SBJ/September 19-25, 2011/Labor and Agents

Rookies the winners? Maybe not

Eyebrows went up in NFL agent circles this summer when teams signed a record number of undrafted free agents in the frenzied week between the end of the league’s lockout and the beginning of training camp. The thought then was that rookies, not veteran players, could be the winners in the first year under the league’s new labor agreement, in terms of securing NFL jobs.

The story, as it has developed, is not that clear.

A total of 615 undrafted free agents, compared with an annual average of 450, were signed to NFL rosters at the start of training camp this year. As of kickoff weekend, however, only 61 of those players had made a team’s 53-man roster, according to the NFL. Last year, there were 57 undrafted rookies on rosters at the start of the regular season.

Among drafted rookies, 205 made the final cut this year, compared with 203 last year.

Also, the average age of players on NFL rosters has not shown a major shift toward teams hiring younger players. That average age this year is 26.4; last year, it was 26.5.

Still, agents in recent weeks have been talking about having good, veteran players available — players who played last year — who can’t get jobs.

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The Jets’ Tannenbaum says it’s too soon to tell if more veterans are being replaced.
Drew Rosenhaus, who represents the most NFL players of any agent, sent out an email to general managers around the league Sept. 7 informing them that 39 of his clients, including 20 recently released veterans, were available to be signed. “Why wouldn’t I send out an email to the teams about the guys I represent that are free agents?” Rosenhaus asked, rhetorically, when asked about the email. Rosenhaus wouldn’t comment on the number of players he represents in the league, but it is believed to be between 150 and 200.

Rosenhaus said he would have to study what has happened on NFL rosters to make an assessment of whether there is a trend of veterans losing jobs to rookies.

New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum agreed with that assessment. “It’s too soon to tell,” he said.

The Jets, for example, signed undrafted rookie Nick Bellore but also re-signed Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie, among others. “We tried to move responsibly to win for today and develop for tomorrow,” Tannenbaum said.  

This year was different from any other year in recent history in the signing of NFL players because of the lockout, the timing of when it ended and the provisions of the old NFL collective-bargaining agreement. Under the expired agreement, NFL players last year, in the last year of the CBA, had to wait six years instead of four to become unrestricted free agents. That meant many players last year who would have been unrestricted were restricted and signed one-year tenders.

As a result, the number of unrestricted free agents on the market this year almost doubled. According to Mark Levin, director of agent and salary cap administration at the NFL Players Association, there were 465 unrestricted free agents this year, compared with 235 last year.

There was no salary cap in place last year. The cap this year went down from the 2009 salary cap of $127.9 million, coming in at $120.375 million, although there is a provision in the CBA that allows clubs to exceed that number by $3 million if they sign veteran players.

Another major factor was expansion of club rosters at the start of training camp from the normal 80 players to 90 players this year. Additionally, the timing of when certain classes of players could be signed was different, and arguably favored rookies. Clubs could sign undrafted players before they could sign unrestricted free agents, NFL agents said. Normally, clubs sign unrestricted free agents beginning in early March and don’t start signing players who were not drafted until late April and early May.

Rosenhaus said that as the season goes on, NFL clubs will sign veteran players either to replace injured players or, perhaps, to replace younger players who do not perform.

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