Bears might benefit from others’ scrambling when free agency hits
BY NEIL HAYES firstname.lastname@example.org July 24, 2011 9:32PM
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (21) will have plenty of suitors, but the teams that fail to land him will have to scramble. | Ezra Shaw~Getty Images
Updated: October 29, 2011 12:36AM
Forget about private planes, tours of training facilities and patiently surveying your options. Unlike past seasons, free agents and their representatives will have to make quick decisions when the free-agent signing period opens, which likely will be Friday or Saturday now that a deal between NFL players and owners appears imminent.
Instead of teams trying to court free agents like the Bears did with prized defensive end Julius Peppers last year — with coach Lovie Smith flying to Charlotte, N.C., for a midnight meeting and Smith and Peppers flying back to Chicago to tour Halas Hall — this year’s process will be more like speed-dating for the vast majority of players.
Players who would’ve had days to decide their futures during a normal year may only have minutes once the frantic free-agent signing period begins.
‘‘It’s going to be a lot different from the perspective of not having a lot of time,’’ said Chicago-based agent Mark Bartelstein, who represents Bears center Olin Kreutz. ‘‘Obviously, in the past, high-end players would visit four or five teams. There won’t be time for that. It’s going to be very condensed and intense with a lot of very quick decisions being made by players and teams.’’
The Bears are expected to be active, but they’re not expected to make the splash they did last year when they signed Peppers, running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna on the first day of free agency. That could give them an advantage in signing lower-tier free agents.
Teams in the market for a cornerback will be more willing to make a prolonged pitch for Nnamdi Asomugha, the Oakland Raiders free agent who’s considered the best available. If three teams are making a play for Asomugha, for example, the two that lose out might find the other cornerbacks on their lists have signed elsewhere before they can implement a backup plan.
‘‘It depends on priority,” Bartelstein said. ‘‘If you really want the player, you’re not going to give him 10 or 15 minutes. If you think he’s easily replaceable, you won’t give him as much time.”
What some now call ‘‘preparation’’ would have been considered ‘‘tampering’’ in previous years. Even though teams will have a chance to re-sign their own free agents first, nothing is expected to prohibit teams from contacting unrestricted free agents to gauge their interest during the window when teams have exclusive rights to sign their own free agents.
‘‘There’s no way these guys aren’t talking to agents,’’ former longtime NFL scout Dave Razzano said. ‘‘There are going to be behind-the-scenes agreements. No way there is not. I don’t care what anybody says, guys have been talking. You’re going to see guys signed and sealed as soon as this is ratified. You can’t prove it’s going on, but you know it’s going on.’’
In this case, you can’t blame general managers or agents for trying to find out as much as they can before the bell rings. Agents wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t know which teams were interested in their clients. How can an agent accept an offer from one team if he doesn’t know what other teams are willing to pay?
‘‘I have to answer this the politically correct way,’’ Bartelstein said when asked if agents have talked to teams during the lockout. ‘‘Let’s just say you have to know the market going in.’’
Given the expected chaos, don’t be surprised if teams are more willing to sign their own free agents than they might be in a normal year. If a GM has a free agent he considers a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, for example, he might be more likely to re-sign that player even if an upgrade is available. Because the most cohesive teams are expected to have an advantage, it’s sensible to bring back players who know their coaches, teammates and systems. A team is going to better understand a player’s medical history if its medical staff is familiar with him. Sometimes the known is better than the unknown — especially heading into a season when so much is unknown.
‘‘I think you’ll see that,’’ former Bears general manager Jerry Vainisi said. ‘‘They’re going to want to get their teams together quickly, and they’re going to want guys familiar with their system.’’
For teams and players, it comes down to doing your homework. Just like it is during the season, preparation will be the key, even if it’s preparing for the unprecedented.
‘‘If you’re prepared, the decision won’t be that tough,’’ Bartelstein said. ‘‘If you’re not prepared, it will be tough.’’