Agent's Take: A primer on signing free agents once season starts
Why do players get released prior to Week 1? What is an 'emergency list?' Former agent Joel Corry examines the nuances of the early part of the NFL personnel season.
The start of the NFL season is a difficult time for unsigned players, especially veterans who are accustomed to being on NFL rosters. These players see numerous other players on NFL teams who they feel don’t have their talent and skill set. As a former agent, I't notice how it could be mentally challenging for players to remain dedicated to working out without knowing if or when another NFL opportunity will arise.
Here’s a look at how the process generally works with unsigned players, especially veteran players.
The Emergency List
NFL rosters are fluid as the circumstances of teams are constantly changing throughout the season. Each team plans for roster contingencies with an emergency list consisting of the best available unsigned players at each position.
The emergency list typically contains key information about each player including his position, age, measurables (height, weight, speed, etc.), minimum salary, agent’s name and phone number. It’s continually updated on a weekly basis throughout the season. Although NFL teams have their own information, I would contact teams each Friday alerting them to the availability of my unemployed clients when I represented players. I would specifically target teams I thought had weaknesses at my clients’ respective positions.
Roster changes always take place with the backend of the roster or players on the roster bubble but teams are reluctant to make other changes early in the season outside of extenuating circumstances. I consistently heard from teams early in the season, even from those lacking talent, that they were satisfied with their rosters when making inquiries for unsigned clients while working as an agent.
An unexpected poor performance can alter a team’s timetable on potentially making roster moves. For example, David Wilson’s fumbles in the New York Giants’ season opener prompted them to bring in Willis McGahee and Brandon Jacobs for workouts. The Giants signed Jacobs, who was a member of the team from 2005 until 2012.
Suspensions being lifted also impact rosters. When Daryl Washington's and Von Miller’s respective four and six game suspensions are over, it will be necessary for the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos to make roster moves to accommodate them, which could create a domino effect. A player with practice squad eligibility could get released. If he clears waivers, he could be signed to the practice squad of another team which may cause another practice squad player to lose his job.
Signing players with four or more years of service (commonly referred to as vested veterans) is easier for teams after the opening week of the season.
A vested veteran’s full salary is guaranteed for the season through termination pay if he is on the roster for the first regular season game. Termination pay is significantly less if a vested veteran isn’t signed until the second week of the season at the earliest. It’s the unpaid balance of the initial 25 percent of a player’s base salary or one week’s minimum salary for players with 10 or more years of service, whichever is greater. Teams will use this to their advantage to manipulate the backend of their rosters at the beginning of the season.
The New York Jets released Brady Quinn the day before their season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quinn received his weekly salary of $42,059 (1/17 of $715,000) because any player released before a game who was a part of the roster on Wednesday gets paid. He was re-signed by the Jets on Monday to the same contract he had prior to his release.
Similarly, teams will manipulate the back of the roster until the trading deadline by releasing a vested veteran late in the week with the understanding he will be re-signed after the game. The San Diego Chargers did this with offensive lineman Reggie Wells on a few occasions last year. Once the trading deadline has passed on October 29, vested veterans are subject to the waivers and can be claimed by other teams when released.
Injuries Create Opportunities
A team will primarily look to the emergency list to fill its needs, particularly when an injury occurs that will keep a key player (starter or reserve making a significant contribution) out for an extended period of time.
These types of situations may be the best chances for veterans who weren’t in training camps, such as Kerry Rhodes or Michael Turner, to find jobs since experience is at a premium and special teams contributions may not be vital. Teams will contact players’ agents usually after Sunday’s games or early Monday to arrange workouts and physicals for players being considered as replacements. A majority of the time these calls come from the pro personnel director or a personnel assistant.
An agent should monitor injuries on gamedays and contact those teams, usually after the game or the next day, when there could be an opportunity for a client. It's important to do this even though teams already have players in mind as possible replacements. Persuading a team to bring in a player it wasn’t considering for a workout isn’t an easy proposition.
