NFC South: lockout

All indications on the labor talks continue to sound positive. There’s no deal just yet and, even once terms are agreed to, it could take some time to get everything in writing.

But personnel offices around the entire league are staying busy by preparing for what promises to be the most unique free-agency period in NFL history. I talked to an NFC South personnel official a little bit ago and asked him for his thoughts on how things will unfold once the lockout is lifted.

Keep in mind, the agreement’s not done so personnel officials don’t definitively know every detail just yet. But the personnel official I talked to said he’s expecting a very short window for signing free agents.

He suspects the speculation by many isn’t far off and is estimating the NFL will open the free agency period somewhere around July 15 to July 20. Most training camps are scheduled to open in the last few days of July.

“We’re probably looking at a seven- to 10-day window to build your football team,’’ the personnel official said.

But personnel departments will have much more to worry about than the accelerated free-agency period. The personnel official expects the league to first give teams a brief period, perhaps about three days, to try to re-sign their own players before opening free agency.

The personnel official also expects that the start of the period for teams to re-sign their own players will also be the time when teams are allowed to sign undrafted rookie free agents and begin negotiating contracts with their rookies.

It’s all a little way down the road, but all indications are mid-July could be a very interesting time in the NFC South and throughout the league.
Nothing is done yet and nothing is guaranteed in the crazy world of the NFL lockout. But John Clayton writes that recent labor talks between owners and players mean it’s at least possible a deal could get done by the end of June.

That would be great news for everyone in the big picture. But what would it mean in the short term? The league year usually started in March and teams have missed minicamps, organized team activities and there’s been a freeze on free agency and player trades.

In Clayton’s scenario, camps would start at, or close to, the normal time in late July or early August. Clayton also speculates that free agency would start around July 15.

That’s far from ideal for anyone, but every team will be playing by the same rules, unless the new deal includes a “final eight’’ plan that limits what the top teams from last year can do in free agency.

That would keep the main free-agent signing period to about two weeks and it would make for a very busy time for general managers, front offices, coaching staffs and the free agents. But those general managers, front offices and coaching staffs have been sitting around for several months talking about what free agents they’re interested in. Teams know who they want and they might already have gotten the message across through agents before the lockout started.

If the gates open the way Clayton speculates, it will make for a hectic few weeks. But that will help make up for the silence of the last few months.

Bucs announce contingency plan

May, 26, 2011
The Buccaneers announced Thursday their offices will be shut down next week as part of a contingency plan for the league’s lingering lockout. The team also revealed a similar plan for Labor Day week if the work stoppages last into September.

However, if the labor situation is resolved without taking away any regular-season games, employees will be fully reimbursed for lost wages.

“The Buccaneers remain hopeful that the 2011 season will be played without interruption; presuming this occurs, the plan will essentially provide the team’s entire staff with an extra week of paid vacation,” said team spokesman Jonathan Grella. “And more importantly, this plan preserves jobs and does not ask employees to work for less or no pay.”
For the past few months, the question I get most from readers (and even family and friends, who repeatedly are told they’ve got a three-minute window to talk football when I see them) is almost always the same.

“When is the lockout going to end?’’ they ask.

I don’t know the answer and I often ask myself the same question. The whole labor situation is distasteful to a lot of fans, but everyone still wants to know if this mess is going to last into the regular season.

I just looked over on our main NFL page and the fine folks at SportsNation have a poll up, asking readers when they think the lockout will end. I emailed the folks over at SportsNation to get clearance to borrow their poll for the NFC South blog and they gladly shared it.

Take a look at the choices to the right and cast your vote. For the record, I’m casting mine for July. Maybe I’m optimistic, but I think a lot of what we’ve been seeing from owners and players is posturing.

I think when things get closer to the opening of training camps, the sense of urgency will kick in and a deal will get done. Let’s hear your thoughts with your vote and in the comments section below.
Like many of you, I don’t know exactly what to make of a judge’s decision to immediately end the NFL’s lockout of its players. The league already is asking for relief and an expedited stay, which would mean we’d just stay in limbo (and a lockout) for the immediate future.

One of the reasons I left law school many years ago was because I was bored with studying case law and all the drudgery that comes with it. That’s why I’ll leave the legal analysis to Lester Munson, who knows much more about these matters than I ever want to. According to Munson, this situation is far from over, but this is a huge early victory for the players.

