Franchise player contract talks at standstill

Connor Barth signed a four-year, $13.2 million deal on May 16. At this rate, he stands to be the big winner among franchise players seeking long-term contracts before the July 16 deadline.

One of the offseason's biggest holidays passed Monday and another, the Fourth of July, is still nearly five weeks in the offing.

But with almost 200 draft choices having already reached their initial contract agreements before the end of June, at a time when team cap accountants and player agents in most previous years were only starting the process of crunching numbers, Independence Day doesn't hold nearly the same import it once did for rookies.

Instead, the Fourth has become increasingly consequential for veterans, especially those players tagged with the franchise designation, and for some front offices.

No, July 4th isn't one of the series of incessant deadlines that dot the NFL calendar, and by which the league operates. But it will signal that time is growing perilously short for teams to sign franchise players to long-term deals, the cutoff for doing so arriving on July 16. With just less than seven weeks remaining until the moratorium on long-term contracts for the franchise players, there is plenty of work to be done.

After July 16th, the "franchised" players are limited to one-year contracts.

"Things can come together quickly, but there really has to be some middle ground that works for both sides, so we'll see," said Atlanta Falcons' owner Arthur Blank, whose club signed franchise cornerback Brent Grimes to a one-year contract in late April, at a league meeting in Atlanta last week. "There's been no lack of (dialogue) or work on it."

Of the 21 veterans designated as franchise players, only five have signed multi-year contracts, the latest being Connor Barth's four-year, $13.2 million accord with the Tampa Bay Bucs. But in the nearly two weeks since the four-year veteran kicker re-upped, a week after Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell had received a five-year, $55 million extension from the Cardinals, there has been only talk, no action.

And in the NFL, as in life, talk is cheap.

Much of the discussion, not surprisingly, has revolved around New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, the lone "exclusive" franchise player tagged in 2012. But there are a half-dozen other franchise players without even one-year deals, and another nine who only agreed to their one-year tenders. And while a week is generally a lifetime in the NFL, there are some team officials and agents to agree that the stretch between now and July 16 could be a period long on rhetoric but short on multi-year agreements.

At the league meeting last week, New England owner Robert Kraft reiterated the desire to have Wes Welker remain with the Patriots for the long haul, for instance. But Kraft, who declared he hoped Welker would be a "Patriot for life," allowed as well that a deal with the wide receiver would mean "putting the team first." For now, Welker is under the terms of his one-year, $9.5 million tender contract. And there is legitimate concern about concurring on something longer.

In addition to the Brees situation -- where the speculation about an accord seems to alternate weekly between optimistic and dire, but where representatives from both sides have told The Sports Xchange that progress has been slow, with one of the star quarterback's representatives characterizing it as "glacial" over the past holiday weekend -- there are other tenuous standoffs as well. The six other "franchised" players without contracts are tailbacks Ray Rice (Baltimore) and Matt Forte (Chicago); kickers Josh Scobee (Jacksonville) and Matt Prater (Denver); defensive end Cliff Avril (Detroit); and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City).

There was some thinking that a few contracts, like Barth's deal in Tampa Bay and the extension recently granted Philadelphia tailback LeSean McCoy, might serve as templates for long-term contracts for some of the franchise players. That hasn't been the case, though, and, in fact, officials of the Ravens and the Bears seem to be taken aback a bit by the magnitude of McCoy deal. There were reports in the past week that the Bears are concerned about the workload Forte has handled in the first four seasons in the NFL, and about his knees. The Ravens' questions about Rice aren't focused on his physical viability as much as the relatively short shelf-life of players at the position, and the trend at tailback.

It's been more than a month since New Orleans owner Tom Benson termed the two sides "close" on a Brees contract.

In the meantime, the clock ticking down toward the July 16 deadline for long-term deals hasn't quite reached the "60 Minutes" decibel level, but it's getting louder.

Once the unofficial starting date for rookie contracts, July 4th carries significance now for veteran franchise players, ironically. And the displays that light up the night sky on Independence Day might not be the only fireworks that mark the next holiday.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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