Friday, March 10, 2006

Deal Helps Free Agents and Top Draft Picks

March 10, 2006

By JUDY BATTISTA, New York Times

Now for the shopping spree.

The completion of an extension to the National Football League's collective-bargaining agreement means labor peace for another six years. But it also means a potential bonanza for free agents and draft picks this year. Free agency, delayed twice while the agreement was being negotiated, starts tomorrow, and teams have hit the salary-cap lottery. The cap is set at $102 million for 2006, an enormous one-time leap of $16.5 million over the $85.5 million in cap dollars teams had available in 2005. It will be $109 million in 2007.

Leigh Steinberg, an agent who represents the Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart, projected to be one of the top three picks in the April draft, said he anticipated that the N.F.L. could ultimately have contracts comparable to those in baseball and basketball. The N.F.L.'s new television contracts, worth $3.7 billion annually starting in 2006, grow in value in the later years of the agreement. That will put more money into the revenue-sharing stream, giving teams the cash to lavish on the biggest stars. The $37 million in guaranteed money that Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick received in the 10-year, $130 million contract he signed in December 2004 might just be the start.

This year, Steinberg said, he would not be surprised if the top pick in the draft received nearly $30 million in guaranteed money. Last year's first pick, San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, received $24.5 million. Signing bonuses for veterans and rookies are expected to become larger, in part because they can be amortized over a longer period of time under the new deal than if there were no deal. Steinberg estimated that if an extension had not been completed, it would have been difficult to get a contract with $15 million in guaranteed money because the amortization period was shorter.

"It's the return of the signing bonus," Steinberg said. "Happy days are here again."

Players already in the league, and the teams that want to sign them, will benefit most from the new deal.

"This mega-increase in the cap affords teams the opportunity to do an extreme makeover of their roster," Steinberg said. "It allows a team that was close to the cap to retain the integrity of its roster. But it also allows a team that wants to exploit the ability to dramatically improve itself the ability to be extremely aggressive in free agency. They can do some of what people perceived would happen in an uncapped year, because they have so much cap room."

The teams who will benefit most in the short term are those that had salary-cap problems before. The Washington Redskins would probably have had to make sweeping cuts to get under the cap. Now, they have an opportunity to keep a playoff team nearly intact. With the expansion of the cap, the Indianapolis Colts can at least try to retain Edgerrin James, the top running back on the market, although it is not clear whether they will be able to re-sign him. The Raiders can keep quarterback Kerry Collins, whom they had released earlier. Teams that were struggling to get under the cap — the Redskins and the Dolphins, among others — can be more active in free agency than if there had been no deal.

"This year, free agency will be a more vibrant and robust market for teams and players," the agent Neil Cornrich said.

And because sweeping cuts will not be necessary for teams to get under the salary cap, as was feared when it was set at $94.5 million before the extension was completed, there will not be a glut of talent on the free-agent market with few teams in a position to spend. The larger cap number, in turn, could mean less pressure on teams to release aging but still effective veterans. Steinberg said it could lead to more players spending their careers with one team.

"There would have been a lot of unhappy guys and a lot of talent on the street," the agent Ralph Cindrich said. "Now, I don't think there's any question it's going to mirror more the past years of free agency. There's an abundance of money."

There is also an abundance of relief. Nearly everyone in the N.F.L. had been in a holding pattern for weeks, wondering what financial conditions they would operate under next season. Finally, one set of plans — the dire, tight cost-control ones — can be ripped up and teams can get on with the business of the off-season.

"The landscape is going to be very similar to the way it's been; it's going to be normal," Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said. "If there wouldn't have been an agreement, it wouldn't have been normalcy. We would have been in uncharted waters."

Instead, it is smooth sailing.

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