NFL 2.0

August 07, 2011

On the wildest first week in training-camp history, SI senior writer Peter King went behind the scenes with one Super Bowl hopeful to see how executives, agents and players were navigating the league's radical new landscape

Fifty miles northeast of Atlanta, and Friday night was turning into Saturday morning. A solitary figure strode across a dewy practice field at the Falcons' training complex in Flowery Branch, Ga. All that lit general manager Thomas Dimitroff's path were a few stars and the dim glow from the team's offices 150 yards away. It was 1:05 a.m.

As with so many of his peers last week, the 45-year-old Dimitroff did not work bankers' hours. Nor did he work regular training-camp hours. In fact, it was the strangest week of his two decades in professional football. At 1:30 the previous Monday afternoon, NFL owners and players had agreed on the framework of the collective bargaining agreement, ending the 135-day lockout and jump-starting the league. Consequently the signing period for draft picks and free agents, which normally spans five months, would be compressed into five days as the NFL operated on the fly. Example: Originally the league said teams would be able to make deals with free-agent rookies at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Then, at 6:25 p.m. on Monday it was announced that those negotiations could begin in 35 minutes.

It's the kind of week when a personnel guy might tell his wife and kids he won't be home for a while. "How do you know anything in a week like this?" said Dimitroff last Friday. "None of us has ever been through this before."

This was the end of Day Five. But not really the end, because one day blended into the next, and there was still work to do. Falcons left guard Justin Blalock, 27, was a free agent, and Dimitroff wanted to keep him. The contract needed to get done, which is why the G.M. was now headed through the darkness to the office of Nick Polk, the team's salary cap expert.

Dimitroff knocked lightly and walked in. He found Polk, with an inked-up offer sheet on his desk, talking with Blalock's agent, Ben Dogra, on speakerphone. It had been a busy day for Dogra too: Nine hours earlier he'd landed cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha a five-year, $60 million contract with the Eagles (page 32). After listening in on the back-and-forth for a few minutes, Dimitroff burst into the conversation: "Come on, Benny! Me and you! Come on! We were close four days ago! We gotta close the deal!"

Dogra was hoarse. He laid out his case—again—and Polk and Dimitroff banged home theirs. Dogra cited the Buccaneers' Friday re-signing of guard Davin Joseph for seven years and $53 million; Polk and Dimitroff balked and said Dogra would have to accept an offset clause so that if Blalock was cut with guaranteed money left on the contract, the Falcons' obligation would be reduced by what he made with his new team.

"Our owner says we gotta have an offset," Dimitroff said.

"O.K., I'll give you the offset," Dogra said. "But I get my average per year, my three-year cash number and my guarantee."

"Benny, Benny, Benny," Dimitroff said.

Atlanta entered the week with three major personnel goals: to sign a pass-rushing left end who could provide a strong complement to the aging John Abraham and to ink two of its free agents, Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo, to long-term deals. Clabo agreed on Friday to a five-year, $25 million contract. Dimitroff hoped the promising 27-year-old Blalock would come in at five years for a little above $30 million.

But that was just part of the Atlanta staff's to-do list. The Falcons had to sign their two exclusive-rights free agents, decide which restricted and unrestricted free agents they would pursue (both their own and those from other teams) and fill out their roster with 23 undrafted college free agents, players who in normal years are signed in a two-day window after the draft.

Dimitroff put director of player personnel Les Snead in charge of the undrafted players, and Snead used a staff of nine scouts and administrators to recruit and make agreements with the top names on Atlanta's board. Snead not only had to oversee agreements with the players, but also had to do it all in about five hours because of the intense competition among teams. And then every one of those players had to be on a flight and in camp by Tuesday night, in time to undergo physicals, sign contracts and attend the first team meeting on Wednesday morning.

With so many clubs calling players over such a short time, there were going to be defections. At 11 p.m. on Monday scout Bob Kronenberg, who drew up the short list of offensive linemen, got Nevada tackle Jose Acuna to agree to terms. When Snead came back into the draft room for a 12:30 a.m. update he was told Acuna had switched to the Cowboys. Kronenberg got back to work, and by 9 a.m. on Tuesday he had the next offensive lineman on his list, Stony Brook center Paul Fenaroli, in the fold.

At one point Snead needed a 15-minute mental-health break. He retreated to his office, closed the door and put on some Norah Jones. When he came out he got word that two more players had gone elsewhere. Not to worry, Dimitroff told him. "The cruel reality," the G.M. said, "is that very few of these guys are going to have the chance to sniff our practice squad. So we've just got to move on to the next guy." All 23 rookie free agents were in-house 26 hours after the Falcons hit the phones.

Shortly before 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Dimitroff lay down and heard his phone ping—an e-mail from Polk, maybe 1,000 words long, with a checklist for the next day. Scroll, scroll, scroll. The topics: unrestricted free agents, rookie-pool projections, offers to draft picks, cash and cap projections, contract language for veteran players, travel arrangements for players, how far to go with free-agent contracts. "I hope this wasn't too cumbersome," Polk wrote. Dimitroff's head spun.

The Falcons were 13--3 last year, and though the Packers blew them out in the divisional round of the playoffs, Dimitroff knew his roster didn't have many major holes. After trading up to draft Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones with the sixth pick in April, he could scratch "explosive offensive weapon" off his shopping list. (The move saved him from having to possibly overpay a free-agent wideout such as Sidney Rice, who signed a five-year, $41 million deal with the Seahawks.) That left one big free-agent need: at defensive end, where the Falcons got five sacks combined from Kroy Biermann and Jamaal Anderson last season.