Will the lockout open the door for free agency to start instantly or for players to be traded prior to or during the draft? Will players be allowed to show up at team facilities Tuesday to do all they can to make sure they collect workout and roster bonuses? I don’t know for sure, but I’m real curious to see if the possible end to the lockout allows Carolina’s brass to take calls from a certain little guy, who may want out and has been filling up the voicemails of an owner, general manager and coach while they weren’t allowed to talk to him in the last month or so. I'm also extremely curious to see if this situation prompts some other teams to call Carolina to see if the Panthers might be interested in trading the top pick in the draft.

What I do know with certainty is that we’ll be ready to react to whatever comes out of all this as soon as there is some clarity.

I’ve got a plane ticket to Charlotte for Wednesday because the Panthers hold the No. 1 pick and still seem to control the draft. Whatever happens, we know there definitely will be a draft.

The only other thing I know for sure is that the Power Rankings on quarterbacks, the most important position in the game, will be unveiled around the middle of the day Tuesday on this blog. I’ve already written the story that goes with those rankings. I can’t reveal the results just yet, but I can tell you that it’s going to be real interesting to see how Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman were viewed by the rest of the voters.

Stay tuned.
With the NFL draft only a little over 72 hours away, things just might have gotten a lot more complicated and, in some ways, more simplistic.

Chris Mortensen reports that a judge has granted a motion for a preliminary injunction in favor of the players, who have been locked out by owners since March. Mortensen also reports the NFL is expected to file a request for an immediate stay of the order.

We’ll leave that up to the legal community to sort out. But this could mean the end of the lockout and that’s going to make things very interesting if it officially takes place before the draft. Potentially, an end to the lockout could open the door for player trades and free agency. Both of those areas have been frozen throughout the lockout.

I talked to Carolina general manager Marty Hurney a few minutes before the news broke and he said the Panthers still haven’t made a final decision on what they’ll do with the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday night’s draft. Hurney said the Carolina scouts were in today for a series of meetings and there will be more meetings with coaches tomorrow.

Hurney also said he wasn’t sure if the Panthers would wait until they're on the clock Thursday night or indicate their plans before that. But I’ve got a feeling that if the lockout is indeed lifted, the Panthers absolutely will wait until they’re on the clock to show their intentions.

They’d be foolish not to. If players suddenly are available to be included in trades, the Panthers could be getting some phone calls they probably should at least listen to.

Around the NFC South

April, 20, 2011
Time for a swing through the NFC South headlines.

Looks like most mock drafts and analysts are saying the Carolina Panthers will take Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick. That all goes with the indications the Panthers have sent out, but they’ve also made it a point to say they haven’t made a final decision yet. I think there will be a final meeting soon and someone’s going to have to make a strong case against Newton for the Panthers to go in another direction. The chances of that are slim because I don’t think there’s anyone in Carolina’s building who is ready to make that argument.

Mike Triplett takes a look at New Orleans’ offensive line situation. He points out that center Jonathan Goodwin and left tackle Jermon Bushrod are potential free agents. The Saints drafted Charles Brown last year as a potential alternative to Bushrod and Brown could be in the plans. But offensive line is somewhat of a need for the Saints and they’ll probably add at least one lineman somewhere in this draft.

After looking at Atlanta’s schedule, Mark Bradley writes the best thing that could happen for the Falcons is for the lockout to wipe out the first five games. Valid point. Every one of those games is against a team that either went to the playoffs or won at least 10 games last season. In their final 11 games, the Falcons face only three opponents who went to last season’s playoffs and two of those are against division rival New Orleans.

“Monday Night Football’’ analyst Jon Gruden and Tampa Bay talk radio host Shaun King have squared off in a war of words. That’s nothing new. When King played quarterback for the Buccaneers and Gruden was the coach, they didn’t get along very well. Funny, but Gruden, who has a reputation for being a quarterback guru, also had rocky relationships with Jeff Garcia and Chris Simms in his Tampa Bay days.

Tampa Bay defensive end Gerald McCoy said his goals for this season are to reach double-digit sacks and for the Bucs to get to the playoffs. When you’re heading into your second season after being taken No. 3 overall in last year’s draft, those goals could be realistic. In fact, you might want to switch them from goals to expectations and make them the norm every year.
Football Outsiders has an Insider post saying that the lockout actually could help Green Bay’s chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions.

The article also mentions the Giants, Steelers, Seahawks and Patriots as other teams that could benefit from the lockout. I’m not going to dispute any of that. But, as I said in this post back at the start of the lockout, I think the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons belong on any list of teams that might benefit from a lengthy lockout.

