Frenzied days ahead for NFL after labor peace

July 26th, 2011 by Staff

Football is coming back — in a blur. With the NFL reopening its doors today after the longest work stoppage in league history was supplanted by the longest sports labor deal ever, there is no such thing as easing back.

Less than 48 hours after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith stood on a sidewalk outside union headquarters in Washington and announced agreement on a 10-year labor pact, the first 10 NFL training camps will open Wednesday.

Don’t have enough players to stock the expanded 90-man training camp roster yet?
No problem.

Rookies can be signed today, and free agency begins Friday.

“Once it opens up, every day that goes by will be like a month,” Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland says.

NFL executives, coaches, players and agents are bracing for the blizzard of activity that will christen the league’s comeback from a 136-day lockout. In a matter of days, each team will be forced to execute dozens of personnel moves that typically play out over several months during the offseason.

Besides competing to lure players from a super-sized free agent market and signing draft picks, teams must try to re-sign some of their own targeted free agents, restructure contracts, part ways with some veterans and vie for undrafted rookies — all under the umbrella of a salary cap that returns for 2011 at $120.375 million. In 2009, the last year a cap was implemented, the figure was $123 million.

“This will be pretty unique,” Indianapolis Colts President Bill Polian says. “But you’ve got to get it done. That’s the bottom line.”

Polian, whose team will reopen under a cloud of uncertainty regarding the health of franchise quarterback Peyton Manning as he rehabilitates from neck surgery, has 63 players signed under contract and must account for 27 slots for a full roster.

Some of the spots, including Manning, who was franchise-tagged, and the five draft picks, reduce the positions available.

Other teams will be harder pressed. An analysis of team rosters reveals six teams with fewer than 50 players signed, with the Arizona Cardinals (41), Baltimore Ravens (45) and San Diego Chargers (45) at the low end.

Fans starved for activity for months won’t mind the rush.

Team decision-makers, caught in the middle of the sometimes-contentious negotiations between owners and players, probably prefer the scramble to the alternative of a longer league shutdown. After a seminar Friday in Atlanta, where nearly 150 team executives were briefed on changes linked to the new labor deal (including a rookie salary cap of about $170million leaguewide, which is 4.5% of the overall cap), several GMs talked of approaching the new year with methods similarly used under normal offseason circumstances.

In other words, they have targeted priorities and ranked players in various categories — typical of how teams align players on their draft boards.

“I’ve been staring at the board but not able to move any cards,” Ireland said.

That will change in a hurry, underscored by a crop of unrestricted free agents — headlined by Oakland Raiders all-pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha— that might be the deepest in league history. The market, including 442 unrestricted free agents, is bolstered by the presence of many fifth- and sixth-year players who were kept off the market last year. In 2009, rules for an uncapped year required six accrued seasons rather than four for unrestricted status.

Free agency “is going to be nothing like we’ve ever seen before,” Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald says. “You’ll have three or four days to sign free agents to your team. That’s going to be crazy.”

Already, as the league released its official list of free agents Monday night, speculation swirled about possible destinations for prized catches.
“The start of free agency is always frenetic,” Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay says. “It’s always a crazy time. It is always 48 hours of a different mind-set. This one will be different than any of the others.”

With extensive roster shuffling looming and the typical musical chairs effect of the market — when teams might not pursue some players until other options are exhausted — it’s possible that some key free agents might not join their teams until a couple weeks into training camp.

“This will be a really stressful time for coaches,” McKay said. “We, as club people, have to be mindful of that, because teams will be built as we’re actually going into the preseason.”

Coaches and GMs aren’t the only ones whose limits will be tested.

As players begin filing into camps after having not been seen for months in many cases, team doctors and trainers will be pressed to conduct physicals and update rehabilitation of previous injuries.

“You want to see if the players spent their time wisely over the past few months,” Ireland said. “Let’s hope they’re in shape.”

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment. You are free to voice your opinion but please keep it clean. Any comments using profanity will be rejected.