Free-Agent Carousel

This week the NFL achieved labor peace; camps opened; and free agency began. “Football is back,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell proclaimed Monday when the NFL Players’ Association signed a new collective bargaining agreement that runs through 2021, ending the five month NFL lockout. Players reported to team facilities on Wednesday. All teams will open camp by Sunday July 31.

GM’s worked at a feverish pace. Teams signed their draft picks and began acquiring missing pieces to complete their rosters. The new salary cap requires teams to spend 99% of their cap space ($120.375 million) this year.

The new salary cap (due to the labor situation, 2010 had no salary cap, 2009 salary cap was $128 million) forces some teams to massively cut salary while others must spend like drunken sailors.Dallas ($136 million),Green Bay ($129.8 million) and the New York Jets ($128.5 million) must shed payroll whileKansas City ($74.7 million),Philadelphia ($80.8 million) andSeattle ($81.1 million) must enhance it.

Over the last decade, Redskins owner Dan Snyder has made the NFL off-season fun to watch. Each winter he fired up Redskins’ One and signed the year’s big name free-agent. Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, Donovan McNabb, and Albert Haynesworth all received huge contracts from the profligate Snyder.

This year, the Redskins are not the story: the Philadelphia Eagles are. The team traded back up quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Arizona Cardinals, signaling their faith in dynamic quarterback Mike Vick, who dazzled in his first year under center for the Eagles. Vince Young, the former Tennessee Titans quarterback, will back up Vick. On Friday they beat out their hated rival, the Dallas Cowboys, and landed the top free agent on the market: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. With Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (acquired fromArizonain the Kolb trade), the Eagles substantially enhanced their secondary and became a Super Bowl favorite.

Another perennial contender, the New England Patriots, made some head- scratching moves. They rid the Washington Redskins of troubled defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. They got big-play receiver (and prolific personality) Chad Ochocinco to help Tom Brady stretch the field. While both men have enormous talent, both come to Foxboro with tremendous baggage. Haynesworth was a bust in Washington. He was often out-of-shape, took a number of plays off (famously quitting on the field against the Eagles last fall) and ran into trouble with the law. Ochocinco is one of the game’s biggest talkers, a famous tweeter, and seen by many as selfish player.

The Patriots will have plenty of sizzle this year. So will their hated foe, the New York Jets. It’s impossible to calculate the intrigue and attention coach Rex Ryan has injected into this (formerly moribund) franchise. He has taken the franchise to two AFC Championship game’s in his first two seasons with the Jets. He has given the team panache and swagger. Since arriving in the Meadowlands, his Jets are the talk of the NFL.

This week the NFL Network should have been renamed Jets’ Network. Reporter Scott Hanson reported from the team’s headquarters every few minutes as reports suggested the team was a front-runner for Nnamdi Asomugha’s services. Many speculated that Asomugha, coupled with lock-down corner Darrelle Revis, would form the best cornerback duo in a generation, and strengthen Rex Ryan’s potent defense.

That deal ultimately fell through when the Eagles swept in and (surprised everyone) by grabbing Asomugha. Shortly thereafter, HBO announced that (due to the lockout) it would not have Hard Knocks this summer (the pre-season show that highlighted the Jets last year). Talk about a blow to football fans everywhere. Not all is lost for the Jets, though. The team retained Santonio Holmes’ services, hoping the formerOhioStatereceiver will inject life into their oh-so ordinary offense.

In the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers spent lavishly to bring in talent to surround rookie quarterback Cam Newton. They retained their pro-bowl tailback Deangelo Williams (5 years $43 million) and defensive end Charles Johnson (last year’s sack machine, $32 million guaranteed) and brought in defensive tackle Ron Edwards (3 years $8.5 million) fromKansas City.

Out west the Seattle Seahawks turned a page when their quarterback for the last decade, Tim Hasselback, signed withTennessee. Tarvaris Jackson, one of the many Brett Favre backups, came to town. Wide-out Sidney Rice came fromMinnesotaas well. It’s a new era in thePacific Northwestfor second year coach Pete Carroll.

Big name free agent signings will continue for the next several days as rosters are finalized and teams prepare for the upcoming season. The first pre-season games will begin in a fortnight and Week 1 will kick off on Thursday, September 8, while the first Sunday will come on September 11.

Condensed free agency has made this week an entertaining one for fans. Breaking news occurred nearly every hour, as teams made deals signing one big name or another. Mike Lombardi and Jason LaCanfora of the NFL Network frequently commented on the latest transactions. Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen were ubiquitous on several ESPN platforms.

For years, baseball has thrived during its winter hot-stove season when free agents hit the open market and big names get traded. But the hot-stove takes place over several months between November and February. It’s Christmas for baseball fans during the interminable off-season.

Santa arrived for football fans this July. The NFL is back and, as the free agent carousel has shown us, as entertaining as ever.


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