The NFL may have found yet another way to make players and agents nervous about money.
The league's new three-day negotiating period opens at midnight ET and lasts until the official start of free agency Tuesday. The new period, particularly when combined with free agency's later starting date (it began closer to March 1 prior to 2012) has had a chilling effect on the league.
Largely gone are the behind-the-scenes discussions between pending free agents and interested teams that commonly took place since free agency's inception in 1993. That early maneuvering, while rarely punished, made events like the NFL scouting combine a veritable circus of action.
These days, agents and players are sitting by the phone and just wondering when some general manager will call to talk dollars.
"Nobody is putting any real offers out there because everybody is afraid that if you do it too early, all that's going to happen is that their offer is going to get shopped," a high-profile agent said. "Everybody is waiting for [Saturday] to see where the market really is. They don't want to play their hands too early."
In essence, the negotiating period (during which teams and players can agree to terms but can't actually sign contracts) has worked to perfection for teams. In fact, it has even leveled the playing field for teams that traditionally don't look to accelerate the process.
"If you're talking about tampering in the most literal form – like 'Hey, remember to give us a call about your guy' – everybody does something like that," an agent said. "But if you're talking about the full spectrum from making a direct offer to just hinting, there are some teams that are very careful not to tell you anything."
Ultimately, the negotiating period has slowed the chatter to a tension-inducing level. Most of that tension is coming from players who are both anxious to get a new contract or a new team.
"You start to get the feeling that some people are panicking because it's taking so long," another agent said. "The fear really starts to kick in the longer the players have to wait."
That's not to say that every player is freaking out. The usual group of top players figure to get paid no matter what. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, defensive end Cliff Avril and linebacker/defensive end Paul Kruger are expected to be among the top paid players once contracts can become official Tuesday.
"The top players are going to get paid regardless," a team executive said. "It doesn't matter if it starts on March 1 or March 30, those guys are going to get paid."
Where the volatility in the market is more pronounced this year is in the second layer of players, such as running back Reggie Bush or linebacker Shaun Phillips.
"Those are the guys who can get squeezed if they're not careful," another team executive said. "You better have a really strong sense of the market and know when to take a deal or when to wait. I think that if you don't move fast at the right time if you're a player, you could get left behind for the second wave."
In this case, the second wave is a decidedly cheaper group for NFL teams. With the salary cap going up by roughly $3 million this year ($120 million to approximately $123 million), teams are increasingly showing patience.
"If you don't get one of the top two or three guys at a position, I think teams are realizing that the difference between player No. 3 or 4 and player No. 8 or 9 at that position is very small.," one of the team executives said. "So you just wait it out and realize that the difference between somebody who makes $4 million a year and $3 million a year is very small."
And teams can afford to wait for the price to come down, particularly as the anxiety goes up.
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