Atlanta had begun the week interested in Panthers free agent Charles Johnson and pursued him when veteran free agency began on Tuesday afternoon. Dimitroff liked Johnson at $7 million a year but not at $12 million, which is what Carolina paid to keep him. At 7 a.m. Friday, Dimitroff decided to waive Anderson and wideout Michael Jenkins, two former first-round picks who never produced at first-round level. That saved $7.8 million in '11 cap room and allowed Polk and Dimitroff to focus on the man they wanted most: Vikings free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards.

The decision to offer Edwards a deal worth half of Johnson's—$27.5 million over five years, with a potential $2.5 million more based on his sack production—was easy. But the process was far from normal. With little time to arrange visits, Dimitroff, coach Mike Smith and owner Arthur Blank got Edwards on a webcam for 75 minutes on Thursday afternoon. "At least you can look at him and get a sense of the kind of person he is," Blank said. "That's how I interviewed Thomas before I offered him the general manager's job."

The strangeness was just as disconcerting to the players. As Dimitroff walked through the locker room on Friday, he saw a gaggle of veterans staring up at a TV, watching ESPN's Adam Schefter reporting the latest news on player movement. "It's a tough time for them," Dimitroff said of the vets. "They're not sure who's coming and going. It's their livelihood, and the roster is still in a state of flux."

Later that afternoon Dimitroff called Edwards's agent, Doug Hendrickson, to go over terms. "Dougie Fresh!" said Dimitroff. "We got a deal on Ray?"

"We got a deal," said Hendrickson. "You're getting a hell of a player, and a hell of a kid."

Shortly after Dimitroff finished the call, Polk walked into the G.M.'s office and said, "We've got to change one thing." He went to the grease board, wiped off an escalator clause for the 26-year-old Edwards and scribbled new numbers, showing Dimitroff how he'd changed the clause with Hendrickson at the end of the negotiation. "If you do a per-year escalator," Polk said, "that could be a one-year spike in production. We'd rather do the escalator based on what a player does over three or four years."

"Great," said Dimitroff. "It's better for us."

Finally on Friday afternoon Dimitroff got to see his players practice. He stood in the middle of the field as his offense ran plays 50 yards away. He watched for Jones's quickness off the line and gauged how well backup wideout Kerry Meier, projected to replace waived veteran Brian Finneran, was running after knee surgery last year.

"See you for a second?" said trainer Marty Lauzon. Dimitroff walked to a quiet spot, where Lauzon told him that backup tight end Robbie Agnone—who'd missed 2010 with a foot injury—had reinjured the foot. Dimitroff went back to the drills. Five minutes later Polk pulled him aside to tell him that Jason Snelling, a core Falcons special teams player, wanted to test the market. Then assistant director of player personnel Lionel Vital came by to tell Dimitroff that veteran defensive end Ty Warren, cut earlier in the day by the Patriots, might be available for a minimum contract.

Around 10 that night Dimitroff walked through the locker room, a man in need of levity. He found it. The just re-signed Clabo was chuckling at some construction work his teammates had spent far too much time on. A few cardboard boxes had been sculpted into a faux ATM. Someone had written TYSON CLABO, ACCT BALANCE $12,000,000—the amount of Clabo's signing bonus.

"That is fantastic!" Dimitroff said.

"Evidently," said Clabo, "these guys don't know about the concept of income tax yet."

Funny thing is, Dimitroff was loving it. "When Smitty and I came here in 2008," he said, referring to his coach, "one of my goals was that we were going to enjoy this journey. We were going to create an environment where people liked coming to work and building a great product. So when we're negotiating Justin Blalock's contract, it's not like I'll say to Nick Polk, 'Get this damn thing done, Nick!' This is part of the process, so let's enjoy it. And if we can't, let's at least enjoy the challenge of building the team in a time when football's changing."

That explained Dimitroff's smile in the wee hours last Saturday morning as he listened to Dogra launch into a metaphor about an episode of The Brady Bunch, whose meaning no one was too clear on. It was getting late—it was late—and people were punchy. "So just kiss your sister," Dogra said. "I'm 6.75, you're 6.33. The number's 6.5. That's what it is."

Maybe, but not tonight. It would take a few more calls, but the collegiality in the room suggested both sides knew a deal was coming. (Indeed, Blalock would be signed on Sunday for six years, $38 million.)

"Look," said Dogra, "I know you guys take care of your players. We gotta get this done. Justin wants to be there. We're close enough. We're going to get this done."

"Go home, Benny," said Dimitroff. "Do the lotus. Do yoga. Relax. Attack it in the morning." Dimitroff's watch read 1:16. He went back to get some sleep. Four hours of it.

Peter King's Blog

Follow King's monthlong motor home tour of training camps at peterking.si.com

DIMITROFF BURST INTO THE CALL: "COME ON, BENNY! ME AND YOU! WE GOTTA CLOSE THE DEAL!"

PHOTOPhotograph by BOB ROSATOUSE YOUR HEAD On Saturday in Flowery Branch, quarterback Matt Ryan (2) was on the field getting reacquainted with the Atlanta attack. TWO PHOTOSBOB ROSATOGENERALLY MANAGING Even as players like defensive tackle Corey Peters (left) worked out the kinks, Dimitroff (above) was still piecing together the Falcons' personnel puzzle.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)