- Chris Mortensen, NFL reporter
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Michael Vick became a free man Monday and he's already a free agent after being released by the Atlanta Falcons last month. Yes, Vick is free to sign with any NFL team now, just as he could have been traded by the Falcons if they had found any takers.
There's a lot of hesitation out there. As teams await commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling, one expectation is that Goodell will conditionally reinstate Vick, allowing him to go to someone's camp, but withhold a final ruling until, say, Sept. 1, the first day of mandatory roster cut-downs.
Under that calendar, an NFL team wouldn't be signing Vick as its starting quarterback and probably not even as a backup QB. He'd be signed as an athlete, a commodity, a third-string quarterback who can do the Wildcat thing and even give the defense a Wildcat look on the scout team. Maybe he'll be asked to play slot receiver, a little defensive back and return kicks. Who knows?
The timing is uncomfortable for most, if not all, teams, or maybe they're just not tipping their hands. Many teams just don't want him. It's too close to training camp and Vick would dominate the media focus. How do you work him in practice if Goodell's final decision won't come until Sept. 1? Some coaches have flirted with the idea of having Vick on the roster only to be shot down by an owner who is worried by a fragile market of sponsors and soft ticket sales.
And what about that two-year layoff?
Even if an NFL team comes forward with an opportunity, Vick may have a better option: the United Football League, which is scheduled to begin play in October.
The UFL is an upstart league headed by its commissioner, Michael Huyghue, a former NFL executive. It has sufficient funding, a smart plan and credibility. The head coaches of the four franchises in 2009 all are former NFL coaches: Jim Fassel (Las Vegas), Dennis Green (San Francisco), Ted Cottrell (New York) and Jim Haslett (Orlando).
Vick's rights already have been assigned to Orlando, even though Huyghue has not given the official green light to Vick, avoiding any appearance of upstaging Goodell.
Nevertheless, if Vick is shut out by the NFL, either by commissioner's decision or by 32 teams with cold feet, it's expected the UFL will provide him an opportunity.
More than one NFL executive and coach believes it's an ideal forum. For one, it provides more space and time for the public -- owners included -- to get comfortable with Vick's return as a player and person.
From the football perspective, it allows him to take every repetition for 2½ months through practice and a six- or seven-game season as a starting quarterback. After the UFL title game during Thanksgiving weekend, Vick would be free to sign with any NFL team.
"As a league, we'll let due process take its course but, yes, I'd love to have him and I think he would benefit from playing with us and in our league," Haslett said. "It would be a great way for him to knock off the rust and get in true football playing condition. Obviously, we know his abilities and we'd certainly tailor to his strengths."
Haslett knows Vick's abilities because he was head coach of the New Orleans Saints and competed against Vick and the Falcons in the NFC South. Haslett's offensive coordinator in Orlando will be Jay Gruden, who's familiar with Vick's skills from his days under brother Jon with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also in the NFC South.
Here's something else that might surprise the casual observer and please Vick's creditors through bankruptcy court: The quarterback could make more money signing with the UFL. Several sources say the league is willing to pay Vick considerably more than any other player -- around $1 million -- because he would be a marquee attraction for the team, the UFL and its broadcasting partner, Versus.
So if Vick can make $1 million in the UFL, knock off the rust and continue to rehabilitate his image, he may find more than one NFL team willing to sign him after Thanksgiving -- giving him leverage. Quarterback injuries happen in the NFL.
However, injuries also figure to happen in the UFL, which is one reason Vick's advisors might not embrace the new league.
Other concerns about the UFL from Vick's perspective: What if the talent around him is so bad, Vick looks even worse than anticipated? Will that diminish his NFL prospects and embolden the skeptics evaluating him?
Said Haslett: "Well, we're playing with NFL guys. I like our offensive line a lot. We've got some darned good coaches on this staff and, as I mentioned, our familiarity with Michael will give him a pretty good opportunity to showcase himself."
Vick could go conservative. He could wait on NFL teams into the season and continue to train while further transitioning back into society as committed father, in addition to doing his work with the Humane Society.
Or he could even wait until the first weekend of the NFL season to determine if teams are holding off because he's a vested veteran, meaning his contract would be guaranteed for the 2009 season if he's on the opening-day roster. After all, Tom Brady did get hurt in Week 1 last season.
You can rest assured that Vick's agent, Joel Segal, has thought of all scenarios.
How about this one: What if the only NFL team that offers Vick a deal is the Oakland Raiders? Is that the kind of stability that suits Vick for his transition? Is that the image Vick wants -- a perceived outlaw who will play for a perceived outlaw team?
What's more risky?
The UFL just might be the best platform for Vick.
Chris Mortensen is ESPN's senior NFL analyst.
The new United Football League might be the best forum for Michael Vick to return to football, Chris Mortensen writes.