NEW YORK (CBSNewYork / AP) — Here we go. Football is back — with a vengeance.
Now that the lockout is done, there are about 1,000 veterans, draft picks and undrafted rookies that need to be signed by the Jets, Giants and 30 other NFL clubs. Each contract must fit the boundaries of the new, still-being-understood labor deal, such as each club’s cumulative payroll being within the new salary cap.
Oh, this also needs to be done by the start of the preseason in little more than two weeks — although, preferably, much of it will be done this weekend.
“It’s going to be a madhouse,” said agent Jordan Woy. “Very strange, very interesting.”
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The first shot was fired Tuesday morning, with teams allowed to sign their own free agents, draft picks and undrafted players, plus make trades and start wooing Nnamdi Asomugha and hundreds of other veteran free agents. Those deals can’t be signed until Friday.
The Giants were quick to sign undrafted free agent Mark Herzlich, a cancer survivor out of Boston College.
“Decision is made I will be a #GIANT can’t wait to get to #NYC. Thank you for everything,” Herzlich tweeted on Tuesday morning.
The Jets landed an undrafted rookie of their own, former Notre Dame offensive lineman Chris Stewart.
“I got a one way ticket to New York,” he tweeted. “J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!!”
The Jets have plenty more work to do with their roster. New York has 16 unrestricted free agents to address, including wide receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith, defensive backs Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool and Eric Smith, and defensive end Shaun Ellis. They also have one restricted free agent: offensive lineman Robert Turner. The Jets designated linebacker David Harris as their franchise player and he signed his tender before the lockout, but could now be looking for a long-term extension.
For the Jets, don’t underestimate what some are calling the “Rex Factor.”
“Teams aren’t able to kick the tires,” one agent told the New York Post. “I think after you get through the first tier of players, I think the Jets have a tremendous advantage having Rex.”
There are 13 Giants on the unrestricted free agent list, including receiver Steve Smith, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, tight end Kevin Boss, defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and defensive tackle Barry Cofield.
“For some guys, it’s going to be a big game of musical chairs,” agent Joe Linta said. “You better sit in the first chair you see and not wait for another.”
The other Giants’ unrestricted free agents are linebacker Chase Blackburn and Keith Bulluck, receivers Michael Clayton and Derek Hagan, guard Kevin Boothe, safeties Deon Grant and Michael Johnson, quarterback Jim Sorgi and defensive end Dave Tollefson.
Another key date is Thursday, when teams can start cutting players to help get under the salary cap.
For players in high enough demand that they can shop around, Linta said they can forget wining-and-dining, cross-country tours. Instead, he expects it to be like speed-dating.
“You go through eight of them quickly and pick one you like,” he said.
Receiver Sidney Rice is among the biggest names who could switch teams. Defensive end Ray Edwards and offensive tackle Doug Free are sure to be targeted by plenty of clubs, too. Matt Hasselbeck and Marc Bulger are veteran quarterbacks who will be looking for a good fit.
Quality players will be available at every position because the pool of free agents was expanded to include players coming off their fourth and fifth years. Instead of being restricted free agents unlikely to move because of the penalties attached, they’re as free as the older veterans who already knew they’d be unrestricted.
Although there are about 900 players already under contract, dozens of them will be dropped as teams try getting their finances in order. Donovan McNabb, Vince Young and perhaps Reggie Bush are more big names who could move into the mix.
Then there are the other offseason items finally moving to the top of the to-do list: Philadelphia possibly trading Kevin Kolb and Titans running back Chris Johnson wanting a huge raise to guarantee he reports to training camp.
The salary cap will be $120,375,000, but the real game-changer is that teams must spend at least 99 percent in cash — meaning not in deferred payments — this season.
Teams also will be allowed to go over the cap by about $3.5 million this season, and they can “borrow” $3 million in cap room from a future year.
As if all that isn’t enough, there’s an extra layer of work for everyone. Training-camp rosters have been expanded from 80 to 90, which means another 320 fringe players to be signed — and another 320 contracts for the league office to process.
Then again, it’s not like this is sneaking up on anyone. Team executives and agents have spent the entire lockout getting ready.
Teams have lists of players they want and an idea of how much they’re willing to pay for each of them. It’s all subject to change, starting with which of their free agents they’re able to keep and how the rosters of other teams shake out.
Agents have game-planned with their clients, too, putting together a wish list of teams based on the priorities set by each player.
That’s how it works every year, but it usually plays out slowly, with time to react to changes in the market. Not this summer.
“It’s just frustrating,” free-agent quarterback Tarvaris Jackson said, “because when you start free agency, it’s going to be rushed and you’re going to have to make a decision before you want to and then you won’t get a chance to really get comfortable or anything. And when you do sign your free agent contract, you’ll probably sign it and have to go straight out to practice.”
Joel Segal will be among the busiest agents, as his client list includes first-round picks Mike Pouncey and Mark Ingram, free agents Holmes, Ike Taylor and Randy Moss, plus Bush and Johnson. Yet he believes things will go relatively smoothly for everyone.
“There’s been an immense amount of preparation by both the players and the clubs,” Segal said. “I think it’s no different than when you have a host of players who are free agents under normal circumstances. You prepare, you weigh the team interest, and you make decisions. The difference is that it will obviously be over a shorter period of time than usual.”
Leigh Steinberg has been representing NFL players since 1975, and he struggled to find anything to compare to what’s about to hit. For sheer activity, he said the best example would be the summer of the 1985, when the USFL went out of business and those players came to the NFL. However, without free agency and the salary cap, it was an entirely different scenario.
Steinberg only half-jokingly recommended that agents put together a survival pack: stacks of legal pads and “every manifestation of caffeine.”
“It’s going to be a petrie dish of an experiment in how sleep-deprived individuals react because negotiations will be going on every minute of every day until it’s done,” he said.
Steinberg called it the ultimate test for dealmakers on both sides of the table. He expects relationships and reputations to be more important than ever; how much trust executives and agents have in each other will go a long way toward being able to sign contracts.
And the stakes are as high as it gets in the NFL.
“Let’s put it this way,” Steinberg said. “Super Bowls are going to be won and lost in this period.”
Are you ready for the craziness? What will the Giants and Jets do? Sound off in the comments below…
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