The Monday remarks from Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, coupled with a follow-up column from FOXSports.com’s Jason Whitlock, made us realize that, even though a lockout will place pressure on every player come September, when game checks begin to be missed, plenty of pressure will be placed on the subset players set to become free agents in March.
And some of those players will choose to vent that pressure.
Every March, multiple millions of dollars change hands in the 10 days or so after free agency launches, with rookie contracts expiring and other teams attempting to sign the now-veteran players. Cromartie is among that crowd. It will be even larger this year due to the realities of the uncapped year, which relegated many of the players who would have been unrestricted free agents to restricted free agency, essentially preventing them from cashing in with long-term deals.
Whitlock believes that players like Cromartie, who has multiple children and thus extensive child-support obligations, will become very antsy if they are blocked from getting paid.
How many players will hit the market this year? It depends in large part on whether the new system requires an expired contract and four, five, or six years of service. The official numbers will be released soon by the league and the NFLPA. For now, media accounts have indicated that up to 28 in Carolina and as many as 27 in Minnesota will be waiting to get paid.
And the teams know it. That’s why only a few impending free agents have received new contracts.
NFLPA spokesman George Atallah dismissed during a Wednesday appearance on PFT Live the possibility that the union will cave once players set to be free agents begin to clamor for their money. “Your previous guest [Whitlock] needs to know I’m not making any preparations to write a concession speech any time soon,” Atallah said. “The players are used to being underdogs in the business context for years. De [Smith] was not expected to be the executive director of the NFLPA yet he was selected by the platers to be their leader through this.
“People have their opinions, they can say what they want to say,” Atallah added. “But frankly he gave us a gift. Right after he posted his column I clicked ‘send’ to every player rep and almost every player in the NFL so that they could see what other people think of them. They know they’re behind; they know what they’re up against. But strength doesn’t come from speaking out strongly. Strength comes from a quiet resolve to prepare themselves and to negotiate as hard as possible and I think they’ve done that.”
That said, plenty have begun to speak out strongly. As Liz Mullen of SportsBusiness Journal noticed on Wednesday night, many of the clients of agent Drew Rosenhaus were posting statements of support for Smith and the union on Twitter, and Rosenhaus was echoing them via the ever-masculine-sounding process of “re-Tweeting.” Also, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett disagreed with Cromartie’s assessment of the situation.
“We have leaders,” Dockett said. “We know what is fair and the players are behind our leadership.”
“Great leaders are servants first,” Lewis said. “That is who our leaders are. Players are not going to turn on each other. We are blessed with what we have and it is on all of us to keep it fair. I’m resolved to do that.”
Of course, neither Dockett nor Lewis are due to become free agents on March 4. Thus, other than any workout bonuses they may be due to earn, Dockett and Lewis lose nothing until September.
It could be an important distinction to keep in mind over the next several weeks. Players whose shot at free agency will be indefinitely delayed in the event of a lockout will be more likely to complain. Players who already have banked a signing bonus and who won’t lose any real money until September are more likely to help circle the wagons.