Let’s start with the Saints. Yeah, they’ve got a long list of potential free agents, some who may be restricted and some who may be unrestricted. But you have to figure general manager Mickey Loomis has plans to keep most of the key guys. New Orleans also has a veteran coaching staff -- Sean Payton now is the dean of NFC South coaches -- that is largely intact. This is also a team with a lot of veteran players who know how to win.

But, more than anything, I think the Saints would be just fine if they miss most of the offseason and even part of training camp for one simple reason. Drew Brees could sleep, play golf and negotiate a new labor deal all summer and still roll out of bed on a Sunday in September and throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns.

The Falcons are pretty similar. They’re coming off a 13-3 season and Mike Smith, his coaching staff and system are now very entrenched. Atlanta has a nice mix of veterans and young players. And, most importantly, I think Matt Ryan could roll out of bed on a Sunday in September and throw for 275 yards and three touchdowns.

As I mentioned in the March article, I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers have a lot more to lose in a lengthy lockout. They were the two-youngest teams in the league last year and both are committed to their youth movements. The Bucs were very much on the rise last season, but they still need some practice time together, although I do think Josh Freeman has the ability to cushion some of that blow.

The Panthers are in an even tougher spot. New coach Ron Rivera needs the offseason time to install his system and get familiar with his players. Let’s take it a step further and say the Panthers take Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the first overall pick in next week’s draft. And let’s say the lockout wipes out all of the offseason workouts and most of training camp. In that scenario, Newton won’t even be able to look at a Carolina playbook until the lockout ends.

Anybody think Jimmy Clausen can roll out of bed on a September morning and go out and throw for 75 yards and three interceptions?
As ugly as it has been, the NFL lockout really hasn’t hit players in the wallet so far. That’s because, for the most part, players get paid only during the season.

The way it works is base salaries are paid in 17 checks (including the bye week) during the course of the regular season. That means no player is missing a regular paycheck until September, if the lockout lasts that long.

We’ve run through the handful of workout bonuses in the division that could be impacted. But the players haven’t lost that money yet because offseason workouts for most teams weren’t scheduled to start until later in March or early in April.

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIBefore the lockout, Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was slated to collect a roster bonus of $3.8 million on March 4.
But there are a handful of guys in the NFC South -- and all of them are pretty big names -- who actually have been hit hard by the lockout already. I just took a look at contract information for all four teams and looked at roster bonuses, which generally are payable on the first day of the league year. That was scheduled to be March 4, but the labor situation has prevented the lockout from starting.

So far, the biggest (financial) losers in the lockout are Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman and New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins. Each of the three already would have received a check for well over $3 million by now if the league year had started.

Weatherspoon was scheduled for a $3.8 million roster bonus. Freeman and Jenkins each were scheduled to get checks for $3.15 million. Some other prominent players around the division who have large roster bonuses are Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez ($2 million), Tampa Bay’s Earnest Graham ($1.15 million) and Brian Price ($510,000) and New Orleans’ Patrick Robinson ($391,000).

The other guy in this mix is New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas, who signed a four-year contract shortly before the lockout started. The Saints didn’t give Thomas a traditional signing bonus, but structured his deal to include a $2.7 million roster bonus.

This isn’t lost money because the players will get their roster bonuses as soon as a labor agreement is reached and a new league year officially kicks off. There also is the chance there could be legal action to seek workout bonuses and roster bonuses if the lockout lingers. The theory, among several agents, is that this is money the players are under contract for, but the NFL has prevented them from earning it by locking them out.

Like I said, the players probably will get their roster bonuses at some point. But wouldn’t you like to have picked up Weatherspoon’s check or Freeman’s check back on March 4 and already have collected a few weeks of interest?

Oh, one last thing. In preparing for a lockout long before anyone else, Carolina owner Jerry Richardson and general manager Marty Hurney made sure roster bonuses aren't an issue for the Panthers. Carolina's contract numbers show there's not a single player scheduled to earn a roster bonus in 2011.

Return trip to workout bonuses

March, 17, 2011
Since this story about the potential for lost workout bonuses around the league in a lockout is getting big play over on our news side right now, let’s go ahead and re-visit a Jan. 17 post I did on the same matter that details all the workout bonuses that are scheduled to be earned by NFC South players this offseason.

Generally, offseason workouts don’t start until later in March and players collect the bonuses if they take part in a specified percentage of the workouts -- usually 85 to 90 percent.

