Brian Urlacher, Charles Woodson, John Abraham, Dwight Freeney, James Harrison, and Casey Hampton all have much in common.
They have all been perennial Pro Bowlers, they were all cornerstones of their respective franchise cornerstones, and they may all get serious Hall of Fame consideration.
They were all starters in 2012.
And they are all out of a job.
It’s nearly a month into free agency already, and almost no team has shown much interest in any of these men. How could such capable, experienced players find themselves on the outside looking in?
All about the Benjamins
As with most things in life, it all comes down to money. All of these players are in line to take a significant pay cut from their previous hefty contracts, and not all of them may be willing to do so. Brian Urlacher, for example, was offered a one-year, $2 million contract by the Chicago Bears, which he turned down and called a “slap in the face.” Yet if he wants to play football in 2013, he’ll probably end up playing for even less than that.
Other veterans face similar pay cuts from previous lofty salaries, and many — Elvis Dumervil, Brent Grimes, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Antoine Winfield to name a few — have been cut and left no choice but to sign new, significantly smaller contracts.
The NFL is finally starting to see the effects of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, and it is not looking pretty for veterans. Many of them were very happy to see rookie salaries slashed and veteran minimum salaries increased, but the flip side of this is that younger players are now significantly cheaper than veterans. As a result, teams placing an emphasis on acquiring young, cheap talent. Aging veterans who are used to getting paid well find that the league is not nearly as kind to them as they might like.
Another reason older players are finding themselves phased out is simply due to their lack of speed. The NFL is increasingly becoming a pass-oriented league, making it ever more challenging for defenders to keep up in coverage. Older players tend to struggle in space. Charles Woodson is still solid against the run and can make some intelligent gambles to produce turnovers, but he has also been prone to getting burned in coverage the last few years. Woodson is right when he says that he has no job because of his age.
Welcome to the new NFL, where young players are at a premium and older players can either swallow their ego or pack their bags. Although this can be hard for the players and fans to accept, it is probably better for the league, as it allocates more money for true stars and gives more young players a chance to prove they belong. Greater depth, competition, and parity are a large part of what has made the NFL the most popular sports league in America, and these changes from the new NFL collective bargaining agreement should only continue that beneficial trend.