Commentary

Labor uncertainty limits player deals

Originally Published: June 7, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

To be honest, this uncapped year could have been worse for teams.

I thought more restricted free agents who were robbed of the chance of getting a huge, career-defining contract would have held out of offseason team activities in protest. As training camp approaches, the list of unsigned restricted free agents is around three dozen. When you study the small list of huge contract extensions this offseason, you'd figure there would be more players like Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Chris Johnson and others withholding their services from OTAs just to make a point.

As interesting as the offseason has been, it's been an off year for doing deals because of the potential labor problems of 2011. Only 21 players received contract extensions worth more than $4 million a year. That's less than one player per team. Teams have instead used the rope-a-dope strategy of retaining players on short-term deals, hoping a break in labor talks provides a plan for the future.

Sure, there will be some extensions. Expect the Redskins to do one with quarterback Donovan McNabb in the next week or two. The only holdup was the contract McNabb did with the Eagles on June 12, 2009. Players have to wait one year before re-doing a renegotiated contract. On Friday, McNabb would be free to do a new deal, and you know Redskins owner Dan Snyder won't let him hit free agency next year.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady will get contract extensions at some point, but it won't be soon. Both are up at the end of the season, and both are the most important players on their teams.

There will be some extensions. Just don't expect a lot of them.

From the inbox

Q: How come when teams hire a new coach, sometimes the argument is made that the coach doesn't have the players to run his offensive or defensive scheme and then takes two to three years changing the roster and releasing good players. In the end, shouldn't a coach try to find the best scheme that fits the current roster and maximize the talent at hand rather than spending two to three seasons changing the roster?

Eric in Montreal

A: Eric, I agree with you 100 percent. It's driving me crazy watching all these 4-3 teams bring in new coaches and try to switch to the 3-4. Head coaches with Cleveland, San Francisco and the New York Jets lost their jobs while they tried to rebuild their rosters to fit the schemes instead of fitting the schemes to the talents of the players on the current roster. One thing you know about head coaches is they like to pick the players and that's why most new head coaches have 20 or more new players on their roster during their first season. The NFL doesn't give enough time for complete reconstructions of the roster. A team with a top quarterback could buy the coach the time to survive but most teams that hire new coaches don't have that quarterback. That's why teams such as Detroit and Buffalo have been down for as long as they have.

Q: Many are saying some owners are not signing their core players to long-term contracts because of the labor uncertainty. Why not sign them, give them whatever bonuses they're due during an uncapped year, and if there is a lockout they don't get paid anyway. You're going to pay them now or later. I can't wrap my head around what pros there could be to waiting until the CBA is worked out. Can you explain please?

Ed in Cape Coral, Fla.

A: Owners are hesitant to do anything because they don't know if they are dealing with a 16- or 18-game schedule in the future. Salaries will be larger if there is an 18-game schedule and owners don't want to sign players to big deals and then have to fork over two additional game checks at the highest level. Remember, this battle by the owners over a CBA is to save money. The problem I see is that the owners don't seem to have a solid plan other than to use their leverage with a lockout to win the negotiation against the players. The smarter thing to do would be to find an acceptable settlement point and try to get there through intense negotiations. I'm as baffled as you are.

Q: With the stable of backs the Patriots have, do you feel they can maybe get a 1,000-yard rusher or legit workhorse type in the offense? Tom Brady is a year older, a year slower. They say it takes two years to fully return from his type of injury, but he probably will never get back to his form of old. Will the Pats get back to pounding the rock and using play-action and Brady's resiliency to bring another ring to my hometown?

Tommy in Foxborough, Mass.

A: The trend league-wide is to have backs get fewer than 250 carries, and the Patriots are one of the reasons for this trend. They spread the ball around to so many backs that no one gets 250 carries. Laurence Maroney is the team's youngest back, but he has never lived up to his first-round billing. He hasn't averaged more than 4 yards a carry since 2007. Last season was his busiest with 194 attempts. He finished with only 757 yards because of a 3.9-yard average. I take a different opinion on Brady. I think he will be fine. While you are right it takes two years to fully come back from an ACL surgery, the two years applies more to running backs, receivers and other players who run. Quarterbacks are back to normal after one season. Most of the top quarterbacks coming off ACL surgeries have decent seasons their first year back. Their biggest challenge is mechanics. During that first year back, quarterbacks spend so much time rehabbing, they don't get to work on their throwing mechanics. Brady's numbers should be even better this year.

