Free Agency Could Be Delayed

With a labor deal appearing to be closer every day, free agency might be delayed. See what NFL coaches and GMs had to say about the complicated process at the NFL Combine.

Have you noticed the lack of teams re-signing their own players scheduled for free agency? There is good reason for that. Right now, teams aren't sure which set of rules to operate under.

The NFL and the players union have been negotiating to extend the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but without a deal in place, team officials don't know how much money they have to spend and how contracts can be structured.

Each coach or general manager speaking at the Combine said his team had at least two strategies in place—one without a deal and with a deal for an extension.

"We can't make concrete feelings about how we're going to move forward. It's not a comfortable feeling for any club, I would speculate, because of the nature of where we are and the uncertainty of how we're going to have to deal with this," New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We need this to be settled and we need to move forward as a league, and we need to be able to utilize all the abilities we have in our planning in going forward. As you're making decisions and evaluating players in terms of looking at your needs, it's frustrating because you really can't nail down or get a solid answer for those financial questions until something happens."

At issue are the cap number and the number of years teams can spread out signing bonuses. The cap figure, according to what a league source told, is expected to be about $95 million, an increase of a few million over previous projections. But if a deal isn't reached, signing bonuses can only be spread out over four years.

"We've basically got two sheets of paper that we're working off of, two plans if you will, and are going to wait until the last possible moment to execute those plans based on if something gets done," Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay said.

Unless there is a deal by Wednesday, teams were preparing for free agency to start on Friday without a CBA.

McKay said there was a meeting scheduled for late Wednesday afternoon between coaches and personnel people in the league.

"The longer they can push (the start of free agency) out, the better," he said. "From a team's perspective, we all want to get a deal done. It makes us have a system that we can have some certainty to and that we can operate within. I can just tell you that from one team it will be extremely difficult to operate without an extension—extremely difficult."

"Most deals happen at the end. I hope it happens."

A league source told at the Combine on Saturday that the two sides were getting closer and he expected a deal by Wednesday. That sentiment seems to be spreading to others across the league.

"With cost-sharing, I think there has been an awful lot of work done," McKay said. "I think they've done a lot of work behind the scenes, I think they've done a lot of work in owners meetings."

McKay thinks the CBA will be agreed upon first, and the owners coming to a resolution on cost sharing would follow shortly thereafter. The second part has been a point of contention between the higher revenue teams and the lower revenue teams.

But the bigger challenge might be trying to operate in the next week if an extension doesn't get signed.

"These last capped years … capture a lot of the tricks of the trade that otherwise would allow you to extend salary-cap dollars. They just tend to catch all of those and drop them into this year," McKay said. "Maybe that would be a good thing if we had been operating that way for the last 12 years, but we haven't. Accordingly, it makes the way you operate and the structures of the contracts a lot different. It will affect our room, our salary cap room. It obviously affect pro-ration. We've only got four years of pro-ration now if we don't get an extension. That is a tremendous difference. For those at the top of the draft, I wish them luck."

Teams at the top of the draft would have a difficult time spreading out those big signing bonuses over only four years.

And there are other issues that would be affected with no extension in place at the start of free agency. Some teams might have to start purging their roster of several veterans and trades would be even more difficult to execute.

"The trades are not necessarily viable because a trade of a team trying to get back under the cap would require acceleration to that trading team," McKay said.

McKay said he believes the initial free agent frenzy will be slower without an agreement because many teams won't have the room to take on more of the bonuses in only four years of pro-ration.

The good news for teams and players is that a deal appears to be close. However, a deal that is reached by Wednesday afternoon might delay the start of free agency, giving teams time to sign their own free agents with a clearer picture of the overall cap.

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