- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Reality has led to a whole lot of procrastination as free agency is set to begin.
On Sunday, the NFL announced the salary cap was going to be $120.6 million, only $225,000 more than last year. The flat cap is understandable. Revenues were down because of the 136-day lockout. Plus, the NFLPA had to do some scrambling just to get an increase in the cap.
What's been interesting is watching the procrastination. Until Monday, only about 32 re-signings have occurred leaguewide, which is roughly one per team. Most teams waited until the eve of free agency to cut deals to prevent players from hitting the market.
Teams did use 21 franchise tags to block the exits of players, but six were used on kickers and a punter, the lowest-priced players. This will lead to a wild scramble until 4 p.m. ET Tuesday to see whether teams can sign their top remaining free agents.
With free agency so close, more agents might encourage their players to hit the market to test their values, causing plenty of coaches to worry the next few days.
Will a flat cap lead to a flat market? We'll see.
The lower franchise tag numbers because of five-year averaging of the franchise numbers already have prevented some deals from going wild. Drew Brees was asking for $23 million a year. The New Orleans Saints were offering $18.5 million. Brees got franchised at $14.436 million until he gets a new deal.
Regardless of the numbers, the action will be frenzied this week. As of Sunday, there were 436 unsigned free agents.
From the inbox
Q: I think the [Indianapolis] Colts made the right decision letting Peyton Manning go and using their No. 1 draft choice to select Andrew Luck. However, if Andrew Luck had entered the NFL draft last year, do you think the Colts would have made the same decision and let Peyton Manning go and selected Robert Griffin III with their No. 1 overall choice? Or do you think they would have re-signed Peyton Manning?
James in Atlanta
A: Great question. I'm not sure. Their plan was to keep Manning for five years. That was the length of the contract he signed. His neck injury changed things. My read would be that they would have drafted Griffin. After 14 years with Manning, the Colts wanted to rebuild. They have a new general manager, a new coach, a new philosophy. They probably would have wanted a new quarterback if they had questions about Manning's throwing because of his neck surgeries.
Q: Do you think there is a chance that the [Chicago] Bears go after Mario Williams to start opposite Julius Peppers? I think the addition of Williams could help the defense by not having the linebackers and cornerbacks blitz the quarterback so much on passing downs, considering there are enough open holes on the field when the Bears are in the Tampa 2 defense.
John in Naperville, Ill.
A: In the salary-cap era, I can't see a team paying two defensive ends $14 million a year. Although it looks great on paper, it doesn't work well for the capologists, particularly in the early part of a new CBA that has flat caps. Sure, you can structure a deal that can work for a year or two, but the big numbers at one position eventually catch up to a team. A Cover 2 team can do great when it has two pass-rushers, but it would be hard to feature the two highest-paid ends in the league and still take care of other positions.
Q: Why are the [Houston] Texans letting Mario Williams leave? Not only was he their first-round pick a few years ago, but he is a dominant player at one of the largest areas of need for any Super Bowl hopeful -- DE. I know they had other players to consider, but I don't understand this.
James in Huntington, W.Va.
A: You have to get the feeling the Texans felt as if they could win without him when they hired Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator. Williams is a great 4-3 pass-rusher. They knew he was going to cost $15 million a year to re-sign. He had five sacks in his first five games before getting hurt. They figured he could get 16 to 18 sacks. But they also had two very good pass-rushers, Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin, who combined for 17½ sacks. It's hard to pay that much money for a linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Great ends make more than linebackers, and there is a salary cap. Something had to give.
Q: How does an incentive-laden contract affect a team's salary cap? If Peyton signs a contract for say $5 million a year but the incentives could make it possible for him to make $15 million, does his new team have to leave that additional 10 million free in cap room in case he meets his incentives?
Brad in Beverly, Mass.
A: If a team writes the contract to pay him the $10 million of incentives that year, it has to leave the room. You can never go over the cap. It could do the same things in other ways by having the $10 million or a portion of it go into the next year. It can tie the extra money into an option bonus that is paid the next year and have the proration of the bonus spread over the remainder of the contract. There are a lot of ways to do that, but if it's having him get the $10 million as the season goes along, the team would have to leave the room.
Q: There are a few key points I think people are missing about where Peyton Manning will ultimately decide to play in 2012. I think he will chose the weaker conference, the AFC, much like Joe Montana did back in 1993. He's been linked to the [Arizona] Cardinals in the NFC, but their offensive line would time warp him to the 2010 Colts. In the AFC he's been linked to the [Miami] Dolphins, [Kansas City] Chiefs and [New York] Jets. In college he went to Tennessee to escape the spotlight of Archie at Mississippi. It is for this reason I believe he will chose KC and the smaller media market a la Jeff Fisher. They also have the most stable franchise of the aforementioned teams.
Tim in Knoxville, Tenn.
A: You're on the right track. It's not as though he fears the competition, but he's trying to find the right spot to help him get back to the Super Bowl. If he goes to Miami, he could finish second to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and have to make it as a wild-card team. If he had gone to Washington, he might have finished second to his brother or the Dallas Cowboys. That's why Arizona, the Denver Broncos and Kansas City have good chances.
Leonard via a mobile phone
A: Now that we know they are targeting him, you probably have to put the Redskins in the lead. Before, I had the Bears, but Redskins owner Dan Snyder doesn't lose bidding wars. He outbid the Browns to get RG3. Now he needs to get receiver help to make that work. Jackson would fit in Mike Shanahan's offense the way Brandon Marshall did when coach and player were together in Denver.
Q: The AFC West was pretty mediocre last year (so was the NFC East?), but the NFC North had some good competition. Which divisions do you see rising and falling in competitiveness next year?
Peter in Brunswick, Maine
A: Believe it or not, the NFC West is getting interesting. It's probably a year from being really good, but it's a division that has Jeff Fisher, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. It could have Peyton Manning in the division. The defenses are getting better. The NFC South might be the best division now that the Carolina Panthers are becoming good again. It's the one division that has four great quarterbacks.
Mike in Pittsburgh
A: I like your thinking. Smith will go great at left tackle. Doug Free would be great at right tackle. I like some of the young players in the middle of the line. But to add one of the best guards in football not only would help the running game but would make things easier for Tony Romo at quarterback. Cowboys, go for it.
A scramble to sign potential free agents before the deadline is likely, John Clayton writes in his latest mailbag.