The reality of an uncapped year
Absence of salary cap in 2010 would curb, not increase, free-agent spending
The NFL is about to take off its cap and find a bald-headed version of free agency.
Fans probably aren't going to like it. The perception of an uncapped year in 2010 is that it will bring free spending. Instead, this will be the NFL's version of a department store rolling back prices. Don't expect free spending. Expect a tightening of the belts for players' salaries if the NFL and the players don't get a collective bargaining agreement by March 5.
As of Friday, the number of unrestricted free agents was 239. If long-term deals aren't struck, expect nose tackle Vince Wilfork of the Patriots, nose tackle Casey Hampton of the Steelers, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin of the 49ers, cornerback Dunta Robinson of the Texans, defensive end Richard Seymour of the Raiders and maybe even kicker Sebastian Janikowski of the Raiders to be franchised or transitioned.
Although that seems to be a small list of tags, the reality of uncapped free agency in 2010 is that there aren't many marquee players to sign. Because free agency in an uncapped year requires six seasons of service (as opposed to four in a normal year) before a player can hit the unrestricted market, there are fewer than 20 starters younger than 30 on the unrestricted list, and some still could sign before March 5.
Sure, there will be heavy bidding wars for Julius Peppers, Karlos Dansby and Kyle Vanden Bosch if they aren't franchised, but after that, don't expect much. I counted 101 unrestricted free agents who had only enough leverage to negotiate minimum-salary, one-year deals in 2009. There were 36 more who signed one-year contracts for less than $2 million.
Just because the market is depressed doesn't mean minimum-salary players are going to get big contracts.
What's so fascinating -- and potentially damaging -- about this version of free agency is that it gives teams the ability to essentially franchise more than 200 players without serious commitments.
Follow me on this. A team in a normal cap year can franchise or transition one player. In the uncapped year, teams have the ability to use a franchise tag and a transition tag, but the only team that might consider doing that is Oakland with Seymour and Janikowski.
By March 5, teams can keep their unsigned players with less than six years of experience by giving them restricted free-agent tenders. In some ways, you could call these tenders franchise tags at bargain-basement prices.
Here are a few examples.
In a normal year, the Broncos would have to put the franchise tag on linebacker Elvis Dumervil, which would cost them $9.68 million -- all guaranteed. Now, they can put a restricted tender on him for first- and third-round choices, meaning the Broncos would receive a first- and a third-round draft pick if another team signed him. It would cost Denver only $3.168 million, the amount of the tender, and the money wouldn't be guaranteed.
Look at the situation with WR Brandon Marshall. If the Broncos franchised him during a normal year, it would cost them $9.521 million. Now, they can keep him for $3.168 million with a first- and third-round tender.
Expect any starter or any potential starter in the restricted free-agent pool to get tendered with first- and third-round choices. They are bargains. The first-round restricted tender on a four-year free agent is $2.521 million. For about $600,000 more, a team gets the first- and third-round protection, and it can pull the tender at any time without cost.
But here is the downside. Players unhappy with the $2 million to $3 million tenders might just hold out until August, causing a disruption of training camps and offseason programs. Plus, it could create a monster free-agent problem for teams with a lot of restricted free agents.
Take the New Orleans Saints as an example. They have 18 restricted free agents, including plenty of very good players. They have three left tackles -- Jammal Brown, Jermon Bushrod and Zach Strief. Top left tackles now go for more than $10 million a year. Safety Roman Harper is a restricted free agent after being a Pro Bowl alternate. He might be able to command more than $4 million a year. Pierre Thomas is a starting running back. He could get more than $4 million a year. Jahri Evans is now one of the top guards in the NFC. That's an $8 million a year commodity.
To keep this team together for the long term, the Saints would love to be able to get some contracts done this year and others next year. But if most of the 200 restricted free agents decide to hold off signing long-term deals or even signing their tenders, teams such as the Saints could be broken up over the next couple of years. At the very least, the potential holdouts could be a distraction.
The Chargers will have similar problems with Shawne Merriman, Darren Sproles, Malcolm Floyd, Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill, Jeromey Clary and Tim Dobbins being restricted free agents all at the same time.
The ideal thing would be to get a new CBA in place by March 5 and not have to go through this exercise, but there are owners who might want to try the uncapped year to see how it works. Could it end up causing more headaches than simply working under a normal salary cap?
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.