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On the Cheap
PETER KING
February 22, 2010
Even without a salary cap, most franchises will be frugal when the free-agent signing period kicks off
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February 22, 2010

On The Cheap

Even without a salary cap, most franchises will be frugal when the free-agent signing period kicks off

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Ready for a duller-than-dishwater NFL free-agent market? When the owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in May 2008, they changed the landscape for the 2010 season, which will be played without a salary cap and with player movement more restricted. The signing period begins on March 5, but there are three forces conspiring against many stars who might otherwise have been likely to change teams.

• The minimum service for unrestricted free-agent status jumps from four years to six. Wideouts Miles Austin of the Cowboys and Braylon Edwards of the Jets, left tackle Marcus McNeil of the Chargers and defensive tackle Tony Brown of the Titans are among the big names reclassified as restricted free agents because the CBA is not in force. Their teams can get high draft-choice compensation if those players sign elsewhere. Altogether there are 76 starters and 130 reserves in the pool of fourth- and fifth-year players.

• The 2010 draft is one of the best in years. Teams that might normally want to sign marquee free agents will think twice before offering a big contract and sacrificing a first- or second-round draft pick as compensation when it would be much cheaper to use the pick on a younger player who could turn into just as big a star.

• Because there is no cap or minimum on team payrolls, a rich franchise (the Redskins or the Seahawks?) might spend freely, but the majority will likely sit back. Some teams might even cut payroll, saving money as protection against a possible work stoppage in 2011. "There could be clubs," says NFL management council senior vice president Peter Ruocco, "who end up below the $107 million [minimum under the old CBA]." NFL free agency will more closely resemble the major league baseball model with players, facing a paucity of multiyear offers, taking one-year deals with new teams (or settling for franchise or tender offers from their current clubs) in hopes of making more money after a new CBA is hammered out.

There's another factor that could limit spending by the most successful teams of '09. The four teams that reached the AFC and NFC title games (Colts, Jets, Saints and Vikings) can't sign an unrestricted free agent until they lose one of greater or similar value. And the four clubs that lost in the divisional round (Chargers, Ravens, Cardinals and Cowboys) can sign only one unrestricted free agent before they begin losing their own.

This could significantly affect the Super Bowl--champion Saints, who have 30 unrestricted or restricted free agents. Clearly they will try to re-sign star safety Darren Sharper, but New Orleans will have competition following Sharper's nine-interception season. If the Saints lose Sharper to a team that offers, say, a three-year contract paying him $6 million in the first year, only then could New Orleans pursue another unrestricted free agent, to whom it could offer a contract maxing out at $6 million in the first year.

Complicated? Welcome to the new way of doing business in the NFL.

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