Here’s the team-by-team recap on workout bonuses.

New Orleans. This is a much bigger deal for the Saints than any other NFC South team. They have a division-high 12 players with workout bonuses in their contracts and 11 of them are well into six figures. Malcolm Jenkins has a team-high $350,000 workout bonus and Sedrick Ellis has a $250,000 workout bonus. Drew Brees and Jahri Evans each are scheduled to receive $200,000 bonuses and Will Smith has one for $150,000, while Robert Meachem is scheduled for a $147,000 bonus. Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Jon Stinchcomb and Devery Henderson each have a $100,000 bonus and Marques Colston has a $75,000 bonus. Tracy Porter is scheduled for a $7,280 workout bonus.

Atlanta. All general managers are different in how they spread out money in contracts. Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff isn’t a big fan of workout bonuses. In the past, he’s included some very small ones. But the Falcons don’t have a single true workout bonus for any of their players in 2011. Receiver Roddy White can earn up to $5 million in escalators based on Pro Bowl selections and participation in offseason workouts that would kick in later in his contract.

Carolina. General manager Marty Hurney used to include some workout bonuses in contracts and that was especially prevalent when defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins were in town because the Panthers felt they had to keep Peppers interested and Jenkins interested and in shape. But Hurney has steered clear of workout bonuses in recent years. There is not a single true workout bonus for any Carolina player this year. In fact, most of the contracts for the 2010 draft class include clauses where future salaries can de-escalate if players don’t participate in offseason workouts.

Tampa Bay. Donald Penn is scheduled to receive a division-high $400,000 workout bonus and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has a $300,000 bonus. The only other Tampa Bay player with a workout bonus in his contract is Ted Larsen and that’s for $7,280.
A lot of people are calling the NFL labor situation a battle of billionaires versus millionaires. There’s some truth in that, and it can be hard to feel much sympathy when you’re talking about a league that has made billions of dollars in recent years and many players who have made millions of dollars.

[+] EnlargeStephen Nicholas
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesFalcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas is among the many NFL players stuck in limbo because of the work-stoppage.
But there are some “little’’ people involved in this and those are the ones who deserve sympathy. With that in mind, I just called Atlanta Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas. As you may recall, he has a unique family situation. His son, Stephen Jr. , had a heart transplant as an infant. Stephen Jr. is 3 now and doing just fine -- I could hear him loud and clear in the background as his father and I talked.

When the league locked out players last week, benefits, including insurance, stopped. That might not be all that big a deal for many players who are young, healthy and single. But think about getting insurance for your family when you have a child who has had major medical issues.

“It’s a challenge,’’ Nicholas said. “But my wife and financial advisor did a good job preparing for this, because we knew for a long time there was the possibility of a lockout. We’ve got insurance. It’s expensive, but it’s not unbearable.’’

Nicholas didn’t want to get into the exact cost of the insurance and said the lockout has yet to fully hit home.

“If you just go by the calendar, there aren’t a lot of big differences right now,’’ Nicholas said. “This is the time of year when you usually work out on your own and spend time with your family. The end of March is when the (organized team activities start), and it will be weird if there still is a lockout. It will be even more weird if they have a draft and there’s still a lockout. How can you draft and not know what you have on your team?’’

Nicholas said he’s optimistic a labor agreement can be reached before long, but he admits he -- and a lot of other players -- are facing uncertain futures. Nicholas has four years of service in the NFL and doesn’t have a contract for 2011. Depending on the structure of any potential labor agreement, Nicholas could be an unrestricted free agent, which would allow him to sign with any team, or a restricted free agent, meaning the Falcons would have a chance to match offers from other teams.

Nicholas said his agent was told the Falcons were placing a restricted tender on him. But it remains to be seen if that tender will be valid in a new labor agreement.

“It’s out of my control,’’ Nicholas said. “All I can do is work out and wait and hope that things get worked out before too long.’’
Very interesting story by Roy Cummings about the new look at Raymond James Stadium.

Those of us who live in the Tampa Bay area have gotten very used to driving by the stadium and seeing those massive banners of players -- eight of them. Well, they’re gone now. A team official told Cummings there were other factors involved in the decision to take down the banners. But you can draw your own conclusions about the timing. In other words, the banners came down right about the same time the NFL declared a lockout.

Makes you wonder if this is something we could see more of around the league. I don’t know all the legalities, and I sure as heck don’t know what teams might have up their sleeves as the labor battle and finger-pointing that comes with it continues to escalate.

I’m just thinking out loud and using one example here, but what about that nifty television ad that’s been running for months with the Atlanta Falcons (we’re talking players, coaches and owner Arthur Blank) riding on the school bus?

Do the Falcons or the league step in and make it disappear? Or maybe the players step in and make it go away because they don’t want to market a team and a league that’s locked them out?
If NFL players succeed in their attempt to have the lockout lifted by the legal system, the pool of unrestricted free agents is going to get a lot smaller than expected.

Mark Maske reports the league would invoke a system in which players with expired contracts and less than six years of service would not be eligible for unrestricted free agency. For example, Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, who has five years of service and no current contract, would be a restricted free agent. The Panthers already prepared for that possibility by sending Williams notice of a tender.

On the flip side, players like Tampa Bay linebacker Barrett Ruud, who has played six season and is not under contract, would be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

If the lockout is lifted, there will be no salary cap, just like in 2010. Teams also will be given one extra franchise or transition tag.

Hitting the NFC South hot spots

March, 13, 2011
Let’s take a plunge into the NFC South mailbag.

Shane in Seminole, Fla. asks if Tampa Bay safety Tanard Jackson will be allowed to participate in offseason programs and preseason games, assuming the lockout is resolved, as he finishes his suspension.

Pat Yasinskas: No, Jackson was suspended late last September and the league suspended him for at least a full year. He’s not even eligible to apply for reinstatement until the full year has passed. He’s not allowed to have any contact or involvement with the Bucs until he is reinstated. Logically, the Bucs aren’t really counting on having him back. Even if does get reinstated, I’m not sure they’ll keep him because it’s tough to put a lot of stock in a player who could be one more mistake away from a lifetime ban.

Jonathan in Odessa, Texas wrote to say that he understands players can’t be contacted by teams and asks how that applies to the draft. He wonders if teams can even call players to tell them they’re going to be picked.

Pat Yasinskas: I don’t think that’s an issue with rookies. Teams are still allowed to talk to draft prospects and visit with them over the coming weeks. Unless there’s some real bizarre rule I’m not aware of, I’m sure they’ll be able to call the players they’re drafting. It’s after the draft that things get weird, and draft picks fall into the same category as other players. They won’t be able to sign contracts until there is some sort of resolution, and they can’t take part in any workouts at the team facility or under the guidance of the coaches as long as there is a lockout.

Mike in Vicksburg, Miss. asks if Drew Brees' heavy involvement on the players’ side of the labor situation could impact his relationship with coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and owner Tom Benson.

Pat Yasinskas: I doubt it. Yes, Brees has taken a very active role in the labor situation. But that’s just Brees being Brees. He’s a leader in whatever he does. Payton and Loomis aren’t really involved in this whole labor mess, and I believe they see Brees as one of many players who are just looking out for long-term welfare. As far as if this could create friction with Benson, again, I think the relationship is strong enough to withstand this. Also, Benson hasn’t exactly been one of the owners at the front of the negotiations.

JM in Charlotte asks if I were Carolina general manager Marty Hurney and was going to use the first pick on a quarterback, would it be Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert?

Pat Yasinskas: Personally, I’d get a transition quarterback via free agency or a trade and look for the franchise guy in another year or two. But, since you framed the question like that, I’ll go with Gabbert. While I think Newton has much more upside, I also think he comes with a lot of downside. Gabbert might not have as much upside, but he doesn’t have the downside. This is a pick where the Panthers can’t really afford to swing and miss.

Is the sky is falling?

March, 11, 2011
Well, it looks like the labor talks have fallen apart -- in pretty ugly fashion. Already, the league and the players’ union are pointing figures at each other. The union has applied for decertification and we’re waiting to hear if the league will implement a lockout.

You can follow all the action over on our news side. If a lockout is declared, we’ll have full analysis on how that will impact each NFC South team.

Things may get pretty quiet around the football world in the coming weeks, but that won’t be the case here. We’ll continue to prepare for the draft, which will still go on with or without a labor agreement. The NFC South blog will be at the annual NFL meeting, which still is scheduled to begin March 20.

We’ll continue with the weekly NFC South chats on Fridays and we’ve got some other plans to fill the time. We might get a little creative in some ways, and I’m open to your suggestions. One thing I’m thinking about doing if there is a lockout is taking a ride out to One Buccaneer Place. I’ve got a credential that should still be good to get me on the property.

Sad to say, Josh Freeman's also got one of those cards and, if there is a lockout, his card won’t work.