NFL free agency used to be like choosing teams in middle school.
The biggest, fastest and most-talented guys -- the ones everyone knew would get picked first -- got swept up before any kind of real decision-making took place. Once that was achieved, the rest were sorted through and picked depending on what they brought to the team.
That was the old free agency before the salary cap was flat -- star players were locked up to long-term deals well before their contracts expired and owners started to notice that those who spend the most don't necessarily win the most.
Free agency 2013 looks vastly different.
The playground is elbow-to-elbow with guys who have seemingly transferred in from other schools, blurring the overall picture and turning the whole affair into an undignified cacophony of "pick me, pick me," calls. There are too many players for the number of spots available, making it a buyer's market.
"The market is soft because the cap is essentially flat," explained one agent with several available free agents. "The top players will get record-setting big deals. Whatever increase they command will come out of the pockets of the previously barely existent "middle class."
"The middle class will be marginalized as long as the cap remains relatively the same. Both minimum salaries for rookies and vets keep rising, yet the cap remains essentially the same, so the market softens for all but the most elite players."
Why the 2013 salary cap is only $123 million, the same amount it was in 2009, is up for debate. Critics of the players' union say it is the result of the union agreeing to a different formula for reaching the percentage of revenue the players are to receive when it signed off on a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011.
Others say it is part of the tradeoff the union and NFL made to artificially inflate the cap during the first year of the CBA, so teams would be spared from having to make drastic cuts. In exchange for that increase, the cap will remain close to the same for several more years.
Either way, an increase of just $2.4 million to cover rising minimums and contracts that were negotiated before the lockout in 2011 -- and thus include healthy increases -- has forced teams around the NFL to cut players with bloated contracts. The number of veteran starters who have been tossed to the curb is unprecedented and the market is flooded.
Consider some of the veterans who are available: safety Charles Woodson, linebacker Michael Boley, safety Eric Smith, linebacker Nick Barnett, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, end John Abraham, tackle Eric Winston, cornerback Chris Gamble, linebacker James Harrison, safety Adrian Wilson, end Chris Canty and safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
It's not a who's who of players in their prime, but each one was worthy of being a starter on his team last season .
All of the released veterans have been available to sign with new teams since the day they were cut, and a handful have signed with new teams. But soon they will join a large class of unrestricted and restricted free agents who will hit the market when free agency officially begins at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
"Very tight," is how one agent with a veteran looking for a job put it. "You really have to squeeze every penny out of the process. Deal length, structure and bonus payouts are critical.
"Agents have to really know their business as this is such an unchartered and uncertain market. Knowing when to pull the trigger on the right deal is what will separate the great agents from the others."
For a team like the Green Bay Packers, who under general manager Ted Thompson have shown very little interest in pursuing players during the first or second wave of free agency, this is the kind of market they love. Thompson's history is that if he's going to overpay for a player, it's going to be for someone he drafted or acquired through a trade.
Thompson has shown he is more than willing to let the market sort itself out and then try to get a player or two on the cheap. There are a number of free agents this year who are likely to be available after the draft, so Thompson can wait and see if there's a position he needs to fill.
He currently holds the advantage.
"As for veterans who get cut, a few will do okay, but the market for those in that category has been dramatically reduced," the first agent said.
Thompson did reach out to Canty, a free agent he mildly chased in 2009, and Canty made an official visit, but Thompson has been typically deliberate in his dealings with the former New York Giant, believing he can knock his price down because of the flooded market.
Sometimes that strategy pays off and sometimes it doesn't. It didn't last year when he wasn't aggressive enough in trying to re-sign veteran center Scott Wells and lost him to the St. Louis Rams. That turned out to be a huge loss after fill-in Jeff Saturday was a bust until finally being removed for Evan Dietrich-Smith.
On the other hand, Thompson didn't panic about having a young running back corps. And when James Starks got hurt in training camp, he was able to sign veteran Cedric Benson to a minimum wage deal. Benson gave him a few good games, and when he got hurt, there wasn't that much lost financially.
More and more general managers are approaching things the way Thompson does, especially in the face of such tight salary caps. In the NFC North, Detroit will probably be a player in free agency, but Chicago and Minnesota might be sideline sitters.
"I don't know if you looked at the statistical analysis of how many of those guys have actually had success coming into new programs," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said at the NFL combine last month. "Sometimes, even those guys when they come in, I don't want to call them rookies because they're veterans, but they take time to adjust to their new teammates, take time to adjust to their new surroundings."
This year, some of the top unrestricted free agents are Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace, New England receiver Wes Welker, San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson, Packers receiver Greg Jennings, Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, Baltimore linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and Miami running back Reggie Bush.
Most of them will wind up with good deals, but all of them have some kind of limitation and won't break the bank the way Mario Williams (six years, $96 million) and Peyton Manning (five years, $96 million) did a year ago.
Free agency is no longer the free-for-all that resembled those days on the playgrounds when teams were picked in a matter of minutes. These days, there are so many choices that look so much alike, it's best to take your time and make sure you get it right.
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