Inside Eric Weddle's Free-Agency Chess Match

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMarch 17, 2016

Nov 9, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle (32) looks on before the game against the Chicago Bears at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Weddle became an unrestricted free agent last week after nine years as a member of the Chargers. On Monday, he signed with the Ravens. Weddle granted Bleacher Report exclusive access to his free-agent experience.

The day after the 2015 season ended, the Chargers held their final team meeting. One by one, players gathered their belongings, said their goodbyes and drove away into their offseasons. All of them, that is, except Eric Weddle and Philip Rivers. 

The safety and the quarterback got together for what had become a last-day ritual—a long discussion about the past and future in the sauna, steam room and hot tub. Every year, they have gone over the entire roster, discussing which players should be brought back and which players should be replaced.

While so many teammates have come and gone, Rivers and Weddle have been constants for each other. For nine years, they have been the first players to arrive at the Chargers facility and the last to leave just about every day. Together, they have sweated and prayed and competed viciously against each other in practices.

They have watched tape together, even though they don't play on the same side of the ball. On buses and planes, they have been seatmates. They have played cards, golfed, had family barbecues and even coached their sons on the same flag football team.

Denis Poroy/Associated Press

As they spoke in the tub, Weddle realized how much he appreciated his teammate.

"I don't know if I ever will be able to replicate what he and I have on another team," Weddle says now.

About three-and-a-half hours after the team had dispersed, just as they finished going over the roster, Chargers coach Mike McCoy walked into the room.

"What are you guys still doing here?" McCoy said, according to Weddle.

"We're figuring out the roster for next year," Weddle said. "And you have a lot of work to do."

Then McCoy surprised him.

"Where are you going to go next year?" he said. "Any particular team you want to go to?"

Weddle didn't know what to say.

"That's when it finally hit me," he says. "They really don't want me back."

Weddle remembers the first time he sensed a chill from the Chargers front office. It was training camp in 2014. His agent, David Canter, had been trying to bring up a contract extension, and the Chargers kept brushing him off.

It came as a surprise for the same reason that so many teams were interested in Weddle this offseason. Who could not be intrigued by his credentials? Who wouldn't want a five-time All-Pro (first-team All-Pro twice), three-time Pro Bowler, five-time captain and five-time team leader in tackles?

That chill became a frost, Weddle says, in April 2015 when he met with Chargers general manager Tom Telesco. The GM told him he believes lucrative third contracts should be given only to Hall of Fame-caliber players.

"He said I had a lot of mileage," Weddle says. "They brought me in to make things better, and made things worse by treating me like I was a nobody. It was shocking.

"I never did one thing wrong. Never was late to a meeting. Never was fined. Never refused to do a charity function for them. Never didn't sacrifice. I was a leader, a captain, an All-Pro. And they showed me the door. I'm as loyal as anyone and will do anything for people I respect. But if you don't give that back to me in return, you're dead to me. So I could never go back to that place after what they put me through."

Feeling angry and disillusioned, Weddle skipped voluntary offseason work. He was back for training camp, but his dissatisfaction would be a black cloud over the team all season. He thought he was treated unfairly when the team fined him $10,000 for staying on the field to watch his daughter perform in a halftime show of a game the Chargers were leading 23-0. He took issue when the team put him on injured reserve for the last game of the season.

The damage was irreparable. Staying put was not an option.

The Chargers' take?

"We're very appreciative of everything Eric did for the team," says John Spanos, Chargers president of football operations. "We made him the highest-paid safety in the NFL [in 2011] for a reason. With one year left on his contract while still being one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL, he found it unacceptable to not have a contract extension. Our hope was to play out the contract and have discussions after the year, but he made it clear that's not what he wanted."

Here's how the free-agent dance usually works: Interested teams poke around. The agent floats a price range. Teams that aren't scared off keep the talks going. Others drop out. Some leave the conversation and return later, depending on other factors.

For Weddle, the hope coming into the offseason was an average annual salary of $6 million to $8 million, with guarantees in the first two years. But some team representatives were telling Canter that Weddle would be lucky to get $4 million. He privately acknowledges he thought he might have to settle for a $5 million annual salary.

Money is not everything to Weddle, who tithes 10 percent of his income to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). He already had grossed more than $44 million in his career. And he has not been a big spender. His main mode of transportation is a 2003 Chevy Silverado 2500HD. He bought it with 25,000 miles on it for $30,000 when it was seven years old. Now, it has 85,000 miles on it.

There are things besides money.

"I want to be appreciated, to be loved, to feel wanted," he says. "I want to know that they feel all the sacrifices I make are worth it."

He felt he didn't get that appreciation from the Chargers, but it was clear from the start of the offseason that a multitude of other teams had some level of interest. Among those who appeared to be potential players for Weddle early on were the Cowboys, Giants, Jaguars, Packers, Panthers, Raiders, Steelers and Titans. Along the way, the Cardinals, Lions, Patriots and Ravens also surfaced.

