For weeks I've been predicting that a deal would be struck by the NFL prior to apocalyptic damage to training camps and the season, so credit the parties for getting it done with minimum public controversy and disturbance. Now comes the though part: making sense of the most frenetic period of business activity in the history of the NFL.
All the moves coinciding with the opening of training camps can be confusing, so let's add some clarity. Amid the Oklahoma Land Rush and speed-dating chaos, there is a method to the madness.
Normally the action begins in March with the beginning of free agency. Players with four years of experience and expired contracts would be able to sign with any team they choose. They are called unrestricted free agents. Players with less than four years of experience and expired contracts are called restricted free agents.
Teams that sign those players know they will surrender draft picks to the current team based on the size of the contract they offer. The original team can retain the services of the restricted free agent by signing them or matching the best offer they receive. Unrestricted free agents are generally talented players, but not the teams' biggest superstars. Normally franchises will not allow a superstar to get close to the end of his contract and will offer an extension for larger dollars.
If those negotiations are unsuccessful, then a team can designate one player as its franchise player and force him to sign a one-year contract for the average of top players at his position. Because unrestricted free agents offer the best opportunity for a team to improve its outlook at a position, star — but not superstar — players get the advantage of competitive bidding and often sign disproportionally large contracts.
The wooing process has allowed a player to visit a variety of franchises and take over the decision-making process over his career for the first time. I have players look introspectively and identify their value and priority system.
They rank as follows:
1: Short-term economic gain
2: Long-term financial security
3: Family considerations
4: Geographical location — weather, size of city, proximity to home
5: Profile and endorsements
6: Winning team
8: System employed by team
9: Stadium and facilities
10: Playing time
This will prevent confusion between competing considerations and avoid cognitive dissonance and unclear decision making. We then project the most likely team's interest and what alternative scenarios may develop. Teams do the same prioritization and projection.
In this game of musical chairs, the best organized, most forsightful agents, players and teams achieve their goals. But this process was put in deep freeze by the lockout this year.
Players have been nervously contemplating their futures and teams have been bemoaning the lack of ability to use the offseason to smoothly integrate their new free agents into their systems. This season, the term for unrestricted free agency changed temporarily to six years. There are 400 to 500 players in this category.
Friday marked the first day for official signings, and the Land Rush has begun. The teams need to sign these players amid the opening of training camp. June 1 would normally mark the time that teams would have to be under cap limits. When a player is cut, traded or retires, an immediate charge is created against the salary cap.
Releasing a player post June 1 allows a team to spread this charge in a more deferred way. Typically several hundred players are waived in this group and add to the number of unrestricted free agents that are on the market. This waiving of players has started occurring during the last few days.
When the NFL Draft ends in April, there are normally a large number of potential rookies who are signed by teams as undrafted free agents. Teams may sign as many as twenty players. Because of the need to have lower-priced backups and special teams players to enable teams to pay stars and still fit under the cap, many of these players end up making rosters. However, this process was frozen because of the lockout and with roster sizes expanded to 90, you can add another 600 players to the Wild Wild West of activity.
Drafted rookies may not participate in training camp until they sign contracts with their teams. Because of compensatory picks, this group may reach as many as 300 players. There is a new salary cap for rookies that dictates length and certain financial limits. Normally teams and agents would have time to study the new regulations and design creative structures.
And then there are the inevitable disgruntled veterans who are demanding new or restructured contracts and threatening not to report to camp before they receive new deals.
Where is Monty Hall when we really need him?
Imagine new coaches who have not met any free agents, rookies or their own rosters, yet are trying to institute orderly systems. Imagine front offices opening training camp with hundreds of transactions to consider.
However, the NFL has a long tradition of being able to process prodigious amounts of business in a compressed time frame. I split up our office into deal teams and could finish 40 to 50 contracts in several weeks. Look for established front offices, coaches and players to adjust quickly, while disorganized organizations start slowly.
The NFL has found another way to completely dominate sports news for the next couple weeks, and you won't be able to tell the players without a scorecard.
LEIGH STEINBERG is a renowned sports agent, author, advocate, speaker and humanitarian. His column appears weekly. Follow Leigh on Twitter @steinbergsports or blog.steinbergsports.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun