The free-agent frenzy begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, though we'll get a glimpse into the madness when the anti-tampering period opens as the clock strikes midnight Friday. We'll all soon be abuzz with news about big-name free agents like Mike Wallace.
But there's a lot more going on than just simple speculation about where the high-powered players will land. Here are five under-the-radar storylines we haven't been talking about ... until now:
1. Restricted free agency won't be lame
At this point, it's almost a foregone conclusion: Teams assign their own players with restricted free-agent tenders ... and then nothing happens. Could this year be different? Arizona Cardinals quarterback Brian Hoyer is still a restricted free agent on a technicality, and he could garner some interest. If he's tendered at a second-round level, that might be an investment worth making. But Victor Cruz is the most interesting. The New York Giants slot receiver almost certainly will receive a first-round tender if the team can't work out a long-term deal with him. And from what I hear, there is already a ton of interest and plenty of teams just waiting for their opening. Yes, it's tough to gauge a market on slot guys like Wes Welker, Danny Amendola and Cruz -- especially in systems that so clearly benefit them. But there is enough interest in Cruz to make me think this could be the year someone bites on an RFA. And if no one takes the plunge on Cruz? Then it might be time to wonder how effective this system really is.
2. Unheralded quarterbacks are coveted commodoties
This actually is a storyline that has garnered some attention, but not as much as it should. In a league where everyone needs a quarterback, it's almost unbelievable how few are available, especially now that Matt Moore has re-upped with the Dolphins. It's why teams suddenly are intrigued by the status of Hoyer, and why Ryan Mallett will be one to watch come draft time, when teams realize they might not get the quarterback they desire. If Alex Smith and his large salary can garner a team more than a second-round pick, how much would Mallett net the Patriots at a bargain? What about an unheralded backup like Chase Daniel? In other years, they'd be afterthoughts. This year, they make you think. This puts the onus on teams with really good scouting departments, because how do you determine whether Daniel's impressive preseason was real or not? What about Hoyer's play against the San Francisco 49ers, when he stood tough? They say the backup quarterback is always the most popular person on the team. It will be fascinating to see how popular they are in this free-agent period, specifically with teams that need to push their starters (Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, etc.)
3. Carson Palmer could have a new team soon
The rumblings have already started, and each time Terrelle Pryor makes a media appearance, it ramps up. Will the Oakland Raiders go into 2013 with Pryor as the starter? Why is such a seismic shift dwelling so far under the radar? The Raiders have been pretty up-front about their quarterback situation, saying it will be a competition. And that means Oakland paying incumbent Carson Palmer $13 million simply doesn't compute. Palmer recently told Comcast SportsNet Bay Area that he's not sure what's going to happen, but he'd love to come back and compete. Perhaps. But a more likely scenario in my mind is that Palmer sees the writing on the wall, would decline to take a pay cut and join a mostly dormant free-agent market as the biggest name on it. The Raiders could move on with Pryor and likely a quarterback from the draft. With some talent issues up front, a mobile quarterback might be better than the statuesque Palmer. Plus, Palmer already showed he doesn't care about money as much as others when he was willing to forfeit significant salary instead of playing for the Cincinnati Bengals a few years ago. Don't be shocked -- if the Raiders part ways with him -- to see Palmer land in a place where he can compete against a young up-and-comer.
4. Mid-level free agents are going to be frustrated by silence
The excitement over free agency will carry us into the weekend. And by Tuesday, fans and reporters (oh, and probably players and teams) will be fully amped. Yet the way the relatively flat salary cap has affected things, the period of activity almost certainly will be for the Sean Smiths, Mike Wallaces and Paul Krugers of the world. By Friday, as one agent told me, "It's expected to shut down." When the big-name guys are locked up, plan on an awkward silence. That's when the mid-level free agents -- the five-year veterans who are solid starters but wanted a little more on the open market -- realize the money just isn't there. That's when they'll wonder if they should've taken their team's last best offer, even if it was below what they wanted. It's when veterans will be walking back to their teams and making nice. It's why you see players like Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson take a pay cut, knowing the free-agent money won't be there. Same with Giants cornerback Corey Webster. This year, it might be better to take what you can get, as the NFL seems to be headed to a place where there are big-time stars, low-paid rookies ... and not much in between. Does it not feel weird to anyone else that so many notable players have been cut (John Abraham, Chris Canty) and only safety George Wilson has signed on with a new team? "It is probably better to get the deal done early and with someone who values you (like your current team) than rolling the dice and thinking the grass is greener," the agent told me. "If you aren't signed to a money deal by Friday, you better get something done, because the wells are not very deep and they are already starting to dry up."
5. The anti-tampering period is working
I know, I know: People are skirting the rules anyway. Try as the league might, stopping agents and teams from gossiping is completely impossible. An agent meets with a team to discuss an expiring contract, and there's no chance he avoids hitting on a player whose deal is running out with another team. And yet, there has been virtual silence compared to previous offseasons. I asked one active agent Thursday what's going on. The response: "Nothing. I wish something was, though." That's the sentiment. Teams consistently have avoided providing specific numbers -- based on the people I talk to -- when dealing with prospective free agents. The reason they can is that the anti-tampering window is coming up, and they want to limit the amount of time agents have to shop for the best offer. What will happen during the 87 hours of open talk? No one is quite sure. But with only a few exceptions, teams have only a basic idea for what ballpark players want to be in. And that, I guess, is progress. At least there is some sort of baseline for rules. Yet still, it's likely only the really high-level free agents will be set to sign on Tuesday at 4 p.m.
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