This is shaping up to be an unprecedented free agency period in the NFL.
On one hand, you have a salary cap that continues to remain flat, yet the top players continue to be given raises. One way to combat that is to beef up the roster with draft picks and undrafted free agents.
That in turn will cause a salary crunch in the middle, and most personnel executives in Indianapolis for the scouting combine expected many more mid-level free agents to come on the market before the start of free agency March 12.
That would be great if teams were teeming with salary-cap space. They are not.
As of Thursday night — before a rash of renegotiations, cuts, and franchise tags was announced — 15 teams had less than $10 million available against a $123 million cap. When you factor in that each team needs to save $4 million to sign draft picks, that means 47 percent of the league was going to be challenged to add any free agents above bargain basement.
“More veterans are going to be on the street,” said an NFC executive. “There isn’t much cap space out there. That means that the supply of free agents is going to seriously outweigh the demand.”
The big-time talents will get paid by the teams with huge amounts of cap space: the Dolphins ($45.4 million), Browns ($46.3 million), Colts ($45.1 million), Buccaneers ($31.9 million), Eagles ($32.4 million), and, to a lesser extent because of their history of frugality in signing other players, the Bengals ($55.5 million).
The next group, in which the Patriots reside, is where it will get really interesting. There are nine teams that have $12 million-$26 million under the cap. The Patriots, after Tom Brady’s restructure, had $24.99 million available. That puts them with the eighth-most cap space in the league.
Most NFL executives, because of the supply, figure that several good players will be available at much less than their normal market value.
We could see a situation in which a team that is a contender, like the Patriots, is in position to entice several free agents to take cut-rate one-year contracts to play on a good team, compete for a title, and then try free agency again next year. But with the cap expected to remain flat, it could be a two-year deal, depending on the player’s age, to hit free agency in 2015 when the cap is expected to increase by $5 million.
Of course, it’s not wise to get into a situation in which you’re adding too many players, no matter the price. It’s rare that a team that brings in a bunch of new players — Eagles’ “dream team” anyone? — and actually becomes championship-caliber. Keeping your own and adding players at key spots is usually the way to go.
Another interesting — and new — aspect to free agency is the three-day negotiating window starting March 9 when teams can begin talking to the agents of free agents. Nobody is quite sure how it will affect things.
“I don’t know that there’s going to be a lot done in the first 24 hours of that time period,” said Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. “That’s just a guess.
“Some of the bulk of what we can get done needs to happen before that time and so that’s what we’re trying to get done and then that three-day window is obviously going to be competitive because of that openness of negotiating. But exactly how it’s going to change things I’m not exactly sure yet.”
Teams will be reluctant to disclose too much to an agent because he can just go shop the deal.
“You can now exchange papers but you can’t bring the player in,” Ireland said. “But then there’s three days of that. So whatever you give to an agent in the first 24 hours, you’ve got 48 hours left to continue doing your work. So, it’s a bit sketchy.”
Others are more sharp in their criticism.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said an AFC general manager. “Once again, it’s something that purely comes from [the league office] without any regard for football. It’s all about business.
“They are trying to come up with some sort of artificial period designed to drive fan interest and set up some sort of ridiculous signing day at the end. The only thing it’s going to do is drive the prices up on players. Good luck with that, with the way the cap is.”
Another AFC personnel executive didn’t think there will be too much of a difference.
“I think it’s actually going to even things out a little bit more, take some of the inside, ahead-of-time deals out of the equation,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to jack up the prices more than normal. That always happens the first few days of free agency.”
GAME OF ADJUSTMENTS
Kelly can tailor offense around players’ skills
With the arrival of Manchester, N.H., native Chip Kelly as coach of the Eagles, everyone is wondering whether or not a pocket quarterback like Nick Foles can function in Kelly’s offense. At the combine, Kelly said yes, because he’ll fit his scheme to whoever is running it, and he harkened back to his UNH days from 1994-2006.
“When I was at the University of New Hampshire, we threw it every down because that guy [Ricky Santos] was really good,” Kelly said. “He threw 123 touchdowns and  interceptions in a four-year span and ran, probably, 5.0 in the 40 [yard dash]. So we catered to his strengths and I threw the ball more there than I did at Oregon.
“When I got to Oregon, I was fortunate that Dennis Dixon was sitting on our roster and Dennis could run, and [running back] Jonathan Stewart was there and Jeremiah Johnson and three offensive linemen [Max Unger, Geoff Schwartz, Fenuki Tupou] so you’re going to play to their strengths. That’s what I think any good coach does: You figure out what your personnel can do and you play to their strengths.”
All of Kelly’s previous offenses have played at breakneck speed. He said he hasn’t discovered any reason why it can’t work in the NFL, but downplayed how fast he would like to go.
“We didn’t play fast every single play at Oregon,” he said. “We didn’t lead the nation in plays run at Oregon [they were in the top 10].
“I think the ability to get in and out of it is a key deal, but I don’t think you can do anything all the time — can’t run the ball every down, can’t play fast every down, can’t throw the ball every down.”
Kelly was famous for his sideline cards, which told everyone on the field what the next play was. He didn’t think the coach-to-quarterback communication will allow him to go faster.
“You’re only talking to one guy,” Kelly said. “You still have to get all the information to the other 10 guys, so I don’t see that as being a faster thing.”
Elway wants Broncos to take the next step
At 13-3 and with the best record in the AFC, the Broncos quickly rose to Super Bowl contender to join the Patriots, Ravens, and Texans in the conference. But team president John Elway knows the Broncos need to take the next step.
