Senior Writer

Weddle waits, watches as big-money years pass by


San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle was at home babysitting his kids Wednesday night, doing the dad thing because, like all NFL players, he has more time on his hands this spring than he has at any time in his career.

What Weddle should be doing instead is figuring out ways to make sure his kids are set for life, thanks to his brand-new, high-paying, bonus-filled, free-agent contract that would bring an influx of investment money.

Too bad he might not get that contract this year -- or even next.

Eric Weddle's coverage and tackling skills are coveted in the pass-happy NFL of the 21st century. (Getty Images)  
Eric Weddle's coverage and tackling skills are coveted in the pass-happy NFL of the 21st century. (Getty Images)  
Weddle is one of the many players who thought this would be their free-agency year, their cash-in moment, but instead are left as the victims of the NFL's labor dispute, unable to move now and maybe for two years.

"I kind of keep my cool about it," Weddle said. "I try to keep it in the back of my mind. But it still stinks. You come in, play well, and hope to get that second contract and now you don't know if you will. If you get hurt, you never know if it will happen for you. That's frustrating."

The current labor situation may be a fight between the owners and the players union -- oops, trade association -- one that includes court battles, legal briefs, circuit courts, judges and the like, but sometimes we lose sight of the pawns in this game.

The players.

Are some of them being used for the good of the fight? I say yes. Weddle is one of them.

He is 26 years old. He just finished his fourth season in the NFL. He has started 45 games the past three seasons. Weddle didn't make the Pro Bowl last season, but he should have.

Weddle is the type of player that usually cashes in big in free agency. I've talked to several personnel people about him and they all insist he would be a hot commodity on an open market. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, who tendered Weddle as a restricted free agent in case he is that, raved about Weddle at the league meetings in March.

But instead of a new five-year deal that would set him for life, he's left waiting. Safety Antrel Rolle got a five-year, $37 million contract from the New York Giants last year. Weddle is every bit as good as Rolle. Yet Weddle has to sit back and watch as the league tries to figure out the operating rules for 2011 and beyond, with the courts playing a big part.

The labor situation currently has free agency on hold because of the lockout. And even when it starts, nobody knows what rules will be in play. Can a fifth-year player like Weddle be unrestricted? Or will it only be players with six years' experience like last year? It used to be a four-year player with an expiring contract was a free agent.

Weddle is one of about 200 or so players who thought this would be money time for them, able to test the market. But instead most have been tendered as restricted free agents, which means leaving would be almost impossible if the 2010 rules are in play.

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Some of those in the same situation as Weddle are Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny, Jets receiver Santonio Holmes, Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson and Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards. All those players are entering their fifth or sixth season and all are between the ages of 24 and 26.

That puts them all in their prime earning years. Teams crave that type of player.

"You never want to pay players on the downside of their careers," one AFC personnel man said. "You want the guy getting his second contract, the 26-year-old or so player. Those players will give you four or five good years on a five-year deal. Older players might only give you two or three."

Weddle has started the past three years for the Chargers. He has made himself into one of the better cover safeties in the NFL. With the way the game is played now, with so much passing, a safety has to be like a blown-up corner, capable of covering in the middle of the field and staying with a tight end who can run. They also have to be willing tacklers.

Weddle is both, which is why his value would be so high.

"It's disheartening," Weddle said. "You just have to roll with the punches. But it's in the back of your mind, knowing there is a strong possibility that you can't get your contract. You have to be mentally tough. You have to just go out and play at a high level and hope you don't get hurt. You play well, hoping to get the contract, and now you never know. It's tough."

What the union leaders fail to realize is that the NFL is made up of individual corporations, despite the claim that it's all for one. Who could bemoan a player like Weddle not wanting what is best for him?

That's what makes it so tough for him to handle his current predicament. Weddle isn't hurting for money. He said he and his wife have never been big spenders, so it's not about him. It's about his kids.

"I've saved my money," Weddle said. "We're fine. But it's more about the future. When you have kids, you know what you are truly playing for. You want to see them have the good life. That's the tough part. That's what makes this so tough."

Who is it again that says the labor fight is good for all the players?

I'm not so sure that's the case for Eric Weddle. These are his earning years. Would you want yours taken away by some labor fight over issues that really won't impact your career much? I doubt it.

"We just have to sit back and wait and hope this thing gets worked out," Weddle said. "It's hard being patient. You play yourself into this position and you'd like to take advantage of it. It takes a lot of hard work. It's frustrating."

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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