Commentary

Brace for free-agent frenzy ... in 2011

If uncapped year in 2010 comes to fruition, free agency in '11 could be wild

Originally Published: February 18, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The recent contracts given to Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski and Titans guard Eugene Amano are reminders that the price of players still rises, even if NFL owners remove the salary cap with hopes of containing player costs.

Janikowski became the highest-paid kicker in NFL history Tuesday with his four-year, $16 million deal. By getting more than $5 million a year on Wednesday, Amano reminded everyone that starting guards aren't cheap these days.

This won't be a normal year of free agency if owners go through with an uncapped year, which appears to be all but certain. Free agency will start March 5, and team owners and the players' union aren't close to reaching a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement by then. Owners are hoping to remove the salary cap and see how players respond to a one-year system that prevents a player from becoming an unrestricted free agent until after his sixth season.

More than 200 players who would be unrestricted free agents will instead be restricted, and the cost of blocking their movement with first- and third-round tenders will be a relatively cheap $3.168 million or $3.268 million, depending on a player's experience.

But here is something no one is thinking about now: What happens if most of those players go through 2010 on one-year deals and a new collective bargaining agreement is struck before 2011? All of a sudden, two years of free-agent classes will come together to form a potential pool of players who could create big spending.

Let's first put the numbers into perspective.

[+] EnlargeVincent Jackson
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireChargers WR Vincent Jackson is among an impressive group of restricted free agents.

The current unrestricted free-agent class consists of 236 players, but most of those players aren't going to get rich. About 100 of the 236 were on one-year, minimum-salary contracts last season, and another 42 were on one-year deals. Even in the thinnest free-agent market since Plan B free agency (which allowed teams to maintain limited rights to their top free agents), more than half the 236 aren't going to create a bidding war. Those on the list this year are likely to be on it next year if they're still on teams' radars. A handful of the best might get franchised, mainly keeping them to one-year deals.

The most interest this year surrounds the restricted free-agent class. There are 90 normal restricted free agents and approximately 200 others who don't have the years of experience to become unrestricted free agents in 2010. The list includes Elvis Dumervil of the Broncos, Brandon Marshall of the Broncos, Vincent Jackson of the Chargers and many others.

This group is the key to the future. Some of the players will sign long-term deals, but probably not as many as in normal years. Others might not sign their one-year tenders until the start of training camp. Still others might have their tenders lifted because of the cost. If a new CBA is struck before 2011, players on those one-year deals would be in the free-agent class of 2011.

No one expects the union to change its position on free agency. In a new deal, look for unrestricted free agency to return to four years of service. If so, 153 contracts will expire after the 2010 season. The list of players affected includes Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Throw all of those things together and you have a list of potential 2011 free agents -- under normal unrestricted free-agent rules -- that might be around 400 or 500 players at the very least if the 2010 class of restricted free agents stick to one-year deals.

Imagine the bidding war then. Say what you want about owners wanting to cut costs, but the NFL is a competitive league. Any time there is competitive bidding for good players, salaries jump. The good players will get paid well no matter what happens, and two years of free-agent classes would come together in 2011.

What's scary is the small number of players signed through 2011 and 2012. I know it's crazy to look ahead to 2012, but slightly more than 500 players are under contract until then, with about 40 percent of those being players who just completed their rookie seasons.

The Cardinals have only 17 players signed through 2011. The Chiefs have 26. The Saints could get hit hard in this two-class free-agent crunch because they currently have 29 free agents, and seven more are set to hit the market in 2011. The Chargers have nine veterans whose contracts run out in 2010 to go with their 18 restricted and unrestricted free agents this year.

As we witnessed with Janikowski and Amano, the prices of starters and key players keep climbing no matter how owners try to contain costs. Looking ahead to 2011 free agency will only remind owners how much they need that salary cap back in place.

The limited pool of 2010 free agents will keep overall costs down in the short term, but watch out for 2011 if two classes of free agents come together. The mega class of free agents will come with mega costs.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

ALSO SEE