The biggest free agent is already on the market, and he'll be joined at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday by a solid group of unrestricted players. Next to former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's decision -- which reportedly could be made by Tuesday -- all other signings might pale in comparison. In reality, though, the market will be filled with quality starters. With the cap not increasing, there will be fewer teams in the market place, keeping the ultimate bidding down.
For all the talk about the extended free-agent period, the market is open for a relatively short period of time -- perhaps just five days or so. On Tuesday, there will be a flurry of activity, with teams quickly making hard offers and attempting to execute deals with the top players. And by 6 p.m. ET, deals will be done. It does not take long once the market opens. Teams know the prices, agents know the best deals and everything comes together quickly. If an agent has not secured a deal for his player by Sunday, the teams gain all the leverage and prices drop.
In the first few days of free agency, teams must be prepared to pay and pay handsomely. There are no bargains in the beginning. (Whereas, there are plenty in the middle portion of free agency and even more as summertime approaches.) The start of free agency is when the agents hold all the cards -- and they normally play them perfectly. They know what the real market is for a player and sense when to cash in their chips. Agents know they cannot be left without a chair by Sunday, therefore they strike deals quickly.
Free agency has three groups of players. The first group I refer to as the market setters. These are the players who go in the first few days and set the market for others at their respective positions. When a team overpays one of these players at the start of free agency, the ripple effect of that new contract is felt by other teams throughout the league. For example, DeSean Jackson will expect a deal similar to whatever Mario Manningham makes on the open market -- as long as it is better than what he's already been offered. The free market does impact the restricted one -- especially in the first few days of free agency.
The second group is the best value players on the board. Good deals can be had once this second wave begins. This is the ideal time to start shopping.
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And finally, the third group is the "prove it to me" players. This is the last phase of free agency. These players are unhappy they were not included in the first group and are willing to take modest, one-year deals to prove their real worth and get back to the market.
When a team flies in a player for a visit on the first day, there is an expectation to complete a deal quickly, barring any unforeseen changes. When a player takes multiple trips, in reality his agent is trying to create a market and drum up business. In my experiences, we had players arrive on the first day with suitcases upon suitcases in tow to make us think they had multiple trips planned. But in fact we were the only destination on the docket. If agents can foster desperation -- which is easy to accomplish with some organizations -- they can inflate the market.
When free agency begins, big-name players will fly off the market, but you should also expect some lesser-known guys to go quickly -- and become very wealthy in their own right. For example, wide receiver Josh Morgan is a hot name right now. He is hot because he will cost less than some of the more recognizable wideouts, like Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston, yet might play as well. Morgan has the potential to become a star if he goes to the right team and can stay healthy. He only started five games last year for the San Francisco 49ers before a broken leg put him on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Yet his talent is undeniable and teams will pay well for his services. He will be off the market before Sunday.
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Teams are always looking for bargains in free agency, but making a call to show early interest in a player can send out a false monetary signal. Say your team is interested in defensive tackle Jason Jones. He is a promising young player, but injuries during his four years with the Tennessee Titans affect his market value. If a team calls Jones at the start of the free-agent period, Jones and his representatives will use that call as a way to drum up business. Agents want multiple bidders for every player to parlay the best deal. The best course of action if a team were interested in Jones would be to lay low, waiting a week before making a call. Kind of like high school dating -- never show your interest too soon. And if Jones were to sign with another team before a call was made, then he probably went for more money than you were allocated to spend anyway. No big deal. Like high stakes poker, the best teams never sweat walking away, nor do they sweat when they lose a player. There has to be discipline in every decision. There's no place for emotions in free agency. Don't forget real games don't start until September, so there's plenty of time to improve a team.
This is a fun time of the year, but do not overreact to a team's big-ticket signings, or lack thereof. Remember, the last free-agent period gave birth to a nickname that haunted a certain franchise all season. Be patient, analytical and most of all objective with all the moves to come.