Free Agency  

 

When money is guaranteed, potential headaches are likely

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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There have been more than 45 contracts completed in less than one full week of free agency, and the biggest concern to most football people is the issue of guaranteed money.

I spent some time Monday morning with two former NFL head coaches and both were very concerned about the amount of guaranteed money emerging in these new contracts. It's one thing to agree to give Ben Roethlisberger $36 million in guaranteed money; it's quite another to give out $10 million or more to offensive linemen who are over 30 years old.

Only four days into free agency, there were already 20 players who received at least $10 million in guaranteed money to sign new contracts with new teams. That was before the Oakland Raiders dished out a six-year, $55 million contract to oft-injured WR Javon Walker, a deal that includes $16 million in guarantees.

Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images
Linebacker Calvin Pace was one of a handful of players who got big money to sign with the Jets.

Linebacker Calvin Pace, who left the Arizona Cardinals for the New York Jets, told me he was excited to go play for a team on the rise. He got a $20 million signing bonus! A signing bonus is real money.

A guaranteed dollar amount can be a bit of an illusion, but it's still a significant problem for coaches down the road. Many teams are guaranteeing a salary in the first two years of a new contract, which is more fluff than anything else.

A substantial signing bonus usually means a player will be with a team at least two years before the team considers giving up on the guy. Since the team will not release the player in the first two years, the idea of guaranteeing the salary only increases the risk that the deal will go bad if there is a serious injury or the player turns out to be a bust.

Pace, Madieu Williams, Asante Samuel, Gibril Wilson, Jerry Porter, Jeff Faine, Drayton Florence, Bernard Berrian, Donte Stallworth, Alan Faneca, Justin Smith, Michael Turner, Damien Woody, Dallas Clark, Flozell Adams, Tommy Kelly, Randy Moss, Lance Briggs, Derek Anderson and Antwan Odom all received deals in the first four days of free agency with at least $10 million in guaranteed money. Some club are going to get stuck with a bad contract a year from now and then a few more the year after.

In addition to the cap issues, there is also a psychological effect of the guaranteed money. Coaches around the league are privately wondering how they will motivate players making the big bucks, win or lose. What can a coach do to make a player work harder when that player is going to make his money no matter how he performs? As one coach told me, we are getting dangerously close to the point where the traditional methods of motivating players by dangling a carrot are over.

Looking for a cornerback?

Early indications are the draft will produce four or five first-round draft picks at the cornerback position. Sounds like a healthy number of new players to replenish the ever-present thirst for men who can cover wide receivers, make an open-field tackle, and occasionally blitz the quarterback.

The New England Patriots lost two corners this week, the Chargers lost their third corner, and Cleveland sent one of their starting CBs to Detroit in the Shaun Rogers trade. Those three teams, plus Arizona, Baltimore, Dallas and Tampa Bay, need a player that can line up in September. The veteran market is lean at best, and it could get down to a team convincing Philadelphia to trade one of its corners now that Samuel is an Eagle.

One personnel director thought the trade value of a quality corner is moving up and a team like the Eagles may not be able to resist trading a player like Lito Sheppard now that it is a seller's market. A former Eagles coach thought it would be a good idea for Philadelphia to keep all of its corners because it will be in nickel and dime defenses more than 50 percent of the plays next season, and that makes the third corner more of a starter than one of the linebackers.

Wideout action is surprising

Ten wide receivers have already changed teams in free agency, seven other receivers re-signed with their old club and one was traded. That's 18 wideouts with new contracts, and the available talent pool is shrinking quickly. D.J. Hackett and Bryant Johnson lead a thinning population of good wide receivers still on the market. As soon as those two get signed, the receiver market will dry up and the attention will turn to the draft.

I talked with David Patten on Monday, soon after he re-signed with the New Orleans Saints, and he was excited that he didn't have to go somewhere else this late in his career.

The draft class at wide receiver, led by Malcolm Kelly, Early Doucet, James Hardy and DeSean Jackson, will take center stage in fewer than two weeks unless some GM can talk another GM into trading a marquee player. With all the salary-cap space still out there, a trade (or two) is not out of the question.

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