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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Shortened offseason, new rules will challenge NFL staffs

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Here's one of the toughest questions facing NFL general managers and coaches as they ready for the next four weeks, which will be a virginal path the NFL has not taken in August in past years:

How do you truly find out if a guy's heart pumps Kool-Aid?

That's NFL-speak for finding out the toughness -- or lack of it -- for a player. There are other ways to say it, but we'll be politically correct. With so many rules and restrictions and time restraints and no-contact practices, this might be the toughest evaluation period the league's personnel people will ever have.

"That's going to be one of the hardest things, especially for the big people, players you have to see hitting to get a real evaluation," one NFC general manager said. "It's essential to see them line up and knock people back. With a limited number of camp days where you can pad up, it's going to make for a lot tougher times in terms of evaluating players."

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The next month will try the NFL staffs like none other.

"We're going to lean on a lot of people in our building," said another NFC general manager. "We will let the director of college scouting, the pro personnel director and all our cap people go at it. It's going to be tough, but we'll get there."

The first step is to sign undrafted free agents and your own rookie class as soon as Tuesday. The latter won't be as tough as in the past because of the rookie wage scale. For example, the Carolina Panthers will pay top-overall pick Cam Newton in the neighborhood of $22 million over four years and more if the fifth-option year is included.

The St. Louis Rams paid Sam Bradford $60 million in guaranteed money when they made him the top pick last year.

The rookies will be slotted in and there won't be much negotiating, which means those deals should be easy to do. The undrafted rookie deals are always easy to do, but this year there isn't as much bonus money to spend. Teams that traditionally have lured some of the better undrafted players because of an extra $10,000 or so won't be able to do that.

"That's going to hurt a little," said an AFC general manager. "But these guys are so hungry to get signed, it might not be that big a deal as it might be to the agents in past years."

Some teams will also be busy trying to restructure deals, cutting players for cap reasons and re-signing their own players. The first day teams can cut players is Thursday. The first day they can actually sign a player is Friday at 6 p.m. Trying to fill 90 roster spots will be challenging for all the teams. That will mean signing close to 30 players for some NFL teams.

Then there is the negotiating with other team's free agents. Even though they can't be signed until Friday, the two sides can talk. This is a deep, talented pool of players. And teams have money to spend, money they have to spend.

Under this agreement, the teams must spend 99-percent of the camp in cash. That means teams like Kansas City, Jacksonville, Tampa and Cincinnati -- teams with a lot of cap room -- must spend that money.

Agents are slobbering at that possibility.

"You're going to have three or four teams bidding on the top guys," one agent said. "That's what you need to drive up the price."

Most general manages don't do the actual negotiating any more until it's time to close the deal. It used to be they did much of it. The cap managers and negotiators usually handle that now, with the GM coming in to close the deal.

"It just seems like there are way more important things to be doing than sitting there negotiating," the second NFC general manager said. "But the agents know that when the general manager steps in to make a final offer, it usually means it's the final offer."

Even though teams will be free to negotiate deals with the unrestricted free agents starting Tuesday, they won't be able to sign them officially until Friday. That leaves open the window that a player could agree to a deal, and then back out. A smart agent will use the deal as leverage. Wouldn't you?

Once the roster is set at 90, after a lot of hard work to get there, comes the hard part of evaluating the roster and cutting down to 53. Coaches and general managers are concerned that having no offseason could lead to some mistakes.

"It's so condensed and the rookies will have their heads spinning without having been in our program that it's going to be tough," one NFC coach said. "But it is what it is. It's the same for everybody. We adapt in the NFL as well as any profession. That's what we do. It's what we do at halftime. We will be OK. It just makes us work harder."

And makes it tougher to find the guys who actually have the hearts that don't pump Kool-Aid.


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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