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The art of navigating free agency

I’ve been talking with Raider Nation a lot on Twitter recently (if you don’t already follow me and you’re on Twitter, there’s a link at the bottom of this article – follow me, I try to tweet a lot throughout the day) about the Raiders moves this off-season.

My opinion is that the Raiders are going about free agency and cleaning up the team’s contract situations the right way; I believe this is a necessary period.  I thought I would explain some of my thoughts.

With the salary cap and teams revenue sharing, the NFL is as even a playing ground as any professional sport and a good deal more fair than most. 

There are some differences in the personal wealth of the owners, which can allow more signing bonuses paid.  There are differences in the popularity of the team apparel or merchandise.

But each team splits costs on many items so that there isn’t too large a competitive advantage in larger market areas.

The salary cap puts teams on an even playing ground as well.  Teams do not have the opportunity to be like the Yankees and overpay for talent in an attempt to make the playoffs every year.  Every player signed must fit under the salary cap rules equally.

These are two of the biggest reasons that the NFL is the most popular sport in America and one of the most popular in the world.  Every team’s fans know that their team has a shot at making the Super Bowl any given year simply because of the way the league is set up.

This year the salary cap is slightly north of $120 million dollars, so we’ll use that number for illustration purposes.

The Buffalo Bills signed DE Mario Williams to a reported 6 year, $100 million dollar contract yesterday, with a reported $50 million guaranteed.  The $100 million isn’t important – he won’t get that amount – but the guaranteed money is huge.

According to Andrew Brandt of the National Football Post, who is very good with the contract end of the NFL, the 6th year is mostly a void year or to build up the number.  The maximum number of years that a team can prorate a bonus over is 5.

Also according to Brandt, Mario’s due a staggering $25 million dollars in salary this season.  Not all of that will be against the cap and his cap number may be, in reality, low.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that his cap number – the amount of his salary that counts against the salary cap – is “only” $10 million each year for the next 5 years of the deal.

If the salary cap doesn’t grow much, or at all, for the next 5 years or so, Mario Williams’ contract would account for nearly 1/12 of his teams cap allotment.

The team will still have to pay the remaining 52 players with the remaining 11/12ths.  That is a highly disproportional amount to give one player.

Plus, it’s not as if highly touted free agents are a lock to be successful, either.  Look at Albert Haynesworth, who was the top free agent in his class when Washington signed him.  Or Adalius Thomas, who was considered almost a can’t miss prospect when the Patriots signed him in 2007.

By staying away from the market frenzy that occurs in the first few days of free agency, the Raiders have put themselves in a better place to get solid, reasonably priced talent.

The best teams do this in a logical way – they do not convince themselves they must have a certain player.

It is a basic tenet of good negotiation that you pre-plan where you feel comfortable with ending and if you cannot get your counterpart into your range, you walk away.

The best teams in the league do an evaluation of the players themselves, they do not rely on the evaluation of others.  They determine “what is our comfort range with this player?  What number would we like to sign him at?  What is our absolute top end?”

They also bring the player in and get a sense of him – “Will he be a good contribution to the team? Does he want to play here?”

Then, they sit down with the agent of the player (or over the phone) and they begin negotiations.  They have thought out their strengths and they use them – “Well, Bob, you know that your client has injury concerns.  He isn’t going to be able to get a $25 million dollar contract at this point in his career.”

If the agent disagrees on what his client can get, the team must be prepared to walk away.

There is no player in this league that a team must have.  Every player is a piece to the puzzle to winning.

The Raiders have been working on freeing up their cap so that they can sign the pieces they need to put together a solid team in 2012 and it’s the right approach.

Ask me questions or tell me what you think on Twitter @AsherMathews