In Pat Kirwan's opinion, the players released just before free agency starts, like DE Marcellus Wiley, are often more attractive targets than the scheduled free agents
How do you evaluate your team's free agency success? NFL.com analyst Pat Kirwan lays down some ground rules he believes everyone should try to follow
(by Pat Kirwan, NFL.com Senior Analyst)
It's big-decision season in pro football.
As we ready ourselves for free agency, most of the decisions a club will make now for the 2004 season and beyond will have more to do with winning and losing than at any other time of the year. In the "old days" before the salary cap, the last cuts in August were the most important time of the year in the business. Not anymore.
After a number of years of managing a salary cap and making personnel decisions, followed by a few more years of covering the league for the media and observing all the teams in the NFL, I think I've seen it all.
I asked a number of NFL people to reflect on how things should be, and what would they do in a "perfect'" world. I asked all of them, "If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?" I combined those opinions with my own experiences.
It's time to set up suggested guidelines for all clubs to follow, if they can. It's unrealistic to think any team can stand by all of these suggestions. In fact, no team can adhere to all of the 17 suggestions below, but the more of the sweet 17 your favorite team can follow, the better off they will be, and the closer they will come to being competitive year in and year out.
No one wants to see his or her team fall apart in the offseason because the salary cap is strangling it. Here are the points to live by, and why.
1. No contract extension with real money for players over 35: I did it, and many teams are still doing it. The truth is: Not enough of the older players can stay healthy and help win a championship. More important, when they come to the end of their career and they're on your team, the cap hit is tough to take. Look no further than Vinny Testaverde in New York. He could have sent in his retirement papers this week and devastated the Jets salary cap. Thankfully for the Jets, he decided to wait. Don't get your team in that position.
2. Get more "split contracts" for medical-history issues: Veteran players don't like to sign contracts with a split deal. A split deal says if the player breaks down for medical reasons and can't play, and the club needs salary-cap space to replace the veteran, the team gets it because the injured veteran goes to a reduced pay scale.
3. Try not to have any players in the top-10 paid players at a position, unless it's your kicker: When the Patriots and Panthers made the Super Bowl, I checked their pay structure. The Patriots had one player (Ty Law) as a top-10 cap hit at his position. Their kicker, Adam Vinatieri, was a top-salaried player. In fact, Carolina and New England had three of the top 10 paid kickers and punters between them. Carolina had only one player (Todd Steussie) as a top-10 cap charge (except kicker John Kasay and punter Todd Sauerbrun). Cleveland has five, the Packers have four and many other teams have too many high-priced players.
4. Be patient during the first three weeks of free agency: Let the market come to you. There is a long history of teams overpaying free agents during the first few weeks of buying. Only a precious few of these high-priced players who jump from their old team to a new team ever play in a Pro Bowl again. Most disappoint their new teams. Wait, if you can, and let the market settle down. I learned this one the hard way, and it looks like the Redskins are continuing to be early big spenders.
5. Try and negotiate more right-of-first-refusal clauses into player contracts: A right of first refusal gives the team the ability to match an offer by another team. Teams must be able to let players test free agency and find out the market isn't really there for all of them. The old expression "don't shoot the messenger" applies here. Don't put yourself in the business of overpaying your players because you overvalue them.
6. Anticipate salary-cap related cuts: Pro-personnel departments have to study which players under contract will be released because their salary-cap pressure is too great to handle. This past week, the list of terminated veterans is better looking than 90 percent of the players scheduled to come free March 3. The Colts terminated Chad Bratzke and Adam Meadows. San Diego just let defensive end Marcellus Wiley go. The Dolphins have let three offensive linemen go; the 49ers said goodbye to running back Garrison Hearst and quarterback Jeff Garcia. The teams that have predicted more of these terminations have the advantage in reacting to those cuts quicker.
