year Groh’s area of responsibility was third down. Everyone saw the job Groh would be capable of doing in an expanded role.
10. The emergence of hedge fund manager/Steelers minority owner David Tepper as a candidate to buy the Panthers once again shows the folly in this day and age in assuming buyers have to have roots in a team’s home city. The NFL, for awhile now, has had a queue of guys who want in—and guys like Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and Jags owner Shad Khan came off it recently to get clubs that they had no natural tie too. It’s necessary now, too, given that the price point of these teams have severely limited the number of tycoons capable of writing the checks necessary.
1. The complex case of Jarvis Landry. I don’t think anyone should be convinced that the Dolphins are keeping Landry, the four-year veteran wideout whom they just franchised. Miami is going to purge veterans just to get some breathing room ahead of the new league year, and even then will be limited. Having Landry’s number hovering around $16 million (it’d be $16.05 million if the cap is $178 million) doesn’t exactly enhance their flexibility. And that the Dolphins did this as quickly as they did, on the first day teams are allowed to hit players with franchise tags, is as sure a sign as any that they’ll explore their options. Usually teams wanting to do long-term deals with players on expiring contracts won’t tag them until the last minute, because it can hurt the team’s leverage if the player has that hard number to work off of. Conversely, franchising a guy early maximizes the window for the team to shop the player before the league year begins (March 14), and that player’s number hits the team’s books.
So would the Dolphins do a long-term deal with Landry? They re-signed Kenny Stills last year at $8 million per, and a new deal for former first-round pick Devante Parker, who’s still trying to realize his considerable potential, could be pricey to keep in a year or two. Landry, meanwhile, is one of the game’s best slots but can be a headache at times. Most of his blowups have come on game day and have been over not getting the ball, which makes him like a lot of young guys at his position. There was one pretty recently too, during the team’s loss at Kansas City on Christmas Eve. But the vibe I’ve gotten from his coaches is that while Landry needs to work on controlling his mood swings, they aren’t totally unmanageable.
“At the end of the day, he’s really no different than any other really, really good player at his position,” said one coach. “He has his moments, but he comes every day, and he works. And on Sundays, you want him on your team. Is he perfect? No. But he’s not belligerent. … Jarvis practices hard, and he’s willing to give his left leg to win on Sundays, and so I don’t see him in a bad light.”
Slot receivers, in general, are difficult to value contractually. It’s basically the same as looking at a guard vs. a left tackle, or an off-ball linebacker vs. a pass-rusher. The tags are high for these players based on the value of guys whose jobs are very different from theirs, with skills sets that are harder to find. Landry, in other words, is really good, but he’s not Antonio Brown or DeAndre Hopkins. For now, though, his price tag is in that neighborhood. We’ll see if stays there.
2. Derek Carr is getting the kind of tune-up he needs. Scott Price did a bang-up job with his profile on new/old Raiders coach Jon Gruden. My main takeaway from the piece? The same lunatic we knew in Oakland and Tampa hasn’t changed much. Gruden still will be coaching/riding his players hard, which isn’t for everyone. But it is a good thing for the most important guy on his roster. Derek Carr can use it.
Carr might not have gotten enough tough love recently. In 2015 and ’16, when Carr’s progress was being moved into overdrive, then-Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was the one who kept him on his toes, and from getting too comfortable. In the process, Carr grew close to quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. It was that relationship that, ultimately, prompted Jack Del Rio to make the move before the 2017 season to promote Downing and move on from Musgrave. A few months later, Carr got his new contract. And while he wasn’t asking to be coddled, Carr wasn’t being put on edge the same way he had been when Musgrave was around, and some in the building believed his play suffered for it.
In the end, after Carr got his contract, and his guy became coordinator, there were few there willing (or able) to challenge him. Fair to say, Gruden has both the pelts and the stomach to push Carr like hasn’t been pushed before. And it’d probably benefit Carr as a leader too, for his teammates to see him go through it. “It’s not Derek Carr’s show anymore,” said one source, “and I think that’s a good thing.”
3. Thursday Night solutions?NFLPA president Eric Winston hit the nail on the head in his talk with Sirius XM NFL Radio the other day, in saying he wanted a “longer runway” leading into Thursday Night Football games. That, in fact, is exactly what the league should be examining. And it wouldn’t be that hard to pull off: just expand the NFL schedule to 18 weeks and give each team two byes. That way, the league could finagle the schedule for each team to get its natural bye, and the Sundays off going into and out of TNF. For the players, the benefit would be that they’d be playing one more game on extra rest, and they’d still get the “mini-bye” that they all like coming out of a Thursday.
For the league and networks, they’d get better rested teams and, in theory, better games as a result. Plus they’d get an extra Sunday added to the schedule to sell. It also could help the league in expanding its slate of International Series games. And it could push the Super Bowl to President’s Day weekend (that would take pushing the schedule back another week after Labor Day, plus adding the extra week to the season), which the league has long discussed and which many believe would lead to even better ratings during a sweeps period.
