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Notes: Free Agency in the Time of Coronavirus

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Will too much caution by GMs be helpful or harmful in signing free agents?

Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Travel has been cut back during the current pandemic, and part of the NFL’s effort to comply with guidance from health officials has been to restrict visits to team facilities. A week ago, the league announced pre-draft visits with prospects eligible for the upcoming NFL Draft were canceled. This past Monday, the league then announced changes to the offseason and prohibited teams from meeting with free agent players:

The NFL also announced a set of guidelines for free agency when it officially begins at the start of the new league year, March 18 at 4 p.m. ET. Teams are not allowed to bring in prospective free-agent players “to a club facility or other location to meet with club personnel.” Team personnel — including medical staff — also may not travel to any location to meet with or examine a free-agent player.

The league and union are “developing protocols that will provide clubs with opportunities to review a free agent player’s medical records from his prior club(s) and to arrange for a free agent player to have a medical exam in the player’s home city or at another nearby location,” per the league’s statement. “These steps are consistent with those announced last Friday for club contact with draft-eligible college players.”

The hazards of flying all over the country to meet lots of people face to face are a legitimate concern for teams and free agents, but that policy means teams must base their free agency decisions on second-hand medical information rather than direct evaluation by their own trainers and medical staffs. While records and remotely arranged evaluations are surely credible, there is some risk in having to “take someone else’s word for it” when the stakes are high, so to speak. Yesterday, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported some teams are including additional clauses into the contracts they are offering free agents to mitigate that risk:

“Clubs are permitted to expressly condition a free agent’s eligibility to receive and retain bonuses or an injury guarantee upon the player being given and passing a physical examination by the club’s medical doctor when travel restrictions are lifted,” a league official said.

If a player signs a three-year, $30 million contract with a $10 million signing bonus this week, for example, but fails a physical in June, he could lose the $10 million and be bound to a three-year, $20 million deal, potentially.

Now, this standard is an interesting one to include because the line between passing or failing a team physical is not clear cut. As the release of Joe Flacco by the Denver Broncos due to a “failed physical” recently illustrated, teams can make this designation without much warning and/or justification. While the players have some protections built into the CBA against abuse of the designation, it’s pretty standard for the teams to be able to do this. For example, here’s a clause from Arian Foster’s contract with the Houston Texans from 2012 on the SEC EDGAR public data system (emphasis added):

8. PHYSICAL CONDITION. Player represents to Club that he is and will maintain himself in excellent physical condition. Player will undergo a complete physical examination by the Club physician upon Club request, during which physical examination Player agrees to make full and complete disclosure of any physical or mental condition known to him which might impair his performance under this contract and to respond fully and in good faith when questioned by the Club physician about such condition. If Player fails to establish or maintain his excellent physical condition to the satisfaction of the Club physician, or make the required full and complete disclosure and good faith responses to the Club physician, then Club may terminate this contract.

Dr. David Chao, infamous for his real-time Twitter diagnoses of on-the-field injuries, noted in a piece on the National Football Post from the March 2015 free agent period how this standard can vary from team to team (emphasis added):

Last season, Oakland agreed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract for offensive lineman Rodger Saffold but the Raiders failed him on the subsequent physical due to a shoulder injury. He ultimately returned to his original team, the Rams, for considerably less money.

This case also points out that passing a physical is not black and white, thus failing doesn’t mean one can’t play football. Most NFL players have injury history. It is a matter of what a club will tolerate that determines whether a physical is passed. St Louis was willing to re-sign Saffold, but Oakland was not willing to take the chance with a lucrative deal. He played last season but has now had shoulder surgery.

Alonso doesn’t need to be football ready today for the trade to go through. He just needs to be progressing well enough to satisfy the Eagles. Some might argue that with the subjectivity, it gives teams a chance to exercise buyer’s remorse. However, with injuries being so prevalent, these are the rules of the league.

It will be interesting to see later down the road if any players end up failing that future date physical and what the ramifications are financially. And with that, we proceed to today’s other Notes:

  • After the Slay trade, the Detroit Lions moved from ninth to seventh in PFF’s offseason WAR improvement index. I don’t know what that translates to in real wins (7-9 in 2020 maybe?), but the pretty bars are nice colors:

  • Erik Schlitt at Lions Wire sifted through the free agency moves made by the Detroit Lions through Thursday night and generated a possible depth chart of players currently on contract. He also has a pretty nice salary cap tracker, too:

  • Justin Rogers from the Detroit News comes up with a slightly lower remaining post-Slay cap figure compared to Schlitt, but it’s in the same ballpark.

  • Rainer Sabin at the Detroit Free Press thinks newly-signed Jamie Collins Sr. will be a valuable team leader for the Lions.

  • Lions defensive back C.J. Moore working out with his brother (hat tip to Erik Schlitt for finding this):

  • Here’s one guy who thought Big Play Slay was better than “just good”: