SBJ/July 18-22, 2011/Labor and Agents

Free agency could take as long as a week to begin after NFL labor agreement is signed

When the NFL and NFL players agree to a new labor deal, free agency is not expected to begin immediately, and it could take as long as a week before clubs can start signing the 450 or so free agents on the market, said agents and other industry sources.

There is a plan being discussed that would allow agents and team general managers three days to study any new rules, and then another three days to sign undrafted rookies and restricted free agents, before free agency could begin. That would give the players’ former clubs the right to match offers on restricted free agents, among other things. That second three-day period would be a time for “clubs to sign their own guys who are not under contract,” said one source.

Although last week there were rumors and reports that a deal to end the four-month-old NFL lockout was imminent, there were also reports that the deal was not as close as was being reported by the media. One source said that Thursday was the last possible day to reach an agreement before the NFL would have to start canceling preseason games, a source of revenue for owners and players. The NFL owners are scheduled to meet on Thursday in Atlanta.

“The timelines are all speculative,” said Pat Dye Jr., a prominent veteran NFL player agent and partner in SportsTrust Advisors, which represents about 20 free agents, as well as 13 drafted rookies. “The only date we know for sure is the date of the owners meeting, and it’s only logical and reasonable that they could be voting on an agreement at that meeting.

“I don’t think we are going to get a phone call at 5 o’clock [saying], ‘We have an agreement,’ and free agency starts at midnight. That would be grossly unfair for the two sides who represent the two parties — the owners and the players.”

Dye and other agents said they expect that owners and general managers to be “given a chance to review this agreement and digest it.”

When the lockout does end, more teams will sign players in a shorter period of time than ever before. Normally, agents and general managers have five months to sign all the players to NFL contracts, but they may have to do it in a week or so to get a roster of NFL players who are ready to play.

Clubs usually start to sign restricted and unrestricted free agents at the beginning of the NFL league year, which is always the first week of March. Historically, there are about 400 unrestricted free agents on the market and about 80 restricted free agents. Last year, there were about 240 unrestricted free agents and 300 restricted free agents on the market because, under the expired CBA, players had to wait six years instead of four to become an unrestricted free agent. Although it was unclear last week what the new rules would be about how many years a player had to wait to be an unrestricted free agent, there will be more than the usual number of both types of players on the market, since last year many restricted free agents signed one-year tenders instead of long-term deals.

Additionally, in a normal NFL year, clubs can sign undrafted rookies and do so about a week after the draft, in the last week of April through the first week of May. There are about 450 of those players, who the teams will have to sign at the same time they are dealing with trying to sign back players who played on their team last year, but who are not under contract.

Then there are the 254 drafted rookies. Those players traditionally start signing with clubs in May through the first few weeks of July, with the first-round players usually signing contracts last.

There is a widespread belief in the industry that clubs may sign NFL players with experience, and will favor signing back players who were on their team last year rather than take a chance on an undrafted rookie or player from another club who doesn’t know their system. “Fringe veterans,” players who might otherwise be at the end of their careers, could get opportunities they might not otherwise have been offered, while undrafted college players could get hurt, agents said.

Agents agree that when clubs do start signing players, they will do it quicker than ever before. “There will be rapid negotiations at an extremely fast pace,” said Joel Segal, NFL agent and head of Lagardère Unlimited’s NFL player practice.

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