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Unrestricted free agents about to play musical chairs

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Anthony Adams, who started 16 games last season for the Bears, says he doesn’t have any regrets about choosing to be an unrestricted free agent.

But Adams isn’t exactly enthusiastic about his status as the NFL and the NFL Players Association struggle to make strides toward a collective-­bargaining agreement.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like the uncertainty,” Adams said last week. “It really sucks when you’ve got family, and a kid on the way, and you don’t know where you’re going to be and how long you’ll sign.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s a part of the business. You have to embrace it, and you have to be ready.”

That’s why Adams has been training at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, preparing for whenever free agency — which was scheduled to start a month ago — commences this offseason. Barring a break in negotiations, free agency — when most veterans capitalize on their play and production — will occur after the NFL draft at the end of this month.

Because there’s no precedent, no one can say for sure how things will play out for the 400-plus players without an NFL home.

But my advice to Adams — and players like him — is to think back to their childhoods and recall the game of musical chairs. Because whenever free agency starts, especially if it’s after the draft, the music may not play for very long.

We could ‘just be forgotten’

“Guys like me could easily be out of the league and just be forgotten,” Adams said. “It’s got nothing to do with your talent and skill level. It’s just the nature of the business.

“People can start drafting all these players and fill their rosters up, then they don’t have a spot. That sucks, man.”

Over the years, in talking to NFL coaches and executives, I’ve gotten the sense that they’d prefer to have free agency after the draft. They’d prefer to fill holes with younger — and often cheaper — players, take a quick look during a minicamp then address glaring holes with veterans via free agency.

The draft, after all, is a crapshoot.

Unless your club has the No. 1 pick, you have no idea what players are going to be available. And Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson’s mock draft may not be all that different from Bob the Mechanic’s. There’s always a few moves — desperation trades to move up when a club falls in love with a particular player or a club “reaches” to land someone — that throws everyone off.

And still, no amount of 40-yard dashes, interviews and chats with an incoming rookie’s former coaches can foreshadow how any player will mesh onto a roster and or scheme. That’s why some rookies flame out with one team then star for another.

Veterans largely benefit from the usual setup, which forces teams to be seduced by a player who — on the surface — appears an immediate solution to a need. Because there is a level of control in free agency, clubs can do whatever is necessary if they deem a player a must-have. Last offseason, for instance, the Bears were not going to be outbid on defensive end Julius Peppers.

A few monster contracts

And this offseason, there will be a couple of free agents who sign blockbuster contracts. But their club likely knows that, which is why they restricted their movement with some kind of tender. So the cream of the crop — players like Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens and Logan Mankins of the New England Patriots — are going to land monster contracts.

But many others have delusions of grandeur, believing their worth to be much greater than their market value, especially when the ball is in the buyer’s court.

Take the cornerback position.

Nnamdi Asomugha is this year’s Peppers, a supremely talented player in his prime who will become an unrestricted free agent. He plays one of the most important positions, one where a handful of teams have a glaring need.

Asomugha will have suitors and he’ll have options. At worst, he’ll sign a contract that will make him one of the five highest-paid defensive players in the NFL. At best, if he initiates a bidding war, he could land the richest defensive contract in league history.

But the other free-agent cornerbacks are gambling, with the odds stacked against them. A few could sign an impressive contract based on how the draft breaks down, but many more will be wishing they had signed that extension — the one that insulted them in the final few months of the 2010 season — their club had dangled in front of them.

As if the situation wasn’t tough enough, the status of more than 100 other players is up in the air. The new CBA will have to outline the status of players with four years of experience, with the possibility that their movement is restricted by their current clubs.

Former Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris dismissed my questions about the CBA uncertainty.

“I don’t care. I don’t even worry about that stuff,” he said.

But that’s easier for him to say; he was a first-round pick who has already signed a blockbuster contract.

But the vast majority of free agents are like Adams, players who haven’t collected enough cash to secure the future of themselves and their families.

So Adams works at EFT, and he clings to hope.

“Something is going to get done, I just don’t know when,” Adams said. “I just have to keep having faith in God that I’ll have a job.”



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