The popularity of social media has made it much easier for an agent to keep track of injuries and their severity in real time. I would immediately contact a team if I had a client at the position of an injured player, especially one that had familiarity with the team’s system, when an injury where a roster move seemed likely. Running back Jonathan Dwyer is benefitting from this scenario with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was re-signed after getting released in the final roster cutdown because of LaRod Stephens-Howling’s season ending knee injury.
It is important for an agent to find out whether a workout is for an immediate roster spot with a good showing or for emergency list purposes where the team is just “window shopping” in case of a roster move in the future. With workouts that had the potential to lead to a contract, I would instruct players to pack as if they were going to get signed.
Most workouts occur on Tuesday, which is the typical day off for players. If a team is going to sign a player, they will want him to participate in practice on Wednesday when the team starts gameplanning for their next opponent.
Workout activities vary but position drills are usually a part of every workout. Some teams also have players perform NFL combine drills (short shuttle, three-cone drill, etc.) and run a 40-yard dash.
An experienced agent will attempt to influence workouts when arrangements are being made, especially if the team plans on signing a player. When I had an older player, a veteran who had been a starter for most of his career or player I knew wasn’t fast for his position, I would discourage a team from having him run a 40-yard dash. Before finding out the components of the workout, I would sometimes ask whether it was only going to consist of position drills to send a signal of my workout preference.
An agent should also find out what type of surface (grass, turf, etc.) the workout will be held on so the client can bring the appropriate shoes to maximize his performance.
The only time a player specifically trains for a 40-yard dash is for the Combine or workouts prior to getting drafted. The 40-yard dash is dangerous for these types of players because their 40 time typically won’t approach the recorded times the team has for them, which is usually outdated. Teams have been reluctant to sign established players despite good performances in the other workout activities because of slow 40 time.
Veteran players who haven’t been through a training camp can be at a disadvantage when working out with players who were on rosters during the preseason. Teams are comfortable that a player is in reasonably good football shape when he was released during the final roster cutdown or afterwards. The same can’t be said for a veteran who has been working out on his own since the end of last season. Teams may want to put these players through a more comprehensive workout so they can better gauge their conditioning.
Some teams will bring in multiple players at different positions toward the end of the week for workouts that won’t lead to immediate signings. The participants in these kinds of workouts are mostly younger veterans and players with practice-squad eligibility.
Since trying out for teams can be a foreign concept for players who have been starters for most of their careers or never been out of work during the season, they usually aren’t enthusiastic about participating in workouts that don’t lead directly to jobs.
Participation can be beneficial for players who weren’t in training camps because the workouts can help them get back on the NFL radar screen since all teams are notified of workouts and gives them a better idea of their physical condition. I had clients who thought they were in great shape but didn’t perform well in workouts when jobs were available because of their poor conditioning.
Contracts: Beggars Can’t Be Choosers
Most of the deals players sign after the season starts are one-year minimum salary benefit contracts. Chris Cooley was a rarity last season. In addition to his minimum salary, he received a $220,000 signing bonus and $300,000 in playtime and reception incentives when the Redskins signed him after Fred Davis tore his Achilles in the seventh game of the season.
A vested veteran player receives his league minimum base salary and is eligible for a maximum of $65,000 as a signing bonus with minimum salary benefit deals. The player’s base salary counts on the cap at the $555,000 minimum salary for players with two years of service instead of at his actual base salary.
The league minimum salary for players with four to six years of service is $715,000. It’s $840,000 for players with seven to nine years of service. Players with 10 or more years of service have a 940,000 minimum salary.
A majority of these deals contain a split salary where the player receives a lower salary when he is still under contract but not on the 53 man roster. Typically, this occurs when a player is put on injured reserve. The amount of split salary is like the minimum salary. It depends on years of service. For example, a player with seven to nine years of service receives a split salary of $408,000.
Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.
You can follow him on Twitter: @corryjoel
You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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