By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007
In the days before the gates opened and free agent money poured out like never before, the NFL's general managers and personnel executives stood in the corridors of the RCA Dome in Indianapolis talking about the possibility of contracts that a year ago would have seemed shocking. On the field the next group of rookies ran through their pre-draft tests, but in the hallways outside, the word was teams were going to have to spend and spend big for players who aren't even all that good.
"I kind of raised my eyebrows," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said.
In the collision of two worlds -- the socialistic NFL and the free market -- a strange dynamic has occurred. The NFL's latest television deals have grown so rich that the salary cap has ballooned to unimaginable numbers, allowing teams to hold onto their best players, but also leaving enough money to spend heavily in a free agent market devoid of great stars. This is how Buffalo cornerback Nate Clements came to be the highest-paid player at his position last week despite having just five interceptions the last two seasons.
But maybe nowhere had it come clear that the market was out-of-control than on the offensive line. More significantly, at guard, a position often treated as an afterthought. Compared to the tackles, who have the trying task of stopping pass rushers and thus earn some of the biggest salaries, guards have traditionally received modest paychecks.
Last year, the Seattle Seahawks let their Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson leave as a restricted free agent rather than match a $7 million-a-year offer from the Minnesota Vikings that also included a clause that would have made him higher paid than their most important lineman, left tackle Walter Jones. This winter, within days of the start of free agency, three players -- former Redskin Derrick Dockery, ex-Bengal Eric Steinbach and San Diego's Kris Dielman all signed deals that would pay them roughly as much as Hutchinson received last year.
None of the three has even been to a Pro Bowl.
Where the Hutchinson deal was once seen as outlandish, it's now the base on which many contracts for offensive linemen will be built.
"It's a reflection of supply and demand," Packers General Manager Ted Thompson said. "There are only so many guys who are quality offensive linemen in the NFL. I think the offensive line is the most difficult position to come in right out of college and play."
It isn't too hard to see how the salaries and, more importantly, the bonus money has exploded in a sport where salaries have traditionally been held in check and contracts aren't guaranteed. Since 2002, the salary cap has risen from $71 million to $109 million. And teams that feel they might be a player or two away from a long playoff run suddenly have the means to throw the kind of money once earmarked for elite players to run-of-the mill starters who might fill a pressing need.
"What it becomes is a matter of how many great players can you keep on your football team," Newsome said. "You have to decide who you really want and it puts more importance on the draft."
But the free spending to fix holes comes with potential pitfalls. Namely average players are suddenly getting franchise money, leaving their more talented teammates to wonder why they are making significantly less. In a game where careers are so short the best players might only get one shot at a big free agent deal. Publicly, league executives shake off this concern, figuring the cap will continue to grow and pointing to the fact that many of the deals will be renegotiated or the new players will be cut or retire before the end of the contract.
Privately there is more worry.
"I look at the cornerback market and see the guy [Clements, who signed with San Francisco for eight years and potentially $80 million with $22 million of it guaranteed] get the big money and he is not an elite corner," said one bemused NFL pro personnel director, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of personnel issues. "Now he gets the highest paid contract in the history of the world. You wonder what's going to happen when Champ Bailey, who is the best corner in the history of the world, wants a new deal.
"But you have to do it sometimes if you have a need at a premium position you will pay a premium."
If anything, the new market might put a price on continuity. Teams already have been forced to turn over their rosters in recent seasons as free agency and a tight cap kept them from building slowly, as they did into the early 1990s. Now, the high-priced quick fixes -- a $20 million signing bonus to a barely above-average player -- might be enough to buy a division title for a year but could cause fallout among teammates hungry for their own big paychecks and damage continuity.
"If you got a guy who has gone to three Pro Bowls and you have a guy who has been to five Pro Bowls, then the agent for the guy with the five Pro Bowls is going to say, 'You might want to go back to the table,' " the pro personnel director said. "I think a lot of the agents will do that with the salary cap going up."