Just moments after Denver Broncos general manager John Elway happily introduced him to the media on Sunday, former Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders strode to the podium wearing a black hoodie, black glasses and a smile.
Sure, Sanders had been in Kansas City the previous two days negotiating a deal with the Chiefs, but after finalizing a three-year, $18 million deal worth $6 million guaranteed, he was 100 percent all Bronco now. So he spoke about how happy he is to join a winner, how happy he is to be Peyton Manning’s new No. 2 receiver and most importantly, how happy he is with his agent.
“This is the team that I wanted to go to during free agency,” Sanders said. “Somehow, someway, it ended up happening. So God is good.”
But the way Sanders’ deal with the Broncos ended up happening is precisely the thing that stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy for he and his agent, Steve Weinberg, over the weekend.
According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport
, the Chiefs actually reached an agreement with Sanders on Saturday, only to have his agent, Weinberg, shop the offer around.
Rapoport said Weinberg engaged in negotiations with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without explaining that he had already accepted the Chiefs’ offer, and later agreed to the deal with the Broncos. A source told The Star on Friday that Sanders also had a visit set up for San Francisco on Saturday, but Rapoport wrote that Sanders and Weinberg “also rankled the 49ers by agreeing to visit, then blowing it off.”
“When a man gives you his word and pulls out,” one unnamed executive told Rapoport, “then gives another team your word and pulls out, then gives another team his word … not proper.”
Sanders, however, denied that accusation on Sunday.
“That entire situation is a business ordeal that some people will turn into a personal matter,” Sanders said. “Situations like that happen all the time over the National Football League. There was no handshake. There was no kind of agreement ... we were close to a deal, but it wasn’t anything official just yet. In terms of shopping around, we didn’t shop around. Teams were still calling. Teams were still trying to get involved. That’s what happened.”
Still, it’s easy to understand why the unnamed league executive, whoever that might be, might be a little chafed at Weinberg’s alleged behavior. If there was thought to be an agreement in place, even if the pen hadn’t yet been put to paper, it can seriously effect a team’s plans.
For instance, if the Chiefs indeed reached an agreement in principle over the weekend, it likely precluded them from pursuing several other free-agent receivers who signed with other teams recently, including New England’s Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, Indianapolis’ Hakeem Nicks and Baltimore’s Steve Smith.
What’s more, the loss of Sanders, who turns 27 on Monday, to a division rival is a tough blow for the Chiefs, particularly since they have been seeking to upgrade one of the league’s worst receiving corps, at least statistically.
that they may have some recourse, however. Article 4, Section 8 of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement stipulates that “club, any player, and any player agent or contract advisor engaged in negotiations for a player contract is under an obligation to negotiate in good faith.” This means the Chiefs could file a grievance with the league and attempt to have the deal voided.
However, all indications are that the Chiefs will not go that route. Salary cap expert and former NFL agent Joel Corry said he’s never heard of a team filing such a grievance against an agent, though if the Chiefs did, it could open the floodgates to teams claiming bad faith with normally acceptable conduct in negotiations.
In the end, Corry said, every agent is bound to his own code of ethics when negotiating deals.
“It's one thing to play teams off against one another to leverage a better deal for a client, and it's another thing to actually agree to a deal with a client and then renege,” Corry said. “As an agent, your word is your bond, and if teams can't take you at face value, you're gonna have some difficulties dealing with them, particularly if you're in the business long-term and you're gonna be dealing with the same people over and over again.
“There's turnover from team to team so the guy that you potentially have a falling out with or screw over could be someplace else a couple years later.”
However, Corry noted that in the end, the agent works for the client. So if a deal is agreed to with one team, only for another team to swoop in later with a better offer, it's up to the agent to explain the ramifications of reneging on the original deal to the player.
“I've had instances where we agreed to a deal and then another team came back with a deal that is marginally better and I was able to talk the client out of taking the deal for more dollars by saying 'Look, that's not how you do business,’” Corry said.
Corry, however, noted that if there’s a dramatic difference between the offers, things can get a little murkier. After all, teams renege on promises, too, which is something he found out during his days as an agent.
