Mickles: Saints, NFL juggle with free agency

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) about winding down the final seconds in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014.
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) about winding down the final seconds in a NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014.

In a little more than two days, the unofficial start to the NFL free agency period will begin.

For the second year in a row, certified agents can take advantage of a 72-hour window to negotiate contracts with potential suitors before the signing period begins at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

That means at 3 p.m. Saturday, teams can begin the process of putting together deals to fill holes they might have in their lineups for the 2014 season — assuming there is some room under the $133 million salary cap to add necessary pieces to the puzzle.

Some teams have a lot of money at their disposal.

Some teams, like the New Orleans Saints, are tight to the cap despite a larger-than-expected increase of $8 million over the 2013 cap.

Which means the team will have to clear some cap room over the next few days if it wants to add more help to a defense that made great strides in 2013, and, at the same time, keep some of their veterans who could hit the open market Tuesday.

As of Wednesday evening, the Saints were believed to be about $1.5 million under the cap when tight end Jimmy Graham’s one-year contract tender of $7.035 million as their franchise player is added to the equation.

The Saints, however, will need even more money if they intend to retain some of their other top potential free agents like tackle Zach Strief, free safety Malcolm Smith, center Brian de la Puente and wide receiver Robert Meachem.

But if they eventually don’t have the money to go on a wild spending spree, it won’t be the end of the world, although they usually find some bargains here and there to help their team.

It’s one of the things and certainly one of the times of the entire calendar year that longtime NFL general manager Bill Polian doesn’t miss.

Polian put together five Super Bowl teams in the 1990s and 2000s and had another near-miss with the expansion Carolina Panthers when they came up one game short of the title game in their second year of existence.

Now an analyst for ESPN, Polian, who also won a Grey Cup as an executive in the Canadian Football League, doesn’t hide the fact that he’s not wild about free agency for a number of reasons.

“There is no perfect world in free agency,” he said. “From a club standpoint, it’s most difficult. And I found it most difficult to deal with (on) every front.”

Most notable, he said, is the sometimes exorbitant contracts teams shell out to midlevel players who are looking for top-tier dollars.

“The best players are already signed, or they’re franchised,” Polian said during a conference call Wednesday. “Agents are looking for ‘A money’ for ‘B players.’

In addition, Polian said, teams don’t know as much about the veteran players they sign as they do the players in the draft pool — young players who are scrutinized for months leading up the draft — and often need at least a season to transition into a new system.

As a result, the player doesn’t play to his maximum potential during the adjustment period. Yet he’s still being paid pretty handsomely.

Still, Polian said, it’s a way to fill holes in your roster if you have some money to use, although he preferred building and maintaining a team through the draft.

“Some situations, you’re forced to deal with … so you bite the bullet and do it,” he said. “Players change teams and they change systems and change locales. When you do that, there’s going to be an adjustment period. Football is not a seamless transition.”

When you make a mistake you can pay dearly for it — sometimes for years.

“Whether you have a little money or a lot of money, the dangers (of free agency) are the same,” Polian said. “It’s just a matter of what degree.

“Keep this in mind, free agency is not free. It costs two things that you never get back: Time and money. When you have a good team … it behooves you to be restrained in free agency.”