Commentary

Free agency: Be passive, or aggressive?

Many teams are expected to be frugal when it comes to buying talent

Originally Published: March 5, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Normally in late February, Indianapolis rocks with excitement because of the NFL scouting combine.

The 329 draft-eligible players who attended didn't disappoint. Those who could run, ran; those who wanted to throw, threw. Times were good. Many came out of Indianapolis believing the 2010 draft might be the best in more than a decade.

There was no equivalent buzz about free agency, which began shortly after midnight Friday. It shouldn't come as a surprise that teams cheat in free agency at Indianapolis. Most of the top agents have enough players on interested teams that they can meet with general managers to talk a specific free agent and never be caught cheating. They can claim the discussions were about the players on the interested team's roster.

Knowing that these meetings set the price of a free agent, the NFL likely will allow a one-week window for the eligible players' representatives to talk to other teams. With that established, teams trying to re-sign the players know what the true price is at the start of free agency.

This year at Indianapolis, the meetings were sparse. General managers, negotiators and agents didn't know what to make of this uncapped year. Conversations were short and sweet. Sure, the top free agents, such as Julius Peppers and Karlos Dansby, know their markets. Most of the others have no clue.

But here's what I wonder about the most in this strange year of change: Will teams be too passive and too inactive?

Because restricted free agency extends to players who have less than six years of experience, rosters are bloated in unprecedented numbers for this time of year. The average team has more than 60 players on the roster as they enter free agency.

Most teams are placing elevated restricted free-agency tenders on their players -- restricting movement by asking for second-, first- or first-and-third-round compensation for lost free agents -- so these unsigned players aren't going anywhere. The teams hold all the cards.

Under these rules, the good teams will stay good, and the bad teams will stay bad. It's easy to look at the pool of unrestricted free agents and want to ignore it. There are only 69 starters and only 60 unrestricted free agents in their 20s -- not exactly an inviting market.

No team is going to overspend on a player who has a minimum-salary value, so those players will sit indefinitely, and many won't find homes. The quality of this draft also could prevent many teams from making trades.

The intriguing part of this offseason is watching the teams willing to spend and the teams willing to take profit. By the time all the tenders are out, average payrolls will end up being less than $90 million.

Under the old system of spending to the salary cap, that would be a bonanza for aggressive teams. Under the $123 million salary cap model, the average team would have $33 million to spend. Now, there will be a tendency to put a good chunk into that money into the owners' pockets as profits or to retire debt or pay other expenses.

My guess is that most of the teams in the NFC East will be the most aggressive. The Philadelphia Eagles could come up with Peppers and Antrel Rolle. You know the Washington Redskins will make a couple of free-agent strikes. Don't count out the New York Giants, either. The only team prohibited from doing much is the Dallas Cowboys because they are restricted from being aggressive in unrestricted spending -- they were among the final eight playoff teams of last year.

With only one free agent to lose, guard Montrae Holland, the Cowboys have to take a back seat in free agency. No problem. They are one of a handful of teams with a payroll already over $100 million. They've got a good team, and owner Jerry Jones isn't going to break it up.

Sure, the trade market will be active. What you can't get out of free agency you have to get out of trades or the draft.

Where teams could go wrong this offseason is doing too little. Just protecting players with the restricted tenders clearly won't be good enough. Many of those players aren't signing their tenders until the summer because the tenders aren't guaranteed. Plus, those players would have to play under one-year deals worth $3.2 million or less.

The possibility of holdouts or disgruntled players in the locker room could be a problem.

Teams need to still be as aggressive as they can to get better or stay good. NFL teams are creatures of habit. Dramatic change causes a lot of teams to do poorly, while the good organizations profit. The Washington Redskins under Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls during years of labor problems.

To fill the void for the lack of free-agent movement, teams will have to be creative. The ones that do the best might be the ones that win in this new, uncapped system.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer