Commentary

Old rules would impact final eight

A return to 2010 free-agent system would restrict divisional playoff teams

Originally Published: May 11, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Just in case the Eighth Circuit Court upholds the ruling of federal judge Susan Richard Nelson to lift the NFL lockout, a group of front-office executives and owners is studying what type of free-agent system to implement.

Ultimately, lawyers would help to decide on the system because they would have to defend it in court. Players could file a suit claiming the new system violates antitrust laws, and the league could be on the hook for treble, or triple, damages. That is why it's possible the league could implement a system different from the 2010 system that requires six years until a player reaches unrestricted free agency. Under those rules, 247 players expected to be unrestricted free agents would become restricted free agents, and with no union, they would claim restraint of trade.

If the league does impose the 2010 system, it will be interesting to see if it brings back the "Final Eight" plan. In an uncapped year, the top eight finishers from the previous season are handcuffed in free agency: The four teams that played in the title games can sign a free agent only if they lose a free agent, and the four teams that lost in the divisional round of the playoffs can sign a player at a modest cost, roughly $3.8 million in the first year.

It's interesting to look back at how the 2009 final eight teams survived the plan. Two of them made it back to the final eight in 2010 -- the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets. Both made it again as wild-card teams.

Still, the drain of not being able to do much outside the draft and signing players released by other teams had an impact on final-eight teams. The effects could be harsher this year. If the 2010 plan is used, only 201 players will be unrestricted free agents. Last year, there were 221. Only 51 signed, and 10 of those didn't make opening day rosters.

Look at the impact on teams in search of pass-rushers. The Falcons went into the draft without free agency or trades and felt they needed two key parts -- a pass-rusher and a wide receiver. They traded five draft choices to move up to take wide receiver Julio Jones, feeling they could get the pass-rushing defensive end in free agency. Most people believe the Falcons like Ray Edwards of the Vikings, but he would be a restricted free agent in the 2010 system because he doesn't have six years of experience.

Jason Babin of the Titans is the best end available in the 2010 system, but most people believe he will follow former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn to Philadelphia. Because the Falcons lost in the divisional round, they can only try to lure a free agent with a first-year salary of less than $4 million. To get a pass-rusher, they will have to make a trade.

The Patriots and Jets also couldn't come up with pass-rushers in the draft and will be hard-pressed to get one in free agency.

The final-eight teams in 2009 signed only six unrestricted free agents in 2010 under these rules. They spent only $9.5 million in first-year investments for those players, and impact from the players was minimal. The Jets signed Jason Taylor, the Saints got Jimmy Wilkerson and the Ravens signed Cory Redding. Redding got the most first-year money, $2.5 million.

Because they took heavy hits in free agency, the Cardinals were able to get three players, but they got very little playing time out of guard Rex Hadnot. Linebacker Paris Lenon wasn't equal to the free-agent loss of Karlos Dansby. With quarterback Kurt Warner retiring and the roster thinner, the Cardinals dropped from 10-6 to 5-11.

The Colts and Chargers each experienced four-game drops from their final-eight finishes in 2009. The Cowboys fell five games, the Vikings six.

The team that would be most affected by the Final Eight rules this year is the Seahawks. Had they lost the regular-season finale to the St. Louis Rams, they would have been 6-10 and drafting eighth. Instead, they not only made the playoffs, but beat the Saints in a home playoff game, putting them in the final eight.

Now, they pay the price. They drafted 25th and could only address the offensive line with their first two choices, tackle James Carpenter and guard John Moffitt. Some believe the Seahawks would love to sign Robert Gallery to complete the revamping of the offensive line, but Final Eight rules could kill that option.

Unless they lose a high-priced free agent, the Seahawks could offer Gallery only a little less than $4 million in the first year. Top guards in free agency get $6 million to $8 million a season with huge up-front money. Unless they lose a free agent for that price, they'd have to settle for a lesser player and also not be able to fix other positions.

The Final Eight rule was put in place for competitive reasons. If it does return, though, it will make it harder for final-eight teams in 2010 to make it to the final eight in 2011.

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