7. Stop using roster bonuses when negotiating contracts: Too many players have a roster bonus due the first day of the new season. Teams are cutting players rather than pay the bonus. A few years ago, team executives began permitting these roster bonuses to help close deals with veterans A large number of players around the NFL are due a bonus for being on the roster at a specific date in the month of March. Now the club doesn't want to pay it and the player refuses to negotiate it out of the deal. In effect, the player -- not the club -- controls the negotiations.
8. Teams must stop using the June 1 cut rule to manage their salary cap: To think that Darrell Russell is taking up millions of Oakland cap space for the 2004 Raiders is tough for new coach Norv Turner to deal with. "Dead money" is not a necessary evil. It's an evil we all get caught up in when we live by using credit cards. For some teams, they have to go cold turkey like the Ravens did after their Super Bowl season. The Panthers went to the Super Bowl and have millions of dollars of space for this season. The Eagles, as always, have almost $20 million of space.
9. It's time for every NFL team to get an outside consulting firm to evaluate their talent: In my opinion, the biggest problem teams face is the lack of objectivity about their players. You would think it's easy to tell if your talent pool is good enough to win a championship in the NFL, but it is far from easy. One new head coach told me he couldn't believe what people in the organization believed was the talent level on his roster. You simply must stop protecting a roster that hasn't won.
10. It's time to get rid of voidable contracts: The idea that a player can achieve certain personal achievements and his contract can expire means that a player is on the field thinking of himself and how he escapes the contract he signed. It doesn't work in the football environment. Terrell Owens believed his contract was going to void, and he started acting like he knew he would be gone. Then his agent forgets to send in the proper paperwork, and the 49ers and Owens are stuck with each other. Voidable deals are a cancer, and I don't blame agents for asking and even demanding them during negotiations. If a team is interested in balance and control of its roster, it is time to say no.
11. More than ever, you must trade down in the draft: I'm convinced that unless you have a chance at one of the few elite players like Eli Manning or OT Robert Gallery this season, it's a better idea to head south. Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Houston running back Domanick Davis, who weren't picked in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft, should be enough proof.
12. Know when to buy the final piece to an already good roster: The Eagles got to three NFC championship games in a row with a nice football team. They have the cap space to grab a receiver like Owens. The Jaguars had a real good team that never got to the Super Bowl. The Eagles need to get there.
13. Every GM should look at his top-11 salaried players and follow these parameters: Try not to have any fullbacks, tight ends, guards, safeties or centers on the list. Make sure you are paying the quarterback, running back, wide receiver, pass rusher, cover corner and left tackle first.
14. Never make an unrestricted free agent you sign the highest-paid player on your team: Resentment, expectations, inability to lead and perceived lack of trust and confidence in your core players will create more problems than it is worth. Teams now know they can't buy leadership and team spirit.
15. Be careful of having more than three or four players on your roster who have the same agent: Be really careful if top-salaried players have the same agent. Negotiations take on a different strategy when the agent controls too many of your top players. It's hard to control but I've seen a few teams that are controlled by an agent who has too many key players under his umbrella.
16. Don't pay cornerbacks if you are a Cover 2 team: High-priced corners are good value for teams that play a lot of man-to-man. Zone players who play a significant amount of flat-area coverage and are active in run support are not to be paid like shutdown corners -- yet teams do it.
17. Stop firing coaches at the present rate: The accountant down at the other end of the building might be whispering in the owner's ear about empty seats because the coach is losing. You can't fire the players, but the truth is: A new head coach is going to purge the roster anyway. Once the players figure out the coach is held more accountable than they are, they'll never live up to their responsibility. Some coaches don't have a chance of winning. Why do you think Bill Parcells is so effective? There's no doubt who the boss is when he's under contract.
As your favorite team holds a press conference or is quoted in the media in the next few weeks, see if they are living up to the guidelines for success in the modern game. It's not easy but it has to be done to survive, otherwise guys like Bill Belichick will continue to dominate the league.