End to lockout only signals beginning of mayhem

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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OK, here's what we know: The NFL is on the verge of lifting the lockout, an announcement is expected soon, training camps should be open Aug. 1 and everyone will live happily ever after ... right?

Not exactly.

Yes, we're on the verge of a settlement, but, no, not everyone will be happy. Tell me, for instance, how much joy the league's 32 capologists experience when camps and contracts collide in August. No, better yet, tell me what the next six weeks look like for agents representing players in search of new contracts and/or new homes.

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Forget it. I'll do it for you, and I'll reduce it to one word.

Mayhem.

"The hardest part is the signings of unrestricted free agents, rookies or undrafted rookies," said a capologist with a noteworthy NFC club. "It's the extensions of contracts of your own players ... and the reductions of contracts ... and the trading of players. That's stuff you usually have a whole offseason to do.

"The rookies will sort themselves out, especially with a pay scale, and rounds two-through-seven weren't all that difficult under the old system, anyway. But now? Now, some clubs could be in trouble if they don't understand what they're up against."

How about what agents are up against? At least clubs know who and what they want. But agents have to find the right market -- or any market -- and do it in a very tight window. Where once they had all spring to find jobs for free agents, now they have August.

Plus, consider their clients. They're bound to be anxious to settle in with new clubs as soon as possible, basically because they want to start drawing paychecks again. But players don't work if their agents don't find them jobs, which means there's substantial work ahead for another segment of the pro game, too.

"People tell me how hard it's going to be for us," said our cap expert, "but the people it's going to be hard on are the agents. At least we have a large support staff here, so we know what to expect. People say you're going to find out who the best front offices are over the next six weeks, but I don't agree. I think the onus is on the agents because they're not only going to be in a rush, but they must find the right homes and the right deals in a short period of time. If they make a mistake it could be catastrophic for their client."

The guy has a point. You look at what's next for the NFL -- basically, six months of transactions compressed into one -- and it's hard to imagine there won't be a tsunami of activity, with players hired, fired, acquired and traded as clubs fill their rosters. That puts the team capologist in a tough spot, but nothing worse than the guy who must find his clients homes within a month.

"Maybe," said one of the league's top agents, who asked to remain anonymous, "but I don't expect a sea change here. A sea change was 1992 to '93 where we went from no free agency to free agency and when we went from no salary cap to a salary cap. This is nothing like that.

"I do agree it will be a lot of work for some guys, but this is a very cynical business we're in, and I would make the argument that a substantial number of agents don't care about the so-called 'happiness' of their clients. They're looking to close a business deal without much regard to the thought process. A lot of agencies are consolidated or backed by private investors or private equity fees, so because of that the interests of the players have really been attenuated. Basically, all the agents care about is the fee they're going to get.

"The big thing for me is the conflict of interest you're going to see. Some of these agencies represent three or four players at one position, and somebody's going to be left without a seat when the music's over -– and he's going to demand an explanation.

"Let me explain. Let's say you represent three or four quarterbacks, and some companies do. How are you going to resolve the potential conflicts? That, to me, is the story that will come out of the next six weeks. If, say, the Arizona Cardinals call you and say they're interested in Carson Palmer, but you know Matt Hasselbeck wants to go there. Then Matt Hasselbeck calls you and says, 'What did the Cardinals say?' Are you going to tell them they really want Carson Palmer? That information is privileged to Carson. " OK, I get that. But let's put Hasselbeck aside for a moment because I assume someone wants him. What about the second-and-third tier free agents? Do they get lost in the rush to sign and re-sign high-profile players? Our experts don't think so. In fact, they believe they benefit from the lockout, with our agent firm in his conviction that they become attractive A) because they will take less money than the big-ticket players, and B) because they offer the experience you might need for a backup.

His idea is that the lockout might provoke a change in team philosophy. Where clubs once built around a core of star players, sinking a substantial portion of free-agent money in big names, he thinks that maybe, just maybe, they now sink it in a group of experienced veterans who can serve as backups or role players.

"Those guys were penalized by the draft anyway," said our capologist, "with their spots given to third-and-fourth-and-fifth-round draft picks. But I could see their own clubs re-signing them quickly. It's a managed risk, but I can tell you that we'd look at players we normally might not, signing them to one-contracts."

Look for a change in those contracts, too. Both our experts believe a handful of teams will restructure long-term deals as they did years ago -- converting a player's base pay into a signing bonus to lower his salary-cap number. The idea, of course, is to squeeze as many players as possible under the cap -- reportedly $120 million per club in 2011 -- a practice the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys utilized in the 1990s.

"There's going to be an initial frenzy," our agent said. "But teams are in the driver's seat. They can sit back because there are a lot more choices than there have been in the past, and they can wait for the street free agents who are sitting out there waiting on jobs."

But the agents? Not so lucky. They can't wait on anyone.

"They've got to be signing people fast," said our capologist. "I think you're about to find out who the good ones are."

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