Going to the market


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Jan 22, 2006
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Going to the market

Peter King, SI.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Here's my feeling about the current labor strife between the players' union and owners, and between owners and owners: You don't care. You really don't. Am I right? Don't tell my editors, but I don't care.

We know there's going to be football in 2006, and in 2007, even though there may not be a salary cap in '07, which could lead to some degree of mayhem. But there's going to be football, even if these idiots don't settle their billion-dollar dispute. So I will spare you the hand-wringing of coaches, agents, GMs and owners that I witnessed over the last four days at the NFL Scouting Combine. Lucky you.

There is, however, one major point of impact with the current labor problem. Over the last dozen years, the Hot Stove League has come to the NFL. We've become used to three seasons in the NFL -- the football season, the draft season and the free agency season. And this year, free agency is going to stink.

It's going to stink for all but a few teams, namely those with significant salary-cap money: Minnesota, Arizona, Green Bay and Cleveland.

Minnesota leads all teams with about $24.1 million available to spend in free agency. Arizona will have $23.6 million, Green Bay $20.7 million and Cleveland $20.1 million. These are not just some dollars to be saved for a rainy day. This is money these teams can use to clobber teams like Washington, Oakland and the Jets over the head, because those teams have to work like crazy to get under the cap by midweek -- assuming there's no new labor deal -- and won't be players in free agency this year.

"It could be a huge competitive advantage for us,'' Minnesota vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski told me on Saturday. "There's going to be bloodshed out there this week on a bunch of teams, and we're in pretty good position to take advantage of it.''

Minnesota will be a player in the running back market, with studs like Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander and Jamal Lewis available. The Vikings need to rebuild their offensive line, and studs like LeCharles Bentley (New Orleans), Mike Flanagan (Green Bay) and Jon Runyan (Philadelphia) could be had for below normal market value. Cornerback, a perennial Vikings position of need, will have Will Allen (Giants), always disappointing Charles Woodson (Raiders) and Deshea Townsend (Steelers) out there, without a lot of takers. Minnesota needs a kicker, it seems, since Fred Cox booted outdoors. This year, two of the best -- Adam Vinatieri and Ryan Longwell -- are available.

"I know it's not the best thing for the league to be in this position,'' Brzezinski said, "and I wish we'd get an agreement done. But we're fortunate to be in this spot.''

Here's the only chunk of business stuff you're going to have to read among my 4,000 words this morning: The 32 NFL teams are poised to get their 2006 salary-cap number this afternoon; it's going to be about $95 million, according to my sources. The deadline for an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement is Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET. And the beginning of free agency is set for Friday at 12:01 a.m. ET.

So this week, all teams will have to be at the league's salary cap limit before free agency begins. If there is no extension to the labor agreement, the NFL is set to go into 2007 without a salary cap. That's not really going to cause as much mayhem as the doomsayers are predicting; you're not going to see some lucky free agent wideout, let's say, sign for $20 million a year because Daniel Snyder thinks that player will put his Redskins over the top. No, where the labor discord is going to be felt most is with teams that have cap room right now.

Assuming a new deal doesn't get done this week, and assuming the cap will be $95 million, here are the teams with the most money available entering the free agent market, according to salary-cap documents as of late last week:

1. Minnesota: $24.1 million 2. Arizona: $23.6 million 3. Green Bay: $20.7 million 4. Cleveland: $20.1 million 5. San Diego: $17.4 million 6. San Francisco: $16.5 million 7. Baltimore: $16.1 million 8. Seattle: $15.7 million 9. Jacksonville: $15.3 million 10. Cincinnati: $14.0 million 11. St. Louis: $11.1 million 12. New Orleans: $10.5 million

Teams in trouble? The Raiders are $29.9 million over the projected cap. (Getting down won't be impossible because of easily erasable contract-inflating clauses, such as the $8 million bonus due to wideout Ronald Curry. Such a bonus can be canceled and Curry, should he choose to stay, would sign a near-minimum contract, counting for an $8.4 million savings for Oakland.) The Jets have to shave $29.2 million and started doing so late in the week by rejiggering the contracts of heavy-money guys like Curtis Martin. Kansas City ($120.2 million), Washington ($120.2), Denver ($119.6 million), Tampa Bay ($109.6 million), Tennessee ($109.5 million) and Atlanta ($108.0 million) need to see the light. And fast.

"We're holding our breath in these negotiations,'' Washington coach Joe Gibbs said. "It's hugely important for us, and for lots of teams.''

Lest you think teams can just sign players to huge signing bonuses, as has been the case in most early free agency periods, and spread the pro-rated deals over many years, that's a thing of the past, too. Signing bonuses can now be spread over only four years, which means if a team signs James to a rich deal, it's likely to have fewer guarantees than in the past.

So I know you think free agency has been like a mid-winter Christmas gift in the past few years. But now, there's going to be a load of tantalizing free agents and very few teams out there moving heaven and earth to sign them. It's a sea change.

"I hope it's a big edge for us,'' Arizona coach Dennis Green said. "I hope we can sell the fact that we've got money and not a lot of teams do. We'll be aggressive on the guys we want.''

They'll be in the minority, unless a new deal's done in the next 48 hours.

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