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Sunday, March 3, 2013
Don't expect free-agency quick fix

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The excitement of free agency is building.

Fans look to the free-agency period for hope. Bad teams hope to get better with the ability to add new starters. On Friday, the salary cap got a slight bump from a projected $120.9 million to $123 million after the NFLPA agreed to borrow from future benefits. The extra room might mean a couple of additions for teams that might be close to the cap.

But the past couple of weeks should provide a "buyer beware" note to the process. Fans often think football is like fantasy football, where teams can simply add a big name to solve a weakness. That really isn't the case.

Good teams are built through the draft, not free agency. Sure, a bad team can get a kick-start if it has the cap room to add a few starters, but free-agent acquisitions often don't last the length of their contracts. Last week was just a reminder.

The Atlanta Falcons released halfback Michael Turner with one year left on his contract. They also released cornerback Dunta Robinson, who signed a six-year, $57 million contract in 2010. He was let go after three seasons. Since the middle of the season, the Falcons also released Ray Edwards and John Abraham, defensive ends brought in to build up the pass rush.

The Detroit Lions had to make changes on two of their 2010 free agent acquisitions. Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch was cut after three years of his four-year contract. Wide receiver Nate Burleson took a $2.5 million pay cut to stay with the Lions. He signed a five-year, $25 million contract in 2010.

Nnamdi Asomugha
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha could be the next Eagles "Dream Team" addition to be released.

The Philadelphia Eagles continued to undo the 2011 "Dream Team" offseason. The breakup started last year when they released defensive end Jason Babin. Last month, they cut defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins. If cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha doesn't take a paycut from his $15 million base salary, he could be released. It's uncertain whether the Eagles will re-sign cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who came to Philadelphia in 2011 in the trade that sent Kevin Kolb to Arizona.

Free agency fills needs but doesn't build teams. If a team can get three years out of a free agent, it is lucky. Look at the 2010 unrestricted free-agent class. Because of the pending lockout in 2011, teams were reluctant to hit free agency. Even though it was an uncapped year, only 51 players signed.

From that group, 14 players signed contracts for four years or longer. Of those 14, only defensive end Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears), Burleson, guard Wade Smith (Houston Texans) and linebacker Karlos Dansby (Miami Dolphins) remain under contract with their teams.

From the free-agent class of 2011, wide receiver Steve Breaston (Kansas City Chiefs), linebacker Stewart Bradley (Arizona Cardinals), linebacker Clint Session (Jacksonville Jaguars) and tight end Kevin Boss (Chiefs) have been among the released players.

With a tight salary cap for the next couple of years, it's hard for a team to be able to have more than eight players with contracts averaging over $6 million a year. That's why it's becoming vital for teams to get starters out of the draft.

Teams are still trying to figure out if there is going to be a big bump in the cap number in 2015 or 2016, but they've got to operate prudently over the next couple of years.

Tight caps eliminate much of the middle class of players. It makes the jobs of general managers and capologists tougher.

Signings will happen, and they will generate excitement in those cities. But free agency still isn't the way to build rosters. So much for Dream Teams.

From the inbox

Q: I'm a huge Packers fan living in Chicago. Jermichael Finley says he will refuse to take a pay cut this offseason, which is fine with me. I think we should show him the door and use that money to franchise Greg Jennings, who is way more valuable to the offense. Would it be worth it to keep Jennings, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson together for one more year, or will this hurt us in our negotiations with Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews?

Jack in Chicago

A: That would be a very solid consideration. I don't know if the Packers can afford to lose Jennings, Donald Driver and Finley. Last year, the Packers had the deepest group of pass-catchers in football. While they can get by without Jennings, losing too much could slow down Rodgers and their offense. The Packers operate in a very smart manner.

Q: After setting themselves up for the upcoming season, if an NFL team finds itself in a spot with some cap room left, can they rework a player's contract to "pay it forward?" In essence, bumping up their cap number this year to give flexibility in future years? Injury makes this risky, but not much worse than guaranteed signing bonuses.

Brian in Janesville, Wis.

A: They can do that but it might not open too much room. When you replace base salary with a signing bonus, you still have to prorate that bonus over the length of the contract. That eats up cap room. It could work on a short-term basis. Let's say you have a six-year contract. If the cap stays flat until 2015 or 2016, you could get some short-term relief for, say, 2014 and maybe 2015. But those deals have to be done before the start of the regular season. A veteran's contract is guaranteed after the first game of the regular season, and that makes it tougher to get a deal done.