“I feel much better standing here now than I did two years ago,” said Elway, referring to the 4-12 team he was put in charge of in early 2011. “Thirteen and three was not good enough. It was nice, we won the division, had the home field. But when you lose in the first round of the playoffs, you know you have to get better.
“And whether you get better to play in the regular season, you have to learn how to play in the postseason. You make your money in the regular season. But you make your legacy in the postseason as a player.”
A winless postseason — the Broncos lost in OT at home to the Ravens after a bye — obviously has left a bitter taste.
“I believe you have to be tougher [in the postseason],” Elway said. “The expectations rise. The regular season, you have next week. But in the postseason, you have to be able to learn how to play with sudden death.
“That’s why great teams flourish in the playoffs. You look at the Ravens, what they did in the playoffs, it was impressive. Joe Flacco stepped up and played great. And they really came together as a team.”
Elway hopes an improving health situation for quarterback Peyton Manning (spinal fusion surgery) will be a key factor.
Coach John Fox explained that Manning’s recovery will be a constant thing.
“The reality is it’s a nerve situation and it takes time for nerves to grow,” Fox said. “He’s getting better every day so I think, health-wise, he’ll be better than this year.
“He’ll have a full offseason for his whole body to get ready, not just the arm, the neck and some of those rehab things. He can actually work out now. I think he’ll just get stronger and better.”
Patriots have options to sign a defensive end
The position I keep hearing most associated with the Patriots in free agency — and, because of the length of time between the combine and the start of free agency March 12, it’s not as loud as in past years — is defensive end. According to league sources, the Patriots would have gotten in on Bengals end Michael Johnson, but he was wisely tagged by the Bengals. He’s a 6-foot-7-inch, 270-pound athletic freak who had 4.6 speed but slipped to the third round in the 2009 draft because of questions about his work ethic and injury history. The 26-year-old had 11.5 sacks in his contract year. Even if Johnson hadn’t been franchised, two personnel executives I talked to didn’t think the Patriots would have had nearly enough money to land Johnson, which is why Colts end Dwight Freeney or some other veteran such as John Abraham of the Falcons might make more economic sense. Cullen Jenkins (6-2, 305), who was cut loose by the Eagles for economic reasons, could be helpful as a versatile tackle/end to help provide rush. He tends to get nicked up, so his snaps would have to be managed, but at the right price Jenkins is a solid player and great locker room presence. Former Boston College standout Antonio Garay (6-4, 320) is another.
1. If the Patriots were to make a run at a top receiver, they have all the information they need on Dwayne Bowe, who may or may not be tagged by the Chiefs, through former Patriots. Scott Pioli had him for four years as general manager of the Chiefs (and recently said he would tag Bowe if still in charge of the Chiefs), Romeo Crennel was there for three years, and offensive assistant Brian Daboll was Bowe’s offensive coordinator last year. Bowe has some serious attitude and dropped-ball baggage but is very talented.
2. Speaking of Daboll, let’s hope he brings a little bit more in the talent evaluation department than Josh McDaniels initially has. With the Patriots expected to part ways with Brandon Lloyd, it’s clear that the former McDaniels guys — Daniel Fells, Greg Salas, Michael Hoomanawanui, Spencer Larsen, and Lloyd — weren’t exactly impact players.
3. What is the deal with the NFL Network’s over-the-top coverage of the injury recoveries of Darrelle Revis and Robert Griffin III? Wow, breaking news that they’re going well. News would be if it’s not going well. Do people outside of their teams really care? No. This is the NFL trying to enhance its player-safety stance.
4. The Patriots’ pattern of extending Tom Brady, then restructuring his deal two years out, will be the model for several teams with their highest earners during the flat-cap era. Smart business.
5. However, you don’t want to get in the habit of restructuring too many deals, like the Cowboys, Steelers, Panthers and Saints; it’s a sign of bad cap management. You’re going to have to account for that money, and at some point the impact is compounded down the line.
Dates to remember
■ March 9: Clubs are permitted to enter into negotiations with certified agents of players who will be unrestricted free agents.
■ March 12: By 4 p.m., clubs must exercise options for 2013 on all players who have option clauses in their 2012 contracts; deadline for restricted and exclusive free-agent tenders; clubs must be under the top-51 player salary cap; free agency and trading period begins.
■ March 17-20: Owners/league meeting, Phoenix.
■ April 7-8: Super Regional Combine, Dallas.
■ April 16: Traditional schedule release date.
■ April 25-27: NFL draft, New York.
■ May 20-22 : Spring league meeting, Boston.
Have to feel a bit bad for former Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, who was tendered as a restricted free agent. Because the Patriots released him so late last year — not really their fault since they said they were holding a competition with Ryan Mallett — Hoyer couldn’t latch on with a team in time to learn a new system and compete for a job. He was only active for the Cardinals for five games, which is one fewer than needed for an accrued season toward unrestricted free agency. So now, as Darren Urban of the team’s website points out, he’s a restricted free agent again and won’t be unrestricted until he’s 28 next year (presuming the same thing doesn’t happen). The tender the Cardinals are expected to place on him ($1.3 million) shouldn’t prohibit another team from signing him, but it’s not going to help him find a hand-picked landing spot.
The more you think about the Patriots’ tag situation (franchise or transition), the more you wonder whether it’s a toss-up between Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer. The Patriots have to weigh need (they have no one at cornerback, Marcus Cannon at right tackle) against message to the team. If Talib gets the transition tag, then a guy who has been that much trouble in his career, who played 39 percent of his snaps after the trade from Tampa Bay, will be fourth in cap value on the team. While the rock-solid Vollmer would be playing elsewhere. Something doesn’t feel right about that. The Patriots might go with their initial instinct: don’t tag anyone, and get at least a couple of players back at a better price.