With the games out of the way, it's time to examine the business end of football.
The term "offseason" no longer applies in the NFL. Teams are torn down and rebuilt from February through June, and this year has all the earmarks of being volatile.
Eleven new head coaches will lead their teams toward free agency and the draft one year before a potentially uncapped season. Also, there's still a vacancy for NFL Players Association executive director, unprecedented economic pressures on every team, league-wide layoffs and no excuses for not building a winning team after the once-woeful Cardinals made the Super Bowl. This looks to be a tough year. Some franchises will figure out how to excel, some will survive and others will fail.
When considering how the offseason will play out, keep these 10 guidelines in mind:
1. New coaches = player movement
My experience tells me that because there are 11 new head coaches, player movement will be fast and furious. In working with four different head coaches in a five-year period, I came away realizing that each wanted different players. Expect the new head coaches to reach back to the rosters with which they just worked to grab players who "know the system," can bring the right message to the locker room and provide the sense of security that all leaders want. Look at how many players Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano brought from the Cowboys to the Dolphins last year.
Whether it will be Rex Ryan trying to add some Ravens to the Jets' roster or Josh McDaniels hoping to bring a few Patriots to the Broncos, many players will be paid -- or, in some cases, overpaid -- to join a coach they already know.
2. Free-agent talent will fluctuate
The talent level of the free-agent pool will radically change when franchise and transition tags are placed on top players. Some will re-sign with their old team before free agency begins. For example, the Patriots already have impacted the top 10 by putting the franchise tag on QB Matt Cassel. Of the 10 best potential free agents, expect half of these guys to sign contracts that make them the highest-paid players at their respective positions:
DT Albert Haynesworth, Titans
QB Kurt Warner, Cardinals
RB Brandon Jacobs, Giants
DE Julius Peppers, Panthers
OT Jordan Gross, Panthers
CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders
LB Terrell Suggs, Ravens
CB Dunta Robinson, Texans
LB Bart Scott, Ravens
LB Ray Lewis, Ravens
If any of these players sign with their current teams before free agency begins, the next wave of players includes WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, TE Bo Scaife, K Rob Bironas, DE Antonio Smith, G Harvey Dahl and RB Darren Sproles.
3. Stockpile draft picks
As one general manager told me at the Super Bowl, "I'm trying to get as many draft picks as I can right now." Why is that? With the probable uncapped season just one year away, the volatility of contracts and player movement will make for an unstable environment -- so getting young players is the way to go.
Recent drafts have shown that second-, third- and fourth-round draft picks are inexpensive players with as good of a chance as any to become stars. Look for smart teams to hold onto their draft picks and parlay them into extra selections.
4. Try a rookie coach and QB
Don't be surprised if owners around the league believe they can replicate what the Falcons and Ravens did when they put inexperienced head coaches in charge of their teams, drafted a quarterback in the first round and went to the playoffs.
The prime candidates looking to repeat that feat are the Jets (with new head coach Ryan), Buccaneers (Raheem Morris), Lions (Jim Schwartz) and Chiefs (Todd Haley). In this year's draft, just two quarterbacks come even remotely close to the potential of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco -- Mark Sanchez of USC and Matthew Stafford of Georgia. The difference is Sanchez and Stafford left school early and don't come with the same level of experience as Ryan and Flacco.
5. Let the marquee names go
Smart teams will let the first wave of players sign before jumping into the free-agency fray. Letting the buying frenzy simmer down is a good way to do business because there will be talent in the second wave of free agents:
CB Jabari Greer, Bills
S Jim Leonhard, Ravens
C Jason Brown, Ravens
DL Demetric Evans, Redskins
S Jermaine Phillips, Buccaneers
RB Derrick Ward, Giants
DB Joselio Hanson, Eagles
WR Shaun McDonald, Lions
6. Watch restricted free agents
Several restricted free agents weren't drafted coming out of college, meaning that unless their teams put a high tender on them, no compensation will due to the team if the player signs elsewhere. Most of these guys should receive a high tender, but if any of them don't, they will make attractive targets.
These players include:
|Brett Favre's decision to return for another season will impact the Jets on the field and in their cap space.|
7. Clear some salary-cap space
Not every team has enough salary-cap space to operate. Smart pro personnel directors are studying the rosters of teams projected to be over the $123 million cap for 2009 to see which veteran players have a good chance of being released. Look for the Colts, Saints, Jets, Redskins and maybe the Raiders to do some trimming in the next few weeks.
The Panthers are in decent shape right now, but trying to re-sign Peppers and Gross might force them to cut a player or two.
8. Marry the draft to free agency
Don't let anyone fool you: The draft and free agency are two independent issues. Teams must compare each talent pool in order to spend money wisely.
How much is a team willing to spend on a premier veteran cornerback such as Asomugha or Robinson if their grades on rookies Malcolm Jenkins (Ohio State) or Vontae Davis (Illinois) suggest they are stars in waiting? Why would a team drop big money on a center such as Matt Birk or Jeff Saturday if Alex Mack (California) or Jonathan Luigs (Arkansas) is on the board? Team officials are trying to decide where to spend their money and must consider both talent pools.
9. Go young at running back
The 2008 season put a big hit on the market value of free-agent running backs for 2009. For years, GMs were reluctant to pay big money to any running back close to his 30th birthday. After the 2008 rookie class did so well, most front-office executives now don't want to pay a veteran runner who is over 26.
Steve Slaton (Texans), Matt Forte (Bears) and Chris Johnson (Titans) all were top 10 rushers as rookies. Darren McFadden (Raiders) and Jonathan Stewart (Panthers) also are rising stars, and Tashard Choice (Cowboys) and Ray Rice (Ravens) contributed for their teams.
There will be 20 to 30 veteran running backs on the open market this year, but look for most teams to skip signing them, with a bigger eye on a 2009 draft class that should include seven to nine players with a grade worthy of the first three rounds.
10. Duplicate these three packages
The rise of the "Wildcat" formation and the Ravens' "Heavy" package will be the impetus for other teams to comb the free-agent market and the draft for players who can help them incorporate those looks on offense. A hybrid quarterback such as Pat White (West Virginia) gives a team an instant "Wildcat" scheme, and a big, bruising back such as Tony Fiammetta (Syracuse) helps an offense load up a backfield.
On defense, the Cardinals proved that a team full of "jokers" can pressure a quarterback without giving clues as to the blitz's origin. Teams will look for players with pass-rush experience but who also can drop into pass coverage and line up anywhere in the front seven.