Q: I've been a Lions fan since the Barry Sanders days. The Lions have many needs, but the No. 9 pick could be high risk with little reward. The 49ers are stacked with picks after the Alex Smith trade. Would you consider it a good move for the Lions to try and trade the ninth pick for the 49ers' 31st and 34th pick, thus allowing Lions to pick-up three potential starters with the 31st, 34th and 36th picks?

From Greg in Iowa City, Iowa

A: It would make sense for the Lions to get more draft choices, but a move down to 31 would be tough. First, the 49ers would have to be interested. That's a question mark. Second, the draft choice price has to be right. As far as the value chart, 31, 34 and 63 (in the third round) generate enough points to equal the value of the ninth pick in the draft. I'm not sold the 49ers would be satisfied with what they can get at No. 9. Still, it is a consideration. The 49ers have 15 draft choices and not enough spots on the roster to fit in all those rookies. Something has to give.

Q: With the current salary cap and readjusted draft payouts, is it better to acquire players through free agency or the draft for the Eagles, notably for the offensive line and defensive backfield?

Ted in Philadelphia

A: It's always been better to do it through the draft, and the reasons are even more pronounced now. In free agency, you really only expect to get three years of service, even if you sign the player to a five-year deal. The cap numbers in the final two years don't usually equal the players' value by that time. The player often is close to 30 or older. In the draft, you have the player for the first four years of his career and probably longer if you wish to re-sign him.

Q: With a flat cap, do you foresee a trend of largely back-loaded contracts? Every prediction I've seen is that the salary cap is going to balloon in the next few years once the numbers reflect the new TV money. I understand that free agents want big signing bonuses, but why not put big guaranteed money on the back end of contracts as, one, a way to entice free agents and, two, to deal with the cap squeeze this year? Or is there something in the collective bargaining agreement against this? My Redskins may be in a cap bind this year, but it's not for a lack of revenue. Why not sign players to minimum contracts this year with ballooning, guaranteed money on the back end?

Jon G in Washington, D.C.

A: Players want as much money up front as possible, but flat caps leave them in a pinch to get those types of deals. It's all about leverage. To get the top free agents, teams have to play. The tight cap is wiping out a lot of the middle class, and that will create bargains for a team such as the Redskins, but you don't build too much out of those types of deals because they are usually one-year deals. More teams are trying guarantees in the second year or the third year, but it has to be a player the team thinks can be around for three years. In this league, three years is an eternity. With the turnover of coaches every two or three years, the next administration doesn't like seeing those guarantees.

Q: What's the purpose of a salary cap if every team just ends up restructuring players' salaries into signing bonuses? Why wouldn't GMs just give the initial offer of a huge signing bonus with a minimal salary up front? Feels like a loophole in the system.

From Tyler in Santa Barbara, Calif.

A: It's really not a loophole. Call it flexibility. The Steelers restructured Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons and Antonio Brown by turning base salary into signing bonus. That freed up $14.4 million of cap room, but it came with a price. Next year, the Steelers lose $5.55 million of cap room because the proration is carried over into the 2014 salary cap and leaves them with less money. It gets trickier if the team wants to release one of those players because the cap hit would be more when they are released. The cap is a hard cap, but teams have the flexibility to borrow room from the future to help now. But it catches up to a team at some point.

Q: One of the big questions this offseason is the Miami Dolphins and their questions at receiver. Based off of who is going to be a free agent, what do you think would be the perfect situation for them, and what do you think will actually happen?

From Shaun in Athens, Ohio

A: Mike Wallace of the Steelers makes the most sense to me. He has speed and can be an outside threat. They have enough to work the middle of the field as long as they add a tight end. Jennings would be an interesting addition, but as he gets older, he might move more toward the slot. Wallace can be an outside threat for the next couple of years.

Q: With Denard Robinson struggling a bit to catch the ball and being projected as a later-round pick for WR, wouldn't it be worth it for the Eagles to draft him and give him a shot to compete as a QB in Chip Kelly's offense? Worst-case scenario, it doesn't work out and they add a good athlete to return kicks and provide a Josh Cribbs-type role.

From Paul in Kent, Ohio

A: Any team drafting Robinson has got to look at him as a receiver. I think he might be all right as a pass-catcher. He doesn't have the arm to handle the backup quarterback job in the NFL. To his credit, he is willing to work at receiver and not force the issue by trying to be a quarterback. I always thought Seneca Wallace could have been a good receiver. Robinson has the same potential.