NFL set to embark on first free agent signing period without a salary cap since 1993

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

The NFL's great experiment begins in the early hours of Friday morning, just after midnight.

Since the mid-1990s, the league has been governed by an economic system that included a salary cap designed to promote competitive balance among the teams. The sport and practically everyone in it prospered, and owners and the players' union agreed to a series of extensions of the labor agreement to keep the salary cap in place and avoid the uncapped season that was included as the final year in each collective bargaining agreement. It was an incentive to owners and players to negotiate earnestly and settle their differences at the bargaining table so that no one had to face the uncertainty of a year minus a salary cap.

But the men who presided over that labor peace, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and late union chief Gene Upshaw, no longer run the sport, and these are new times for the NFL. The owners and players are engaged in a bargaining stare-down that has prompted predictions of a lockout of the players by the owners next year. But first, both sides are prepared for a year without a salary cap, which officially begins with the opening of the NFL's free agent market Friday at 12:01 a.m.

The question is whether any NFL team will attempt to become the league's equivalent of baseball's New York Yankees, far outspending everyone else in a bid to win a championship.

"I think teams are always willing to be competitive, and teams are always looking for ways to win," Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said last week in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine.

The Washington Redskins were mentioned by executives of several NFL teams in private conversations last week as a candidate to go on a free agent spending spree without the constraint of the salary cap. But those executives conceded they don't know exactly what to expect from the Redskins after their hiring of a new general manager, Bruce Allen, and a new coach, Mike Shanahan.

Several other teams have said they will exhibit restraint.

"I'm sure there will be some activity," New York Giants General Manager Jerry Reese said at the scouting combine. "I think we just have to let it unfold and see what direction people are going to go. . . . You always see some teams jump out there and try to make some moves. But with the uncertainty of everything that's going on, I think you'll see teams be cautious."

As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has pointed out on numerous occasions, several new free agency rules automatically go into effect in an uncapped year to promote competitive balance without the salary cap there to take care of that task.

Players need six seasons of NFL service time to be eligible for unrestricted free agency, rather than the four required in the salary cap system. That has created a sizable group of players, those with expired contracts and four or five years of NFL experience, who would have been unrestricted free agents under the old system but are only restricted free agents in the uncapped year, meaning that their teams can retain them by matching any contract offers they receive from other clubs and possibly can receive draft-pick compensation if those players sign elsewhere.

Teams usually are wary of signing a free agent if it means surrendering a draft choice or choices to the player's former club. Some around the league say they wonder if that tendency will change in the NFL's new world.

"It's going to be interesting to see how people move on the restricted free agents," Reese said.

Another change in an uncapped year is that each team had the right to use an additional transition player tag -- on top of the one franchise player or transition player tag already at its disposal -- to restrict the movement of its potential free agents. However, no team used an extra transition tag by last month's league-wide deadline, and only six clubs used their franchise player tags.

The top eight finishers in last season's playoffs face restrictions in the uncapped year about signing free agents. The top four teams, in effect, can sign an unrestricted free agent only to replace a player they've lost in free agency, and the other clubs in the final eight face similar restrictions but do get one high-priced exception apiece and unlimited lower-priced exceptions.

"It's a penalty, for sure," said New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan, whose team faces the final-four restrictions after losing the AFC title game to the Indianapolis Colts. "Maybe you need a tight end or whatever, and you really can't go out and get one of the top guys."

NFL talent evaluators say they don't regard this as a particularly strong unrestricted free agent class. Defensive end Julius Peppers is likely to land an eye-catching contract as he leaves the Carolina Panthers. But the list of top players is relatively short. Others available on the unrestricted free agent market include wide receiver Terrell Owens, safety Darren Sharper, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and linebackers Karlos Dansby and Aaron Kampman.

The ranks of available players will be bolstered by players being released by their teams. Among the players whose releases already have been announced are linebacker Antonio Pierce by the Giants and tailbacks LaDainian Tomlinson by the San Diego Chargers, Brian Westbrook by the Philadelphia Eagles and Thomas Jones by the Jets. The Miami Dolphins announced the release of linebacker Joey Porter but had to rescind the move, presumably only temporarily. With teams able to release or trade players without salary cap ramifications, there could be much more to come in those areas.

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said last week in Indianapolis that union officials will be watching the teams' spending on players in free agency "very closely." There has been speculation that the union might file a collusion charge against the owners if the clubs don't spend what the union regards as a sufficient amount. The absence of the salary cap, which went into effect in the 1994 season as part of a 1993 labor settlement between the owners and players, eliminates the minimum amount that each NFL team must spend on players, as well as the maximum.

"You do what's best for your team," Reese said at the scouting combine. "Last year we went out and tried to bolster our team. . . . We'll spend what we have to spend. We have a budget and we'll stick to that. [But] if we feel like we can help ourselves by adding a guy, we'll do that."

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