In a normal offseason, NFL teams have about five months to build and tweak their rosters before training camp begins.
Of course, this offseason has been anything but normal. Upon the agreement to terms of a potential collective bargaining agreement on Monday, a flurry of activity kicked in Tuesday that has left teams with far less time than usual to construct their rosters before camp opens at the end of the week.
“It’s all ongoing,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “You know what the calendar normally looks like, but it’s all shrunk down into, I don’t know, five days.”
Not only do teams have a much more condensed block of time in which to sign their own free agents, sign their draft picks, sign undrafted free agents and sign free agents from other teams but they also have to deal with new rules and guidelines on when and how they can sign them.
The free agent market opened in earnest on Tuesday with teams allowed to sign their own draft picks and undrafted free agents. They could also begin negotiating and striking deals with their own free agents and those that are free from other teams. But no outside free agents can be signed until early Friday evening.
Beyond that, no free agents – even the ones you are retaining from last year’s roster – are eligible to participate in any on field football activities until Aug. 4 which is the start of the new league year.
When the phone lines opened on Monday evening and even more so on Tuesday, many around the league expected a frenetic time that would be difficult for all parties to wrap their minds around.
General manager Billy Devaney didn’t quite see it that way, though.
“I think we kind of got a little bit excited about it,” Devaney said. “Yesterday was a typical, ‘the draft is over frenzy’ for about five or six hours where all hell broke loose, but that happens every year. It just happened yesterday instead of immediately after the draft. It was actually easier. We had our board stacked and stacked and stacked. So we were obviously ready to go. As we didn’t get guys, your fallback plans were a lot easier to deal with. So it was fun. We were doing football stuff. You’re getting pissed off at agents and you’re yelling at players and it was like, ‘Hey, this is pretty good.”
The Rams worked quickly to get their undrafted free agents in order, agreeing to terms with 24 rookies. Until those contracts are signed, the team cannot release the names but, the team was using all available personnel people and even some coaches to have their hands in everything at the same time.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, don’t worry about our guys. We’ll get to it,’” Devaney said. “We were doing it pretty much at the same time.”
Heading into free agency, the Rams had about $13 million of space under the salary cap and a much bigger pool of players to choose from since the league reverted to making players free agents after four years instead of the six years used last year.
The Rams spent the past five months preparing and by Devaney’s own admission, overpreparing for free agency and all of the contingencies that go with it.
Like the draft, the Rams had a board set up for a four-year free agency and a six-year free agency with the players ranked by position. Much like the draft, the Rams place value on those players and work down the list when free agency begins as players might be picked off along the way.
“Absolutely, you have to,” Devaney said. “There are a couple positions where it’s deep and you add those other names onto it. There are a couple positions where there are only a couple of guys. But what you can’t do, just like the draft, if you miss out on your first guy, you can’t panic and say, ‘Geez, we’ve got to do whatever we have to get the number two guy. Well, if there’s a big gap between levels of ability, you can’t go crazy and jump up there and overpay for that second guy.”
Another slight change to the rules means that teams can’t have free agents visit until Friday. The way the market is already moving, it’s unlikely many of the top players won’t already have deals in place by then.
“Our approach is we were going to leave it up to the player that we are talking to,” Devaney said. “Whatever they were comfortable with, if they want to come in, sit down with the coaches, the facilities, get a feel for things, absolutely. We’ll start bringing guys in on Friday. There are a couple of guys that say, ‘I’m familiar with your team. I know people there. I don’t need to come in.’ So we’re leaving it up to the players that we talk to. If they want to, then they’re more than welcome to.”
In terms of philosophy, the Rams aren’t going to stray from how they do business in the free agent market, either. Devaney and Spagnuolo have long focused on building through the draft and supplementing in free agency.
The way they choose to supplement is using their financial resources to add what Devaney calls “ascending” players or guys that are going on their second contract and haven’t yet reached their peak.
Last year, they began adding veteran pieces that also are familiar with the systems in place and can provide leadership.
In other words, don’t expect the Rams to back up the Brinks truck for one of the big-ticket items on the market like Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha especially with as many needs that the team must fill.
“We’re not kidding anybody,” Devaney said. “We still have holes to fill and we’re going to take the same approach. We’re not going to jump out there for the one guy so to speak, the mega superstar guy. Obviously we’re going to build this thing through the draft and supplement with guys that can be good, solid players for a long time. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be the ‘A-plus’ kind of players. Rather than just go after the one guy, if we can get two, three starters out of this thing, I would be thrilled with. But that’s been kind of the same approach we’ve had throughout so I don’t think we’ve deviated from that.”
One thing that could also significantly alter the landscape in the next 24 to 48 hours is the adjusted salary cap and roster sizes. Teams can now carry as many as 90 players in training camp and the salary cap is actually less than it was in 2009, the most recent season in which there was a cap.
That, combined with the uncapped 2010 season, has left a number of teams over the salary cap and could force them to release talented players who still hold value.
“We viewed it a little bit differently because what we hear is there are positions where there are probably going to be cap casualties and a lot of guys out there,” Devaney said. “So if the UFA position board there’s a lot of names right now and you couple that with guys you think are going to be out there, you may say, ‘You know what? We can afford to wait. We don’t have to jump out there right away and get one of those guys early,’ because even if we miss out, we’ll take a shot. If we miss out, there’s going to be a lot of options out there. So the board stays the same, but the way you may view it, you may look at it a little bit differently depending on the number of names that are going to be out there.”