Q: An interesting scenario just occurred to me: The Chargers' loss to the Jets in the divisional round of last season's playoffs prevented a San Diego AFC Championship matchup with Indianapolis. Since the Chargers seem to have had Indy's number for the past few seasons, it's not a huge stretch to infer that the Jets prevented San Diego from reaching the Super Bowl. So, my question: How do you think San Diego would have matched up against the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV?

Michael in Los Angeles

A: You are 100 percent right to think that this league is all about matchups when you get to the playoffs. You have elite quarterbacks going against elite quarterbacks. You have elite quarterbacks who can get into the heads of the defenders they face or vice versa. A Saints-Chargers game would have been a good one. I would give Drew Brees an edge over the Chargers' defense. With Shawne Merriman not 100 percent, the Chargers' pass rush was suspect last year. Like most of these matchups, though, I wouldn't doubt Philip Rivers could stage a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Saints. Slight advantage, New Orleans, but ever so slight.

Q: Do you think the Packers can trade away one of their defensive linemen for an outside linebacker to complement Clay Matthews? They have tremendous depth with B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly, second-rounder Mike Neal and unproven Justin Harrell, and quality 300-pound defensive linemen are hard to come by. Can you please tell Ted Thompson that Shawne Merriman would look great in Green and Gold!

Packer fan

A: I wouldn't make a trade. I think the Packers are deep enough at linebacker, and don't discount Dom Capers' ability to develop a pass-rushing linebacker. Plus, I wouldn't want to risk diminishing the Packers' depth along the defensive line. Jolly still has a drug possession case ongoing and Harrell has back concerns. It's not out of the question for a Brad Jones to develop. What helped everything was Matthews becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber outside linebacker as a rookie. Why push things when they are working?

Q: John, please defend your logic. You claim that Joe Flacco is an elite QB because he led the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie. However, Mark Sanchez did the same thing last year and you do not claim that Sanchez is an elite QB. Will you please finally admit you are wrong and Flacco is not yet an elite QB?

Edward in Whiting, N.J.

A: Let's get it on. Flacco's body of work backs up his elite status. He has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each of his two seasons in the league, and he's done it with an inferior receiving corps. His numbers should get better with Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth added to the mix. In fact, watch him go over 4,000 yards this season. He has won three playoff games on the road. He's a leader. He has fourth-quarter comeback ability. Sure, he depended on a great running attack as a rookie, but when the team just wanted to pass the ball against tough, 3-4 defenses, Flacco put up big numbers. Plus, watch him play. I was at the Vikings-Ravens game where he had three fourth-quarter touchdown drives and then had a last-minute drive that should have resulted in a game-winning field goal. Once Sanchez gets his completion numbers into the 60 percent area and starts putting up big numbers, we can talk about him being an elite quarterback. But that conversation is for the future. The elite quarterback debate is a great one. Let's keep it going. Eventually, let's see if you come to my side on the Flacco debate.

Q: What do you think the Bears should do about their offensive line? Is there anyone in free agency who they might be able to plug in who would make a difference? I feel that without some new faces on the line we'll have more of what we had last year.

Anil in Elmhurst, Ill.

A: The best thing the Bears did was hire Mike Tice to coach the offensive line. He's going to bring toughness to the running game. I also like how he's moving bodies around to get bigger and stronger in the middle. The line will be a work in progress for the next couple of years. It got too old and it takes years to replace five older starters. The key will be how Chris Williams does at left tackle. Quarterback Jay Cutler should be fine because he gets rid of the ball quickly. The Bears must improve their run-blocking. Tice can handle that.

Q: Now that the Redskins have acquired Trent Williams to solidify the LT position, are there any moves the Skins should be considering in order to further improve their line? They definitely still need help, so would you expect them to sign a free agent like Flozell Adams, or maybe try to trade for Jared Gaither or some other starter on the line?

Adam in Alexandria, Va.

A: While the line still needs work and more talent, there isn't a right tackle out there who makes much sense to sign. The Ravens aren't giving up Gaither for anything less than a second-round pick, so that isn't going to happen. One option would be to take Jammal Brown from the Saints and make him a right tackle, but he wouldn't be coming to Washington under a long-term deal. Adams would only be an insurance policy in case Trent Williams suffers an injury. The key to the line is Williams and how he develops -- along with Donovan McNabb getting the ball off quickly. The Redskins' line got too old two years ago, so it will take time to build it back up.

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