ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The clock ticks, the money’s been moved, the checkbook is out, the cuts have been made. In other words, the table is set for the opening of NFL free agency.
“At that moment you better have a pretty good feel of who’s going to be available to you and who’s not," former Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese said. “If you don’t, you’re going to be trailing the pack and you won’t even get on the docket."
Free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET -- 2 p.m. MT -- Tuesday. The biggest names will sign to the biggest contracts in those frenzied opening hours. Reese has lived it, in his 13 years as the top football decision-maker for the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans, as well as another four as Bill Belichick’s senior football adviser with the New England Patriots.
And in pulling back the curtain on those opening hours, Reese, who has always described himself as a "draft-centered" football executive, said teams have to move fast if they are shopping in the high-priced aisles that include the best, most notable players, but that those same teams better have a plan and stick to it.
“Really, if you look at the history of free agency, I’m not sure any team has been real successful at it," Reese said. “That’s not to say teams don’t hit on free agents, but if you think to yourself I’m going to jump out there, I’m going to spend $50 million on these five, 10 free agents and then I’m going to win a Super Bowl next year, I don’t think that’s ever happened."
Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway dialed it back in free agency in 2013 when guard Louis Vasquez was the team’s marquee signing and the only one of the Broncos’ signees to get a deal longer than two years.
And Elway has also been the guy leading the charge, checkbook in hand, in the opening hours. Like last March when the Broncos signed DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders in the opening days. And in those first few hours, Elway talks about "the process."
“I know people don’t like that word, but that’s what it is," Elway said. “You make a plan, you look at the players who will be free agents and who might eventually be out there. You look at your budget, where you are with the cap, you see who would fit and who doesn’t. But for me the prices don’t get set until the market opens, so you have to know how much you'll spend on who."
Reese said two changes will affect the opening swirl this time around as compared to years past -- where the salary cap is now, $143.28 million per team, and the fact there is now a 72-hour negotiating window before free agency officially opens Tuesday.
Contracts cannot be signed in the negotiating window, but teams can get a sense of where they stand and what kind of contract it will take to close the deals.
“Now you have teams with more cap room than what the salary cap even was not so long ago," Reese said. “Your mistakes in free agency are still going to count on the roster, but with the cap the way it is now, the ability to absorb those contracts that maybe don’t work out, as much as you don’t like to, is different now, you have 30, 40, 50 million dollars’ worth of cap space; it’s hard to screw that up."
Put all of that cap space together with the urgency teams may feel in the public domain, where free agency is perceived and presented as a quick fix for a bad season, and the prospect of the dominoes falling quickly is in place this time around.
The Indianapolis Colts, for example, have plenty of cap room, a franchise quarterback in place and are coming off a trip to the AFC Championship Game. Asked at the scouting combine if those circumstances would make the team more aggressive in free agency, general manager Ryan Grigson said: “I think you have to be aggressive no matter what avenue you’re going down to acquire players ... but you can’t just do it for the sake of being aggressive and just get a name or get whomever, it has to be someone you collectively feel will better your team ... it’s a case-by-case basis with each position group. But again, at each spot, we’re going to try to get guys that play at a championship level."
Reese said, even as teams dive in quickly Tuesday, Wednesday and beyond, there is anticipation for the help that may be on the way, but there is also a nagging skepticism about the whole thing.
“You sit there a little bit and think if a team is willing to give up a really good player, there’s probably a reason for it," Reese said. “If he makes it to the market, maybe they know something. Sometimes it’s not a level playing field in that way ... you sit there and kind of think to yourself, ‘OK what is it we don’t know?'
"But that’s free agency, you play with big money, you make what are educated bets, but they are big educated bets. And I’d be lying if I said people didn’t feel little churn when it’s going fast and furious in those first few hours."