Weddle spent a lot of time on the phone during his free agency.
Weddle spent a lot of time on the phone during his free agency.Dan Pompei

When Weddle found out Detroit was in the mix, he texted his friend, Lions safety Glover Quin. The thought of playing with a solid player like Quin appealed to Weddle, who has started games alongside 12 safeties in his career. Quin texted back—he'd like to play with Weddle, too.

Many players tried to influence him at various points of the process. During games last year, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer told Weddle they'd like to see him on their side in 2016. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a friend and had an ongoing conversation with Weddle.

The Raiders came at him in numbers, with Derek Carr, Bruce Irvin and Khalil Mack. Carr told Weddle he lobbied Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie to sign him.

"It was cool to hear, knowing your peers have respect for you," Weddle says.

What really mattered though, was playing for a winner. As he contemplated the fourth quarter of his football life, Weddle valued a strong organization more than ever. In his last six seasons in San Diego, he played on one playoff team.

Canter says that all things considered, Weddle's free agency was the most complex he ever dealt with. It was a process.

The phone was ringing as soon as the legal tampering period opened Monday, March 7, but solid offers were not forthcoming. Durability seemed to be a concern for teams, as it always is with older players. Weddle, 31, has not had many serious injuries in his career, but he missed three games last season with a groin pull.

Weddle is pretty easygoing. His wife, Chanel, was more affected by the uncertainty. While he says free agency was "taking a toll on her," he blew off steam by doing what he does most mornings during the offseason: heading to his local gym to shoot hoops with a group of friendly regulars.

Hoops at the local gym is therapeutic for Weddle.
Hoops at the local gym is therapeutic for Weddle.Dan Pompei

Maybe his game had a bit more edge to it than usual. That Monday, perturbed by a newcomer's yapping, Weddle kept driving to the lane and scoring bucket after bucket. The 5'11" Weddle wanted very much to end the game with a left-handed dunk in the new guy's face and leaped high enough to do so. His aim was a tad off, though, and the ball skidded off the rim. His next time down the court, Weddle drove again, and this time two defenders met him in the lane. He dished off to a teammate who sank the winning shot.

The Weddles have lived in the same Escondido house for nine years. All four of their beautiful children—Brooklyn, Gaige, Silver and Kamri—were born in San Diego. They are very involved in their church and community. Chanel plays in a recreational soccer league; Eric plays in basketball and softball leagues.

They recently began construction of their dream home on a hilltop in a nearby suburb. When it is ready to be inhabited next year, it will include a full-size basketball court, a theater room, a pool with a slide, a fire pit and 3,000 square feet of covered patio.

That dream house remains part of the long-term plan, even with the Chargers not in the short-term plan.

"I'm super nervous about the kids, and how they are going to adjust to everything," Chanel says. "We've never had to move. I know kids are resilient at their ages, so we're hoping they'll be OK. But I stress out."

Eric updated Chanel as he heard things from Canter‚ to a point.

"He says he is telling me everything, but then I hear him talk to someone else and he tells them more than he told me," Chanel said. "I think it's for my benefit. I don't need to know every single thing, because then I just worry."

Eric had his moments too.

"If teams are doubting me and offering me such a small amount of money, it might not be worth moving my family," he said, pausing and looking away from his carnitas burrito a day after watching Peyton Manning retire. "I love the game. But I love my wife and kids more. I can't tell you how many sacrifices I make throughout the season. I leave the house at 4:15 a.m. and get home at 7 p.m. and see my kids an hour every night. It's been sacrificing for nine years. It's not just about what's best for me. It's about what's best for me and my family."

The Weddles are grounded by their LDS faith. They are regulars at the church a few blocks from their home, and on the occasional date night, Eric and Chanel will visit the sparkling white San Diego LDS Temple in La Jolla. "It's comforting," Chanel says. "We believe the Lord has a plan for us and he knows where we are supposed to be."

On Wednesday, March 9, the first day of free agency, the Chargers signed tight end Antonio Gates to a two-year contract extension for $12 million. It stung Weddle, who is five years younger than Gates. Last season Gates also was suspended for four games as a result of violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Weddle was given an NFL-mandated HGH test in his home shortly after he heard about Gates' deal.

"It just points out they don't want me," Weddle says. "Antonio was injured a little last year and suspended, but that doesn't matter."

Weddle still didn't have a deal.

By Thursday, he was sad and frustrated.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

"I'm thinking, 'I'm not going to play on a one-year deal,'" he said. "Am I really going to retire even though I have so much left to give? I know I can play, but maybe teams don't want me."

Chanel shed a few tears Saturday night. "Bawling" is how Eric describes it. She was thinking about the possibility of moving to Baltimore.

The Ravens first indicated an interest in Weddle two days earlier. On Friday, they became the first team to make an offer.

