Left tackle Ross Verba spent 16 weeks on a bad Cleveland Browns offensive line last season performing miracles. On a team that allowed 41 sacks, Verba was credited with only giving up 4½. That's very good.
Well, Verba whiffed in his first stance of 2005. Supposedly angered that new Browns management wouldn't honor a Butch Davis promise to restore pay from a reduction he took after he missed the 2003 season because of a biceps injury, Verba demanded to be cut. Verba paid back a $465,000 roster bonus and said goodbye to $3.125 million in base salary and workout bonuses. Unfortunately for him, the timing was wrong.
Players released in June are at a disadvantage. Based on this year's transactions, free agents are generally commanding between the NFL minimum (ranging from $455,000-$765,000 depending on tenure in league) and $1.5 million. Though arguably the best player still available in free agency, Verba is struggling to get more than a one-year contract offer. The Bills desperately need someone of Verba's skill level at left tackle, but they don't have the cap room to even consider him. The Texans are the most interested but are only talking in terms of one year.
Considered by most to be a top-10 left tackle in his prime at the age of 31, Verba didn't help matters by saying he wanted a five-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $37.5 million. Here's the problem: The 49 players signed off the street by NFL teams in the past two months barely total $37.5 million if they pool their new 2005 salaries.
When will players learn? March is the best time for player leverage in trying to push the envelope for higher salaries. May and June are the dead zone for players, and the résumé of the player doesn't matter. Even the value of the position is irrelevant.
Defensive end Peter Boulware still has 10-sack potential if the right team signs him. However, he turned down $2 million in salary and $2 million in incentives to stay with the Ravens. In this post-May market, Boulware is struggling to get an offer in excess of $1 million. Cornerback Ty Law is coming back from foot surgery and is just now starting to incorporate cutting into his workouts. The former Patriot can't generate more than minimum salary offers at this point.
Again, market value is sometimes a matter of timing. Halfbacks Shaun Alexander and Edgerrin James were available in trades for less than a first-round choice prior to the draft. However, no one would make an offer. The problem: The Dolphins, Bucs and Bears had top-10 draft choices earmarked for halfbacks and Cardinals coach Dennis Green had his eye on taking J.J. Arrington in the second round since the scouting combine in February. Thus, Alexander and James had no trade value.
The quality of the player doesn't matter in the May-June market. And the later the player is released, the less value he has. A total of 49 veterans have been signed by NFL teams in May and June. Only 11 received more than $25,000 above the minimum, and no one got rich.
Topping the list were Browns left tackle L.J. Shelton ($1.537 million), Lions cornerback R.W. McQuarters ($1.51 million), Ravens cornerback Deion Sanders ($1.5 million), Patriots linebacker Chad Brown ($1.25 million), Dolphins defensive tackle Keith Traylor ($1.005 million), Cowboys halfback Anthony Thomas ($1 million), Colts cornerback Nick Harper ($1 million), Jaguars linebacker Nate Wayne ($960,000), Texans tackle Victor Riley ($815,000) and Saints wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim ($715,000). Johnnie Morton's new deal with the 49ers isn't included because it's not known. This list includes only players who received in excess of $25,000 above the minimum.
How bad has it been? Of the other 38 players who signed one-year deals with minimum salary bases, 26 didn't even get a signing bonus. That includes such names as Chiefs wide receiver Freddie Mitchell, Patriots safety Antuan Edwards, Dolphins receiver David Boston and Bucs receiver Ike Hilliard, all former No. 1 picks.
A month ago, Hakim fired his agent because he felt he would do better in the June market than the May market, when seven teams were pursuing him. By waiting until June, he was left with two options take a minimum salary, incentive-laden deal with the Chiefs or get $50,000 above the $665,000 minimum to go to the Saints. Once Hakim's Chiefs contract was ruled invalid by the league, Hakim bolted to the Saints.
None of this should come as a surprise. Since the installment of the salary cap in 1993, rarely have released players signed lucrative deals after the draft. And because teams have more cap room, many do a better job of re-signing their best players. Because of that, fewer quality players hit the free agent market in March. With fewer quality players available, the bulk of the free agency money is spent in the first two weeks of March. By the time the draft arrives, the big spending teams have filled their needs.
That pattern has been well-established the past several years. But in a league of more than 2,000 players, veterans rely more on their ego than reality and think they can beat the NFL clock and come up with a great deal. Some day they will learn.
Good players and big names are still available, but the story hasn't changed in years. Eddie George got lucky last year receiving a $2.2 million deal from the Cowboys. Unfortunately, the situation in Dallas didn't work out and he would have been better served to stay in Tennessee, where his playing time would have been better and the team would have taken care of him with incentives.
It's no secret why the good teams thrive this time of year. The Patriots do their best work after the draft and do it on the cheap. Since the draft, they've signed Brown, Edwards, Doug Flutie, Victor Leyva and Chad Morton. The post-draft market comes at bargain basement prices, and the Patriots, already loaded with their core group, work relentlessly to add depth at this time.
It's no wonder more and more agents push for players to have March 1 roster bonuses to force teams to make up their minds quicker on the future of their clients. In March, teams are willing to spend. The market is ripe. By spring and summer, the green is gone. Keep that in mind for next year.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.