“I had a defensive end that had an injury the prior year and was going to re-sign with Cleveland,” Corry said. “This was when Butch Davis was the head coach. We agreed to the deal because I knew this guy wasn't getting anything close to that kind of money in free agency elsewhere because of the injury.
“So I'm waiting on the paperwork, I call the front office calling for it, they kind of slow-play me on it — I'm not really thinking anything of it — they go out and sign one of the guys who played for Butch at Miami.
“The thing is, the front office called to apologize and pinned it all on Butch. Dwight Clark and another guy in the front office called and were very apologetic and they're like, ‘We don't do business like this.’”
However the Sanders deal came to pass, the Chiefs are now out on a receiver who was likely considered to be a priority signing. He caught 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns last season, and his vertical speed — he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the 2010 combine — he would have been a nice fit in coach Andy Reid’s offense.
Sanders has posted Pro Football Focus grades of 1.5 (2013), 2.2 (2012), 1.8 (2011) and 6.0 (2010) since he entered the league, and his grade last season ranked 60th out of 111 receivers who played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps.
In comparison, the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver, Dwayne Bowe, finished with a grade of 4.7 (48th out of 111) while No. 2 receiver Donnie Avery finished with a grade of minus-8.8 (105th out of 111).
The other primary contributors at receiver who remain on the roster fared a bit better than Avery. Junior Hemingway finished with 13 catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns and a grade of minus-6.0 (102nd out of 111), while another former first-round pick, A.J. Jenkins, finished with eight catches for 130 yards a grade of minus-2.2. That put Jenkins 177th out of the 216 receivers who played a single snap last year.
In all, the Chiefs finished 20th in the league in receptions (333), 25th in receiving yards (3,561), 15th in touchdowns (24) and 31st in yards per reception (10.7).
So where do they go from here? Sources told The Star this week that the Chiefs have some level of interest in former Eagle Jason Avant and former Bear Devin Hester. A person with knowledge of the situation said the interest in Avant is mutual, but as of Friday, there had been no visit scheduled.
According to the NFL Players Association, the Chiefs had about $6.9 million in cap space after the Husain Abdullah, Joe Mays and Jeff Linkenbach signings. The figures do not include Abdullah’s $1.1 cap hit for 2014, nor do they include the new deal for backup outside linebacker Frank Zombo, who made $640,000 last season.
Sanders was believed to be seeking a deal similar to what Golden Tate received from the Lions (five years, $31 million, $13 million guaranteed), though teams have reportedly been wary of giving him that kind of money due to past foot injuries.
It’s unclear how close the Chiefs came to meeting that price, but among the free agent receivers who remain on the market, Corry says there’s one who still stands out.
“There's one logical fit still out there at receiver that knows the offense, and that’s James Jones,” Corry said. “He's from a West Coast system in Green Bay, and Andy Reid is a Green Bay disciple. He's kind of a bigger receiver but he's been pretty productive. If they can sign him, they may end up being better off for the 2014 season.”
Jones, who turns 30 this month, who caught 59 passes for 817 yards and three touchdowns last season. His Pro Football Focus grade of 2.9 ranked 55th out of 111 receivers and would have been the second-best mark on the Chiefs behind Bowe. There’s been no public link made between him and the Chiefs, but Corry thinks they could probably afford him if they want him.
“I don't know what they were going to sign Sanders for, but maybe Jones is available for that same deal,” Corry said. “The receivers are going off the board and he's still there, so it's not like he has a great leverage.”
The same couldn’t be said for Sanders, obviously, much to the chagrin of some around the league. Sanders, however, was happy with the result, regardless of the controversy — and question about his agent’s method — that popped up.
“Steve Weinberg, he did an exceptional job in terms of the whole free-agency process,” Sanders said. “At times, I was like, ‘Steve, what is going on? Am I flying East Coast or West Coast?’ But I believe in him. Everything that he said was going to happen, happened. I ended up at the place that I needed to be. I’m excited and he’s excited also.”