NFL column: Free agency likely to have different look this year

Associated PressDefensive end J.J. Watt will play for the Arizona Cardinals after leaving the Houston Texans, the first surprise of what promises to be a unique NFL offseason.

Ordinarily, the NFL would be bustling with massive free agency rumors at this time of year.

The new league year begins March 17, and with it hundreds of players will officially hit the open market. This year’s crop can’t match the star power of 2020, and how could it be expected to without seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady in the mix?

But that’s not the only reason things are quieter than usual. There is significant uncertainty surrounding the salary cap. Estimates place the number somewhere around $183 milllion, higher than the agreed upon floor of $175 million but still a significant drop from $198.2 million in 2020.

New TV deals are expected to be announced as early as this week, and that will help the cap situation. But the real gains from those deals won’t be realized for another year or two.

The immediate future is difficult for many teams. Nearly half of the league’s 32 franchises currently are projected to be over this year’s cap or have less than $10 million to spend this spring. Considering draft classes generally cost between $8 million and $10 million to sign, it’s not hard to see how financial concerns could limit the free-agent market.

There’s another force at work as well. In any other year, agents would have spent the last week of February huddling in Indianapolis steakhouses with general managers, coaches and other front-office personnel during the NFL Scouting Combine. Though free-agent contracts technically are not allowed to be negotiated before the two-day “legal” tampering window just before the start of the league year, these informal meetings are instrumental in jump starting the market.

Agents don’t walk away with a deal in place, but they generate a list of realistic options for their clients. It’s clear which teams are willing to go big on a contract and which teams are more hesitant.

Agents also could learn important information about franchise dynamics. Sometimes a coach is very excited about their client, but the general manager might be less interested.

Those details also help build the market. If even one member of an organization expresses interest in a player, it’s enough to leak to the media and grow the list of public suitors. That, in turn, can put pressure on the teams with real interest to move more quickly.

By the time the Combine is over, good agents have a solid gameplan for March. When the legal tampering window opens, they know which teams to call and where negotiations should begin.

All of that helps fuel the stream of announcements that come in over those two days each year. The announcements flood social media, fans react with joy and despair and the NFL finds a way to continue dominating the sports discussion even during the offseason.

Only this year, things could be different.

There was no Combine and, therefore, no clandestine steakhouse meetings.

The market could take longer to develop, and the announcements might come a few days later than normal. In short, the legal tampering window could mark the actual beginning of negotiations and not the closing leg as it has so often in the past.

It promises to be an unpredictable offseason as a result of all the unique factors.

Only a few teams have the money to be big players in free agency, and it could quickly become a buyer’s market. The elite players probably won’t notice much difference. They’ll get paid early and start focusing on whatever spring workouts will look like in 2021.

But everyone under that top tier could feel the pinch.

There already are widespread predictions of a proliferation of one-year contracts. The idea is players will look at the depressed market and choose to take “prove-it” deals with the idea of going back to the market next year under presumably more favorable conditions.

The Arizona Cardinals pulled the year’s first surprise when they landed all-pro defensive tackle J.J. Watt last week. That could be a sign of things to come.

The Cardinals certainly appear to be a team on the rise, but they’re not on the short list of Super Bowl contenders for 2021. The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers were among the teams most often connected to Watt after his release by the Houston Texans. But both teams are dealing with salary cap pain, and neither appeared to be a major bidder.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, had the money, the need and the interest. And now they have a new superstar defender to show for it.

Expect a few more surprises when the market officially opens next week.

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