The downside is an extra week of work for the players, and it would further dilute the schedule to some degree. To me, I don’t think those things are nearly enough to outweigh the potential shared positives here. And I don’t think the public would reject another week of football. But maybe I’m nuts. What I do know is that the union: A) has been told in the past that TV partners have pushed back on the idea, and B) intends to discuss the idea again with league officials in Indianapolis.
4. Panthers same as they were.I’ll tell you what Carolina did this week—a favor for the next owner of the team. In keeping Marty Hurney as the team’s general manager, the Panthers retained a guy with a living, breathing résumé as part of the established program in Charlotte. Between Hurney and coach Ron Rivera, the new owner will come in knowing exactly what he has, with an ability to stay the course after the 2018 season or change direction.
And that’s why I don’t get people saying that this would be an issue for whoever buys the team. If a new general manager comes in, then the head coach is under evaluation and a new program will need time to take root. This way, it’s much easier and cleaner for the next owner, with a track record in place to assess. It’s better for the team too. Hurney hired Rivera, and Hurney was the guy Rivera favored last summer after ex-GM Dave Gettleman was shown the door. It became clear that Hurney, despite what was said publicly, was trying to build a case to keep the job, and the way Rivera’s team played bolstered his argument. And over the last seven months, they’ve made decisions to benefit both the short term and the long term—the Kelvin Benjamin trade was one move that showed Hurney was hoping to stick around for a while.
So they can move forward with their plan, too, coming off an 11-5 year and armed with four of the top 90 picks in the draft. The fact is, no one knows where the franchise is going to be in a year. Which is why sticking with the status quo makes all the sense in the world, for now.
LESSON OF THE WEEK
Did my second mock draft this week, and I’ve been talking to scouts about this class going all the way back to September. And I feel comfortable saying that, as I see it, the top two players in this year’s class likely will be a running back and a guard. The former is Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, latter is Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson.
Though their talent is elite, their positions will hurt them. And with the combine revving up next week, that’s our lesson for this week: Much of who goes at the top of this year’s draft will come down to position.
At least going in, there are four quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen) with a shot at going inside the top 10. There’s also a pass-rusher, N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb, who’s considered a safe prospect, if a little unspectacular. And there’s also a raw but flashy pass rusher (Marcus Davenport) and a pair of very solid DBs (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Denzel Ward) who should go very high.
The point is, teams will consider taking a little less to fill a hole at those premium positions, rather than getting a blue-chip prospect at a spot they might be able to address with lower-end currency.
“There are a lot of receivers and a lot of running backs in the National Football League,” said one AFC exec. “There are only so many corners, only so many pass rushers, only so many quarterbacks and left tackles. And that’s why the highest paid guys are at those spots, and why they go so high in the draft. It’s because there’s a scarcity of them.
“So it’s not that Nelson and Saquon aren’t two of the best, if not the best, players in the draft. It’s that there’s not a scarcity of those kinds of guys. It’s supply and demand in the draft, as well as just taking the best players. A lot of people say it’s just ‘take the best player,’ but that’s not practical.”
To drive home the point, let’s pull Barkley and Chubb out of the group, and consider the decision that Colts GM Chris Ballard has to make with the third overall pick, if quarterbacks go 1-2 to the Browns and Giants. Generational running back or very good edge rusher?
The first thing you’ll ask, of course, is how good each player is. Second? Can we fill the hole those guys would plug later in the draft. Indianapolis picks again at 36 overall. So let’s look at the top 10 guys, based on where they were drafted, available at each position last year at 36.
• Running backs (draft position in parantheses): Dalvin Cook (41), Joe Mixon (48), Alvin Kamara (67), Kareem Hunt (86), D’Onta Foreman (89), James Conner (105), Samaje Perine (114), Tarik Cohen (119), Joe Williams (121), Donnell Pumphrey (132).
• Edge rushers: Tyus Bowser (47), Ryan Anderson (49), DeMarcus Walker (51), Tanoh Kpassagnon (59), Dwaune Smoot (68), Jordan Willis (73), Daeshon Hall (77), Tim Williams (78), Tarell Basham (80), Derek Rivers (83).
If you go deeper, you’re scratching for edge rushers (Deatrich Wise, Carl Lawson), while there continue to be productive backs (Jamaal Williams, Marlon Mack, Wayne Gallman, Aaron Jones). And if you want to go to the undrafted players, you’ll find Eagles Super Bowl hero Corey Clement among the backs.
As for Nelson, you can do the same thing with guards. Among the four starters in the Super Bowl at the position were a second-round pick, two third-rounders and a fourth rounder.
And to be clear, this isn’t to denigrate either Barkley or Nelson. Barkley embodies the 21st-century prototype at his position—a 230-pounder capable of playing on all three downs—and Nelson may be the best prospect at his spot in decades.
It’s just that some positions are harder to fill than others, and it’s just as our exec explained. It’s why quarterbacks get pushed way up the board. It’s why left tackles and corners and pass rushers do to a certain degree, as well. And it’s why a couple truly great prospects might get passed on by a few teams before they hear their names called in April.
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