Free Agent Strategies
FROM JACK BECHTA:
If you take a close look at the contracts of the NFL’s highest-paid players, you’ll see that the majority, with the exception of quarterbacks, were signed on the week of the league year or the first or second day of free agency. A player’s leverage with his current team is usually at its highest as he’s about to walk out the door; with other teams, it’s the first few days of free agency. So, for an agent, it’s best to get his or her client to this period of potential riches.
Here are a few strategies typically employed by agents:
THE LAST CONTRACT YEAR
If I have a premium client (Pro Bowl player, core player or young rising star, for example) who is going into the last year of his contract, I will usually notify the team in February that my client wants a new deal before training camp. There are two reasons for this: One, to give the team plenty of time to work with me on a new deal. Two, so the team can potentially set aside cap space in the new league year for my client. I usually start the process at the Combine and do so without notifying the media of our demands.
Right before or after the draft, I offer a proposal, or seek one, from my client’s team. I wait until after free agency to do this because the market for every position consistently is set higher. This gives us even higher comparables to work from.
If I feel my player can be replaced with a draft pick, I sometimes wait until after draft day so I don’t encourage the team to draft his replacement. If my client is not a guaranteed premium player, I might wait until after the draft to notify the team of our desire for a new deal before camp.
The reason I use a deadline of before the start of camp is that players feel once they’ve started, gone through camp and are risking injury, they have essentially started the season. There’s a high statistical chance of injury during camp than at any other time of the season. So if a player makes it all the way through camp without an injury, he’s mentally ready to move on to free agency.
When a team and player choose to do a new deal with one year remaining, the team is usually seeking a discount to the free agent comps signed in the same year. Therefore, if I have a Pro Bowl lineman looking to strike a new deal in July of his last year (technically called an extension), the team is often looking for a 10- to 20-percent discount from free-agent contracts. Players and agents are looking to match free-agents deals but are willing to settle for 5- to 10-percent discounts. The small percentage difference in philosophy and expectations will still prohibit many deals from getting done.
For me, I’ve done some deals in August and even during the season, but the discount was usually thrown out.
EVERYBODY HAS A SHOT
As an agent representing a player who’s about to hit free agency, you want every team to feel it has a shot to sign your client. You want to put out a wide range of numbers so that the rich and the poor have a shot. So I might say, “I’m pricing Player X at $25 million to $35 million over five years with $9-$14 million guaranteed.” Or I may say, “I want him in the top five at his position.” The more teams I have in the hunt, the better my chances to raise the market for my client.
THE FIRST VISIT
As my clients hit the doorstep of free agency, teams begin jockeying for position to be first in line for a visit. They know that most young guys are impressionable and vulnerable, that they can’t handle the pressure and sales tactics that teams throw at them. Many players break after their first or second visit. As a result, agents often send a player to the team they feel will most likely shell out the most dough for their client. Sometimes, the deal gets done before the player lands in the first city.
If you’re one of the teams that’s scheduled for the second or third visit, you don’t wait and hope the player makes it. Those teams know the first team is going to try to close the player before he leaves the building, so they start piling money on your plate. This is advantageous since you can get an idea of the market for your player before he hits the ground.
THE SECOND VISIT
If you do send a player to visit a second team, usually directly from the first visit, you had better be prepared to lose team No. 1, which is likely to move on to its second option. However, once your client begins to head out the door, that’s when team No. 1 really steps it up and makes its best offer. It’s also the time when team No. 2 may also step it up for fear your client won’t get out of the building without a deal.
THE THIRD VISIT AND BEYOND
If your client makes it to a third visit and beyond, you either have a very hot free agent or you like playing the game of musical chairs. In musical chairs, there is always someone who loses his seat when the music stops. In the game of free agency, you may have priced and visited yourself out of the marketplace and find yourself desperately grasping for air -- or minimum or below-market deals.
THE EVOLUTION OF FREE AGENCY
When free agency started in the early 1990s, it was a slow and awkward process because it was unknown to players, agents and teams. It wasn’t unheard for a decent free agent to have up to 10 visits and complete all of them before making a decision. The period of the late ‘90s and early 2000s led to the building of many off-stadium practice facilities, which can often help to recruit free agents.
If an agent gave his word to a team that his player wouldn’t sign with anyone until completing all of his scheduled visits, he had better keep it. Many agents promised teams that they’d be given a fair chance to sign the player, only to discover later – via the media – that a deal was already done with team No. 2 and the player wasn’t coming. Those agents were usually ostracized by old-school GMs.
Sooner or later, teams start talking to agents before the year-end deadline, sometimes as early as November or December. Then agents start setting markets for their players by January and February. In today’s market, by the time free agency rolls around, most deals are already done.
Many agents don’t even bother scheduling visits anymore. They believe that sequestering their player makes every team in the hunt feel insecure and out of the loop about which direction the player is heading. The agent keeps his three or four phone lines going like an auctioneer and closes the deal to the highest bidder. Unfortunately for the teams that play by the rules or have passive GMs, they never really get in the game.