As coaches, front office executives, scouts, and agents congregate for the NFL Combine in Indianapolis to take a closer look at hundreds of prospective rookies, the event also marks the unofficial start of free agency.
Though the actual signing period doesn’t begin until March 13, front office personnel and agents will secretly meet to discuss soon-to-be free agents and contract parameters before players hit the open market.
As anticipated for several weeks, the Ravens will begin new contract talks for quarterback Joe Flacco, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2012 season.
While both parties have made it clear they want the relationship to continue for many years to come, Flacco’s agent Joe Linta told Glenn Clark on AM 1570 WNST that the weekend will only mark the first step in the negotiating process. Working out any new contract takes time but becomes more complicated when talking about the most important position on the field.
“We are just going to chat on this,” said Linta, who anticipates speaking with team president Dick Cass and vice president of football administration Pat Moriarty on Saturday. “I don’t expect there is going to be a press conference at two o’clock in Indianapolis. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Deciding where to begin can often be difficult in getting both sides to the negotiating table. Linta sparked plenty of debate in Baltimore last week by suggesting his client should be paid as a top-5 quarterback if taking into account Flacco’s 44 regular-season wins in his first four seasons, most in NFL history.
Flacco has never missed a game while becoming the first quarterback in league history to lead his team to the postseason and to earn a playoff win in each of his first four seasons. The 27-year-old has averaged 3,454 passing yards, 20 touchdown passes, 11.5 interceptions, and an 86.0 quarterback rating over his first four seasons.
“It’s really funny, I made one statement to a guy down there and I said, ‘If your [criteria] is wins and success and durability, he should be paid like a top-5 guy,’” Linta said. “Everyone on Sportscenter, NFL Network, and everywhere else forgot that very powerful two-letter word if.”
Trying to draw up parameters for a new contract will be challenging if relying on recent history for quarterback compensation. Linta and Flacco will unequivocally be looking for more money than the deals handed to Arizona’s Kevin Kolb and Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick. Kolb received a six-year, $65 million deal ($12 million guaranteed) while Fitzpatrick’s hot start to the 2011 season led to a seven-year $62 million contract that included $24 million guaranteed.
On the other hand, the Ravens could balk if Linta asks for money comparable to deals signed by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and the Giants’ Eli Manning. Rivers signed a seven-year, $98 million deal with just under $20 million guaranteed while Manning, now a two-time Super Bowl champion, inked a deal worth just under $107 million with $35 million guaranteed.
Linta pointed out how quickly the market changes from year to year and how the ranking of pay for quarterbacks is cyclical as high-caliber signal callers wait their turn. Signing a five-year contract after being drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft, Flacco will finally get his turn for big money at some point over the next calendar year.
“Let’s say, hypothetically, he is paid as the [fifth-best quarterback] now — he’s only going to be the fifth guy for probably 12 months,” Linta said. “He’ll be leapfrogged by several guys as we go forward, and everybody knows the salary cap is going to go up as years go by. Is it five, is it four? It doesn’t matter. He’s an upper-echelon guy.”
The Ravens find themselves in the unique position of negotiating a long-term deal for a franchise quarterback after never having one prior to Flacco’s arrival in Baltimore. While both sides anticipate remaining amicable in talks, Linta will fight for what he feels his client deserves.
Flacco is set to make $6.76 million in the final year of his contract after reaching escalators for playing time and a postseason win in 2011. The two sides want the same end result, but with Flacco’s scheduled free agency still a year away, neither party will feel the urgency to cave to the other side’s demands.
With that in mind, negotiations could drag into the summer months when the free-agent market has played itself out and the draft is a distant memory.