Teams once again will throw money at free agents

Poised for the start of another free-agency signing period, an exercise in which financial boondoggles historically have outnumbered bargains by a wide margin, league general managers and personnel directors at least deserve credit for one thing.


Remember last year, when the free-agent market opened with teams spouting buzzwords such as "fiscal responsibility" and "restraint" and "prudent spending," then going through money in the first week of the signing period as if they were locusts attacking the lower 40? Well, there is no such rhetoric this time around, folks. At the scouting combine in Indianapolis over the weekend, general managers acknowledged there will be a feeding frenzy when clubs are permitted to dive into the market at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

There was no pretense about attempting to wait until the market set its own level. No trying to camouflage the intent to spend big bucks on the few top-shelf players in the unrestricted-free-agent talent pool. In short, no sign of discernible restraint, especially by those franchises that have created a cozy cap cushion.

Never mind that two-thirds of the players on the rosters of the teams that played in Super Bowl XXXIX were homegrown. Forget that the history of free agency is rife with bad deals. So what if the streets of free agency are lined with fool's gold. None of that seems to matter this year. There is money to be spent, by gosh, and teams are going to spend it.

The consensus of personnel experts surveyed at the combine was that, as in past years, the '05 free-agent class is a shallow one. Those same personnel chiefs conceded, though, that their teams will dig deep to sign unrestricted players.

"People do crazy things just for the chance, the promise, of maybe having a better team," said Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, who was scheduled to arrive in Phoenix on Tuesday night just three hours before the official start of free agency, but still planned to be on the phone to prospective veteran signees when the clock struck midnight. "You say to yourself, 'Oh, if I make this move, sign this guy, I've got a chance to win.' And more often than not, you convince yourself to do it, OK? To be truthful, free agency really isn't a good time for rational people because you get crazy."

Indeed, free agency is a time in which otherwise very smart men quickly become dumb, it seems. And armed with more leaguewide salary cap space this year than at any other time during the current system, teams are about to lose their heads -- and much of their owners' money.

By unofficial count, there are only 86 unrestricted free agents in the market who started eight or more games in 2004. Some of those will re-sign with their incumbent teams by the start of the free-agency period Wednesday morning. The number will be augmented a bit by players released for salary cap reasons. But even some nonstarters will command a surprising level of attention once the market opens for business.

Teams are ready, for sure, to throw both caution and money to the wind.

"It's like when you get a raise at work," new Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "You say you're not going to spend the money, that you're going to save it. But money has a way of burning a hole in your pocket."

If history is any indicator, more than pockets will get burned this year in the scramble to throw good money after mediocre players. But the results of the past apparently won't slow the market. When the (long) green flag drops in this year's free-agent derby, it will be as if commissioner Paul Tagliabue intoned, "Gentlemen, get out your checkbooks," to signal the start of what figures to be a frenetic and pricey race to acquire veteran players.

Last spring, despite their purported good intentions, teams snatched up the majority of the quality free agents within the first 10 days of the signing period. The combination of big money to spend and few top-shelf players on whom to invest it could mean the shopping spree is even quicker in 2005.

Picture the scene at Filene's Basement when the legendary Boston department store has its annual sale on wedding gowns. That's about the degree of recklessness we can expect in the first few days of free agency this year.

There are, according to the NFL Players Association figures, a dozen franchises with at least $10 million in cap space and another four teams who are $20 million or more under the spending limit of $85.5 million. The league, collectively at least, is more cap healthy than ever before. The upshot: Players and their agents know they can get some sick deals done, at mind-boggling numbers, in such a rare environment.

"All it takes is that first deal at a high-commodity position, like cornerback, and everyone jumps in," Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Forget all the cost projections you've spent weeks, maybe even months, working on. Once the market sets itself with those opening deals, all that stuff goes out the window. People get crazy. They absolutely lose their minds."

Case in point: The Atlanta Falcons went into free agency a year ago desperately needing a veteran cornerback and having targeted Jason Webster of San Francisco, a player who was familiar to rookie head coach Jim Mora, who had been defensive coordinator of the 49ers. As injuries had limited Webster to only five appearances in 2003, the Falcons felt they could sign him for a reasonable price, maybe two weeks into free agency. But when eight other cornerbacks went off the market in the first three days of the signing period, and with signing bonus numbers that stunned even the players' agents, Atlanta could not afford to be a spectator.

The Falcons signed Webster to a contract that included $7 million in upfront money, perhaps double what they originally thought it would take. Beset again by injuries, the veteran cornerback appeared in just 10 games. Over a two-year period, he has started just a dozen contests. But if Webster isn't healthy, his checking account surely is, thanks to that hefty signing bonus.

In fairness to Atlanta, its other big-money free agency acquisition of 2004, defensive tackle Rod Coleman, was a brilliant move. Playing the key "under" tackle position, Coleman rung up 11½ sacks in his first season in Atlanta, the second most in the NFL by an interior defender. But even batting .500 in big free agency signings, as did Atlanta, doesn't reconcile some of the shoddy investments.

"Sometimes you violate your own rules," Falcons president/general manager Rich McKay allowed. "Was signing Webster so quickly a little bit of a panic move? Yeah, it was, because we had to get a corner and everybody was signing one. But that happens with free agency. I think there's as much risk in free agency as in the draft."

In theory, it wasn't supposed to be that way, personnel experts agree. With veteran players, the widely held rationale suggested, there is a body of work from which to evaluate unrestricted free agents. So there should be fewer mistakes of judgment, the errors in assessing a player's skills, than there are in analyzing draft prospects. Theory has not held true, though, in application.

Teams strike out on free agents every year, in part because they don't project their strengths and weaknesses into a new environment, and often a veteran who played well in one system flops in another.

Said McKay: "You're changing the dynamic, bringing in a guy who has played one way all his NFL career and putting him with a new coach, in a new system, in a new locker room, surrounded by new people. But you're also changing his financial status, and you just don't know how some guys will react to that."

Over the history of free agency, many players haven't responded well to new and more demanding responsibilities and, just as much, to their new tax bracket. Certainly it isn't just happenstance that the history of free agency is marked by veterans who didn't come close on the field to living up to their fat salaries.

That won't be a deterrent, though, in this year's market.

"The thing is," Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said, "that there's just one team that holds up the [Vince Lombardi] trophy at the end of the season. And if you aren't that team, there is tremendous implied pressure to improve, to do whatever is possible to get that trophy the next year. And so teams fall into the old 'grass is greener' mind-set in evaluating players. You start to see more of the warts on your own guys and less of the deficiencies in someone else's player. And, usually, that's a trap."

That trap, it appears, is going to bag a lot more sucker teams this season. There was so much tampering transpiring at the Indianapolis combine sessions -- with prominent agents being courted openly by owners, literally wined and dined as they laid the foundation for quick free-agent deals -- that the market figures to be a frantic one right out of the chute.

There have been deals made already, for sure. And you can bet, too, there already are some mistakes made by teams who have under-the-table agreements because they want to get a jump on the rest of the league's franchises.

In any year, the price of doing business in free agency is expensive. This year, with so much money to toss it around, and so few quality players at whom to toss it, the price tag is apt to explode.

"If you're going to jump in the lake," Green said, "you'd better be ready to start swimming as soon as you hit the water. That's just the way it is."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.