Agents gear up for big blitz

BY JIM THOMAS
Sunday, July 24, 2011

In a normal offseason, the prime players get signed in the first 10 to 14 days once the free agency begins in early March. Then, the pace of signings slows considerably but continues leading to the start of training camp.

In April, several hundred undrafted rookies are signed within a day or two after the conclusion of the draft. Many are signed mere minutes after draft.

As for the actual drafted players, the vast majority aren't signed until July, with many of the first rounders not inking deals until just before - or even after- the start of camp.

This has been the way of the world in the NFL since the advent of the free agency system in 1993.

But since the lockout began 4 months ago, no players can be signed, and officially, at least, no negotiations can take place.

Sooner or later, the lockout will end and the NFL Players Association will sign off on a new labor deal. It might happen in a matter of days, and when that happens, five months of player acquisition will be boiled down to a frantic week or two.

For the agents who represent those players in contract negotiations, it will be a gridiron version of speed dating. Harold Lewis, of the St. Louis-based National Sports Agency, says he's in training for the grueling signing period that's on the horizon.

"I've been doing my pushups," Lewis joked. "We're going to do five months' worth of work in about five days."

Lewis' firm isn't one of the industry giants, such as the 500-pound gorilla in Clayton - the CAA football agency of Tom Condon, Ben Dogra, Jim Steiner and Co.

CAA is No. 1 in the country in terms of its stable of football players, including quarterback Sam Bradford and offensive tackle Jason Smith of the Rams. Lewis' firm is maybe in the top 15. It represents few top draft picks, but excels in getting second contracts for players who were relatively unheralded coming out of college.

New York Jets linebacker and Lewis client Bart Scott out of Southern Illinois Universities Carbondale is a prime example. So is Rams center Jason Brown.

"This offseason, we'll have 20 guys that we have to take care of," Lewis said. "Can you imagine CAA. They're going to have 100-plus at one time."

But somehow, sports agents and agencies - big and small - are going to have to get it done once the player-signing period begins.

"Whether it's a five-month period, or a five-minute period, we've been preparing for all these things for a long time," said Dave Butz of Sportstars, one of the game's largest agent firms. "I've you're not prepared at this point, then you've made a mistake."

Butz lives in St. Louis and is the son of former St. Louis Cardinals defensive lineman Dave Butz. He spent much of his childhood in Belleville, which is his mother's hometown.

Among his current clients, Butz represents a couple of Missouri State products: offensive guard David Arkin, a fourth-round draft pick this year by Dallas; and tight end Clayton Harbor, a fourth-round draft pick last season by Philadelphia.

Like football agents everywhere, Butz doesn't figure to get much sleep for a couple of weeks once the league year starts.

"I never sleep anyway," Butz joked. "So what's the difference? It's going to be fun. This is what we live for and what we enjoy doing."

Providing a different slant is Ken Landphere of Octagon, another of the football's biggest agencies.

Landphere, who represents former Rams Oshiomogho Atogwe and Mark Setterstom, says much of the offseason signing period is a case study in overkill.

Players are analyzed and overanalyzed. Except for the top-tier players, teams often wait and wait some more to sign players in an effort to drive down prices. Agents often procrastinate, too, always shopping for a better deal. Long story short, there's still a lot of dead time from March until August when it comes to signing players.

"Let's be honest," Landphere said. "How much of free agency is truly what you call an active period?"

In the first week or two of normal free agency, Landphere says maybe 80-85 percent of the dollars are spent. After that, there's a lot wasted time and unneeded gamesmanship.

"The vast majority of time, the clubs know who they want," Landphere said. "This year, they've had as much time to deliberate on this as they ever have. If they don't know who they want by now, shame on 'em. OK?"

Even so, agents and team personnel and contract executives will be juggling several balls at once:

Signing undrafted rookies normally is cut-and-dried.

They all play for the minimum and get little or nothing in the way of signing bonuses.

The difference this year is that instead of signing 10 or 12 such rookie free agents, teams will sign 20 to 25 if as expected teams are allowed to carry 90 players in camp instead of the usual 80.

As far as draft picks are concerned, even with the new rookie wage scale, the signing of most selections taken after the first round is pretty basic.

They get a signing bonus commensurate to their draft position, and minimum salaries for each year of their contract.

Free agency will be dicey.

Lewis says there are three groupings of unrestricted free agents. The "A" players are the ones that go quickly in those frantic early days of normal free agency.

Among Lewis' free agents this year are two potential "A-list" linebackers in Clint Session (Indianapolis) and Quincy Black (Tampa Bay).

The "B" players, or the second tier, generally get signed before the draft in a normal offseason. Lastly, the "C" players usually are minimum-wage guys who sign in May, June, and July.

"Now imagine trying to do all those guys at the same time, both agents and teams," Lewis said.

This year, teams won't necessarily be able to "ice" lesser free agents for a couple of months, waiting for the price to go down. If they do, the player won't be ready to play at the start of the regular season.

On the other hand, agents won't be able to shop players as much as usual. With such a highly condensed time frame this year, if an agent says "give me a day to decide on your offer, he may not find the offer there in a day or two. The team may have gone on to the next guy on their list.

"It's going to be quick and it's going to be furious," Lewis said. "When that bell rings and I can sign them, say, on Wednesday, then on Wednesday they have to be done. If not, their price is going to go down. It's not going to go up."

In this fast-paced game of musical chairs, this is not a year in which you want to be caught without a landing spot once the music stops.