Free agency is a time when young players can finally cash in on the years worth of production they have had on their inexpensive rookie contract, or when veteran players can secure another big contract to try to help guide a team to the promised land.
For some team-and-player pairings, the negotiations go rather smoothly. In the case of the Cleveland Browns, we saw ILB Karlos Dansby and SS Donte Whitner both agree to terms within an hour of free agency beginning. It took awhile for the team to secure RB Ben Tate, but all indications were that the mutual interest and respect between the two parties was there all along.
It's not always that easy, though. In fact, sometimes the finer details can show you just how rough the business can be. Please note that when I say "rough," I am referring to the context of how things work in the NFL. I'm well aware that NFL teams are making a ton of money, as are the players and agents, regardless of what happens -- that is not what I mean by "rough."
The example that jumps out today involves a player who I expressed an interest in the Browns signing before the start of free agency: WR Emmanuel Sanders. A day or so into free agency, the OBR confirmed that the Browns were showing an interest in Sanders. It's not clear whether the Browns ever actually contacted Sanders, and if so, whether he or his agent showed any interest. (He wasn't on the whiteboard, though).
As it turns out, it's probably a blessing-in-disguise that the Browns never got caught up in the mix with Sanders, because he would have simply been wasting our time. If you haven't heard about the story with Sanders yet, his agent reportedly pulled off negotiations tactics that go against the unwritten rules of negotiating in the NFL:
Agent Steve Weinberg, on behalf of the receiver, accepted a deal with the Chiefs in principle, according to one team source. Weinberg then engaged in negotiations with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to another source involved in the process.
While shopping the Chiefs offer to the Bucs, Weinberg never explained that he had already accepted the terms of Kansas City's offer. Later in the night, Sanders' agent had agreed to terms with the Broncos, which is where he is currently headed. Sanders and Weinberg also rankled the 49ers by agreeing to visit, then blowing it off.
This isn't meant to convey the fact that agents are dirty. In fact, as Arrowhead Pride points out, several agents took to Twitter to shoot venom toward Weinberg, who hasn't had the greatest reputation in the past. Sometimes, it's not even the agents that spurn a team after a supposed agreement. On Twitter, I frequently read what Joel Corry has to say -- he is a former NFL agent and provides some good insight into player contracts. In response to the Sanders story, he tweeted the following:
@RapSheet The Browns (Butch Davis) reneged on a deal to sign a DE I repped. While waiting on paperwork, they signed another DE for that $$.
— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) March 16, 2014
That got the wheels in my head turning -- who was Corry talking about? After a little bit of digging, I found the background information on the story. The defensive end Corry was referring to is Keith McKenzie, who was a member of the club from 2000-2001. He posted 61 tackles and 8 sacks in 2000, both career highs. In 2001, he had 3 sacks in 7 games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. That is when things started getting dicey.
McKenzie was set to be a free agent, and the two sides began discussing a return. According to a 2002 article by Pat McManamon, previously of the Akron Beacon Journal and now of ESPN, Corry stated that the final offer the Browns made to McKenzie included a $3 million signing bonus, but that it would drop to $2 million if McKenzie was unable to participate in at least 85% of the team's offseason workout program.
It sounds like Corry's claim is that the two sides were going back-and-forth on this detail, but Corry was under the assumption that the Browns still planned on signing McKenzie. Then, unbeknownst to them, the Browns signed DE Kenard Lang to a 5-year deal worth $17 million, with a $3.4 million signing bonus. It was essentially the same deal that was in place for McKenzie, except that Lang's deal was a little more lucrative.
Corry didn't like it, and neither could McKenzie. McKenzie ended up signing a 2-year deal with the Bears worth $2.85 million, but he wasn't able to practice until August of that season. In other words, if Corry had taken the Browns deal, there's a chance he would've only seen $2 million of his signing bonus. McKenzie didn't even last one season with the Bears, as he was waived in October. The Packers then signed him to a 1-year deal worth $525,000. The following year, he signed a 1-year deal worth $680,000. 2003 marked the final year of his NFL career, with a lot less money than he could have had. If you believe Corry's viewpoint, it's basically the same thing that Sanders did, but with the team (Cleveland) being the "bad guy."
UPDATE: In the Kansas City Star, Corry goes into more details about the situation between he, McKenzie, and the Browns, and how then-Browns GM Dwight Clark called to apologize to him, saying it was Butch Davis' fault.
Yes, as my agent friends point out, teams play dirty on contracts also. Free agency does not come with an ethics/etiquette manual.
— Andrew Brandt (@adbrandt) March 16, 2014
We've also seen how things could potentially get bad with C Alex Mack. From Cleveland's perspective, they actually deserve credit for using the much-friendlier transition tag on Mack, rather than the franchise tag. If the franchise tag was on Mack, nobody would want to waste time negotiating with him this year, knowing they'd have to give up first round picks. Without the transition tag, teams don't have to give up anything, meaning Mack should have an understanding that the Browns want him back, while also giving him the respect of letting him feel out some numbers in the free agent market. Mack's agent, in turn, has thrown claims out that he feels he can structure a deal that the Browns "would not be able to match." That doesn't sound like the definition of mutual respect, but so far, things have not escalated beyond that.
Lastly, negotiations aren't always rough between agents vs. teams -- sometimes, it's team vs. team, or even division rival vs. division rival. The Browns still have a ton of cap space available. They made some free agent signings, but we've really seen them capitalize on their cap space twice: first with over-paying Mack for a one-year transition tag, and second with the offer sheet they made to Bengals WR Andrew Hawkins.
Based on his previous statistical production, the Browns are over-paying for Hawkins. Their interest in Hawkins, though, tells Cincinnati, "we plan on using this guy in a prominent role against you." If the Bengals match the offer, it is structured in a way that hurts the Bengals' ability to sign other players for the next two years. For Cleveland, it doesn't hurt them one bit: they'll still have plenty of cap space.
These things happen in the NFL -- it's part of the business.
- In the case of Sanders, I think the agent should be blacklisted.
- In the case of McKenzie, I agree with Corry when he said, "If [the Browns] wanted to sign McKenzie, they could have said, `We're going to give this deal to Kenard [Lang]. If you want to be here, take it or leave it."
- In the case of Mack, I understand why players in his position would be upset. If Mack suffers a serious injury this year, he's not going to get paid like a big-time free agent next year, meaning he could potentially miss out on the contract that defines his NFL career.
- In the case of Hawkins, if they don't match the offer by Tuesday, it's kind of a "tough shit" thing on them. They had a chance to use a second-round tender on Hawkins for not much more money, but they opted not to.
Feel free to comment on any of the scenarios discussed above in the comments section below, and let us know whose side you would be on.