"It was like a new life," Weddle says. "I was ecstatic. We had to keep going through the process, but I would have signed right then and there."

On Saturday, Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta told Canter, "We really want him." The Raiders, Steelers and Cowboys were still in the mix, but those words meant a lot to Weddle.

Jarret Johnson, who played with Weddle in San Diego after nine years in Baltimore, called on behalf of the Ravens. Baltimore outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil reached out. So did Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. In fact, Smith even volunteered to fly from his North Carolina home to Baltimore to show Weddle around if Weddle was interested in taking an exploratory trip.

Canter had a list of 30 questions he had been asking teams that were interested in Weddle. They were questions like:

• How secure are the decision-makers?

• What is the cost of living in the city?

• Are there any LDS members on the team?

• Are there LDS churches near the team facility?

• What are the parking facilities like for families at the stadium?

• What are the players' wives like?

• What is the school system like?

• Are older players given "veteran days" in which they don't have to practice?

• Is there music at practice?

• What is the traffic like around the team facility?

• Will Eric be expected to play special teams, as he did in San Diego?

• Who is the first player in the building?

• Are there knuckleheads on the team who Eric will be expected to help?

Canter liked the Ravens' answers, and if he felt a team was right for Weddle, Weddle felt the same way. Canter had clients who were hotter commodities, including Olivier Vernon, and he closed six other significant deals in the first week of free agency. But Canter considers Weddle his best friend and is emotionally invested in him as well as financially invested. He has Weddle's complete trust.

Late Saturday, Weddle returned from an autograph signing in Los Angeles. He and Chanel sat and talked about what moving to Baltimore would be like.

"She was emotional and scared, thinking about moving across the country and not knowing anybody and starting over," he says. "It was a hard night. … I was trying to give her confidence that we would be all right. It is far away, but we'll be together."

Many people close to Weddle were hoping he would sign with the Cowboys. He has a soft spot for them, as they were his favorite team when he was a kid. Dallas head coach Jason Garrett and assistant head coach Rich Bisaccia had been calling and texting Weddle since the opening bell of free agency. But the Cowboys had dragged their feet on making an offer.

On Sunday, Canter called teams to tell them they were being eliminated from consideration. Among the eliminated were two teams that Weddle didn't think were positioned to win. In fact, one of them offered Weddle his most lucrative deal, Canter said.

Then the Cowboys jumped in, making an offer that was almost identical to the Ravens'.

Weddle was overwhelmed. He decided to unwind with five of his high school buddies over a game of Tom Clancy's The Division. As they threw grenades and placed sticky bombs, they discussed Weddle's future in their headsets. Four of them thought he should go to Dallas.

"They were arguing about it," Weddle said. "I couldn't get in a word. I was sitting there, listening."

On Sunday night, Canter made counteroffers to the Cowboys and Ravens. The Ravens increased their offer within 30 minutes.

The Cowboys said they were not prepared to up their offer, but Garrett called Weddle, trying to get him to visit Dallas before making a decision.

Weddle and his wife talked for about an hour before heading to bed. Then they talked for another hour in bed.

Chanel fell asleep, and Eric stayed awake until about 1 a.m., staring at the ceiling and deliberating the Cowboys and Ravens. He kept going back to a few thoughts. The Ravens made the playoffs six of the last eight years. They have a strong culture. They handled the negotiating process professionally and sensitively. And they really wanted him.

Finally, he drifted off to sleep.

"Every time I woke up, I was dreaming about Baltimore," he said. "Baltimore kept popping in my head."

When he rolled out of bed Monday morning, he knew. And he felt a calm about it. He told Chanel he wanted to be a Raven. She agreed it was the right choice. So did Canter.

"When your heart tells you something, you have to go with it," Weddle says.

Then, at 1:47 p.m., he tweeted:

Eric Weddle @weddlesbeard

RAVEN BOUND!!!!!!!!!!

Weddle agreed to a four-year, $26 million deal for a yearly average of $6.5 million. He will earn $9 million this year, likely making him the third-highest-paid safety in the league.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind, with a flood of texts and calls from family members, former Chargers teammates, future Ravens teammates, friends from runner-up teams and many others who have been part of his journey. He even received a congratulatory text from McCoy, whom he continues to respect.

The Weddles pulled the kids out of school early because they wanted them to hear the news from mom and dad.

"There's going to be a change," he told them. "But it's going to be fun. There will be a new house. A big yard. New friends."

The party started with a trip to the mall to buy the kids Ravens beanies and hats.

Weddle arrives in Baltimore a member of the Ravens.
Weddle arrives in Baltimore a member of the Ravens.Courtesy of Eric Weddle

On Tuesday, Weddle boarded Southwest Flight 965 from SAN to BWI. Chanel was right next to him.

"I feel like the whole world is off my back," he says. "As soon as I decided it felt right. I can't wait to get out there, meet my new teammates and get on the field and earn their respect. I'm rejuvenated."

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.