NFL Free Agency: An Agent's Guide to What Really Goes on

Marc Lillibridge@NFL_BridgeContributor IFebruary 13, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 03:  Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates against the San Francisco 49ers during Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The next month is one of the most stressful, yet fun times to be a NFLPA certified contract advisor.  Most agents starting out anticipate the NFL draft because that is where a majority of their clients are.  But veterans agents look at free agency like players look at opening weekend of the NFL season.

The research and preparation has been months in the making.  Now the stage is set.  What makes this year different than free-agency periods of the past is the extension of the negotiation period. 

From NFLPA.com (no link available):

During the period commencing at 12:00 a.m., New York time, on March 9 and ending at 3:59:59 p.m., New York time, on March 12, clubs are permitted to contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become Unrestricted Free Agents upon the expiration of their 2012 Player Contracts at 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 12. However, a contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4:00 p.m., New York time, on March 12.

During this negotiation period, a prospective Unrestricted Free Agent cannot visit a club (other than his current club) at its permanent facility or at any other location, and no direct contact is permitted between the player and any employee or representative of a club (other than his current club).

This is a major move on the NFLPA and NFL’s part to try and limit tampering and allowing the player’s current team a more likely chance to match the offer from a different team.  This article will touch on an agent’s role in getting players to the team you root for.

Preparation for NFL Free Agency

What most casual football fans don't realize is that preparing for free agency starts long before the end of the season.  I begin looking at current and past contracts for NFL players in the summer time.  Understanding the market and gaining all the information possible allows agents to not only prep their clients, but see what positions are trending in salary fluctuations. 

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For example, if I have an outside linebacker who will be a free agent after the current season, I will look at all the contracts secured in the past five years for outside linebackers.  On a spreadsheet, I create a grid that shows the playtime, production and salary breakdown of each player over that period of time.

This will help me understand the landscape of the position as well as where my client falls in comparison to the other outside linebackers.  Other factors I include are special teams production and the player’s ability to play multiple positions.  If my client can play rush linebacker and inside linebacker, his value will increase.

This information works well to explain to my client were they fit in regards to the rest of the NFL as well as prepare me in case that player’s current team would like to extend him before the season is over.  With the homework already done, I do not have to scramble to catch up.  Granted, this grid is constantly getting updated throughout the season, but is a perfect tool to use in preparation.

Protecting Your Investment

Here is another fact about free agency that most people do not see from the outside.  Other agents are constantly trying to solicit other clients.  The Super Bowl is a huge opportunity for agents to get in front of players and sell them their wares. 

With the parties and events that take place the week of the Super Bowl, many agents will use that week to try and get new clients on board.  Maybe the impending free agent knows a teammate who is raving about his representation.  Perhaps the agent has heard rumblings that the player is not happy with his current contract or situation.  If a player is up for a new deal and an agent can get that player as a client, the potential earnings can be huge. 

Unlike rookies who agents need to invest training money in, veteran players do not need much of a monetary investment, and thus, the return is much greater.  Making sure you are in constant contact with your clients and continually updating them on contract talks keeps most players happy.

The NFL Combine:  More Important for UFAs than Draftable Players

I know many people will read that headline and say I am blasphemous.  But the truth is, more free-agent deals get done the last week of February than when true free agency hits.  The new negotiation window will help stem this tide a little, but there will still be a lot of action in handling free-agent contracts.

Say I represent a player on Team A.  He is a wide receiver and an unrestricted free agent.  Team A will call me and schedule a meeting to discuss re-signing this wide receiver. 

I also represent a defensive tackle that will be a hot commodity on the free-agent market.  The defensive tackle plays for Team B.  Team A is in the market for a defensive tackle. 

In our conversation about the wide receiver, Team A's executives and I will start discussing the other unrestricted free agents I have.  They know going in I represent said defensive tackle.  As football people simply talking about football, I can gauge Team A's interest in the defensive tackle and they can get a feel from me on his market and value.

After leaving that meeting, I will know how serious Team A is about re-signing the wide receiver and how they value him.  I will also have a base for negotiations to begin discussing a deal for the defensive tackle with Team B.  Now I will have valuations on both players and can use them when I speak to executives for Team C, Team D, etc.

The new date of March 9 to begin hardcore negotiations will allow teams and agents to talk actual numbers.  But by the end of the NFL combine, any agent who has a top-tier player in free agency will already know what teams will be calling come March 9.

The Art of Free-Agent Negotiations

Every certified contract advisor will claim to be the best negotiator in the world.  In truth, most are very good.  But more times than not, a free-agent deal is 90 percent done by the time the team and the agent actually talk hard numbers.  The team’s salary cap executive will have already put together a solid offer on a player that team has targeted.  If a team wants and needs a front-line cornerback, it will pay what the market rate is for that player.

A well-prepared agent will be ready to counter this initial offer and tweak the deal enough to make the contract work for both the team and the player.  Knowing the history of how the team negotiates makes the next step important. 

Some teams do not offer signing bonuses, choosing instead to guarantee the base salary on more years of the contract.  Some teams will use option or roster bonuses to spread out the payment of cash.  The most important part of any free-agent deal is getting the most guaranteed money in the first three years of the deal. 

A deal will be reported as five years for $40 million.  But if the contract has base salaries of $10 million in years four and five, the player probably will not see that money.  So in essence, the deal is three years for $20 million.  A solid deal, but not as good as advertised.

The agent needs to be able to use the leverage they have to gain the top dollar for any free agent.  Having more than one team interested in a player is the best thing an agent can ask for.  But sometimes, agents will over play their hand, and if the team moves on to the next player, a big money deal can disappear in seconds.  Using the leverage but understanding the market is the most important rule for any agent.

Everybody knows Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is going to get a monster deal in free agency.  He hit the market at a time his stock was the highest. 

But sometimes, the best deals are for players that may not be Pro Bowlers or household names.  A good agent wants to get the most money for his or her client.  But not understanding the value of that player is a sin.  Finding the best fit for your client is just as important as the money.

There will be tons of money and numbers thrown around in the next month so franchises can try and build a winner.  Some teams will hit big in free agency, while others will miss. 

Just know there are agents in the fray, working behind the scenes, to bring your favorite team the missing players they need to win the Super Bowl.


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