In a free-agent class devoid of star power -- young star power in particular -- Daunte Culpepper is the best of a feeble quarterback crop. And he's an anomaly in more ways than one.
Culpepper, who spent 2009 with the Lions mostly backing up top overall pick Matthew Stafford, is five years removed from his last great season, but nonetheless can claim more accomplishments than anyone else in this free-agent quarterback class. And with teams like Arizona, Buffalo, St. Louis, and Oakland, among others, in the market for help, the three-time Pro Bowler believes he could still be a winning NFL starter.
Once again, Culpepper is handling the duties of packaging, marketing and negotiating his wares, which he's been doing himself since suffering a career-derailing knee injury in 2005. Even in these uncertain times of an unsettled work agreement and new rules governing free agency, Culpepper continues to operate without a formal agent, although he receives consulting from sports attorney David Cornwell, a finalist last year to become executive director of the NFLPA.
Culpepper's experiences as his own agent have only intensified his passion for football, and he's looking forward to the process of representing himself again with Friday -- the opening of free agency -- looming.
"My love for the game has actually increased as I have grown to appreciate the business side of the NFL," Culpepper wrote in an email exchange on the topic. "I have had the opportunity of dealing with a variety of business issues, including, but not limited to, suffering a significant injury, negotiating a long-term deal, working out a trade, resolving a dispute, surviving a release, going through two free-agency periods, and renegotiating a contract. I feel like I have earned the equivalent of a college degree."
Culpepper continues to do the heavy lifting, utilizing the union's director of salary cap and agent administration, Mark Levin, and other resources at the NFLPA, to crunch numbers and stats, assess his market worth, establish comparable contracts for negotiations, and deal directly with all prospective employers as he prepares for another go-round of free agency. This makes Culpepper a rarity in any professional sport, let alone the NFL as a quarterback.
Culpepper, 33, is acutely aware of how he stacks up against other free-agent quarterbacks. Among the group, Culpepper -- who made five starts and appeared in eight games last season -- is the only player who can claim the NFL record for total yards rushing/passing in a season (5,123 yards in 2004) and is one of four quarterbacks in NFL history to amass a single-season total of 4,500 yards with a completion rate of at least 68 percent. Though Culpepper's playing time has dipped significantly later in his career -- he hasn't made more than seven starts in a season since 2004 -- he maintains he's still mobile and athletic, pointing to his average of 5.1 yards per carry in 2009 and ability to still throw a football 70 yards.
Culpepper is proud of his offseason work since 2005. Some might say he gambled and lost a few times on the open market, but general managers who have negotiated with him praise his evolution as an agent.
"He did a better job than many of the agents that I deal with," said one NFL personnel executive who has dealt with Culpepper in recent years. "He was very detailed and thorough."
Culpepper also hopes to build on what he believes was some of his best work, negotiating his most recent contract with Detroit. He took a realistic approach to the negotiations in 2008.
Knowing that, at his age, Detroit was going to invest deeply in a quarterback of the future, Culpepper dealt closely with Lions general manager Martin Mayhew to complete the deal and ended up reworking a $2.5 million roster bonus into a series of weight clauses, workout bonuses and roster bonuses. As a result, Culpepper did pretty well for himself by making a combined $5 million in 2009.
"I knew that the Lions were going to look for a long-term solution at the quarterback position, so I signed a two-year deal expecting them to ask for a renegotiation after the first year," Culpepper said. "I gladly renegotiated the last year of my deal so that I would be paid starter's money ($5 million with $500,000 in incentives) if they kept me. And at the same time, I would have the opportunity to spend an entire offseason with the team so that they could see my approach to preparation for the season.
"I loved being able to practice every day even though I was not the starter. The general manager, Martin Mayhew, and I came up with 'mile markers' that would give the Lions an opportunity to cut me without consequence leading up to the season, and at the same time, reward me with a market value deal if I convinced them that I was ready, willing and able to help where needed."
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Culpepper is at this point because of his debilitating knee injury. After realizing in the spring of 2005 that his 10-year, $102-million deal with the Vikings had no guaranteed money remaining, Culpepper began his proactive approach.
"This decision had more to do with my desire to handle my business affairs personally than anything negative about agents," Culpepper said. "After my injury in 2005, my situation became extremely complicated as an injured franchise quarterback. I knew that it would take a long-term commitment matched with an intense desire to get back to the level of play that I expected.
"It was a risky decision to venture into the shark-infested waters of representation without the protection that many agents provide. I considered the decision as a high-risk, high-reward proposition. I also did not think that there was anyone that would be more committed to restoring my career than me."
Cornwell, a long-time admirer of Culpepper's intellect, character and charity work, thought Culpepper was making a mistake, before ultimately coming aboard as an advisor. And now he's lending a helping hand to Culpepper, who has already prepared pamphlets, a DVD and statistical materials to send to teams.
"I'm here to be an advisor and a confidant," Cornwell said, "someone he can have confidential discussions with and lend my experience to him. Daunte is so sensible, and he has an understanding of the fundamentals of where he has value. If there have to be some tough conversations as we go through this process, then so be it. But he is so sensible, and there is no rush to do anything other than to get it right."
Which Culpepper is always trying to do.
"It takes a unique combination of loving both the game and the business aspects of the NFL," Culpepper said. "I don't think most guys would enjoy interacting with front office people as much as I do."
These last few weeks have required more effort than usual, as Culpepper has tried to stay informed about the ongoing negotiations for a new CBA and preparing for the various scenarios that could unfold.
"To be honest I have kept one eye on the possibility of a new CBA getting done before the upcoming season and one eye on the rules and regulations of the uncapped year," Culpepper said. "I have studied everything I can on both scenarios, so I am prepared for either possibility in 2010 and beyond."
Now, with Cornwell as a sounding board, Culpepper figures that he can focus a little more on football and spend a little less time "swimming with the sharks," as he puts it.
"I have enjoyed wearing a suit in the offseason, but to be honest I much more prefer wearing a uniform during the season," Culpepper said. "I think both fit me well."