It is possible that free agency could begin in the NFL within the next couple of weeks. Two distinct possibilities could bring an end to the lockout. First, the NFL and NFLPA could come to a resolution, which is looking more promising than anytime since the lockout began. Secondly, the Appeals Court could rule for the players, permanently lifting the lockout.
Once the league year begins there is going to be a mad scramble to figure out how to move forward. One of the major issues will be free agency. Because of a lack of a new CBA the 2010 off-season was uncapped and free agency rules were limited in comparison to previous seasons. If the Appeals Court rules for the players, it is an extreme probability that the 2011 free agency period would resemble last years. However, if the two sides come to an agreement, and entirely new type of off-season structure would take place.
After the jump, I am going to take a look at the 2010 free agency rules and how they would work in 2011 if not changed via an agreement between the NFL and NFLPA.
I. Final Eight Rule Would Affect Seattle Seahawks Among Others
This system was put into place in order to keep the competitive balance of the NFL. However, it has been chastised by teams because if severely limits the possibility of contending teams improving during the off-season. Under this rule teams that made it to the divisional round of the playoffs would be limited in their free agent acquisitions.
According to ESPN
he 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.
For example, teams like the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks would only be able to lure a free agent with a base first year salary of less than 4 million dollars. This affects the Seahawks more than it does any other team on that list because it is widely known that they need upgrades at nearly every single position. Them being limited in free agency and the 49ers having a "free-for -all" would create a competitive imbalance; at least, if you ask Seattle. It isn't 100 percent sure that the final eight rule would be used even if the NFL goes back to 2010 rules. However, common sense would tend to dictate such.
II. Uncapped Year
While the final eight rule extremely handicapped teams that had made it past the wildcard round the previous year. The uncapped year "helped" those who were not as fortunate. The NFL usually practices under a hard cap, which means that teams couldn't go over a certain payroll. Obviously, as 49ers fans we knew this all too well. For many years, we were in cap purgatory; which meant we were unable to sign free agents. In fact, this is one of the things that caused the downfall of the once proud 49ers franchise.
However, we didn't see a lot of "spending sprees" last season. Some of this had to do with the lack of impact free agents available, but more than that teams didn't want to commit to spend millions of dollars when the following year may be capped. For example, if you sign a Julius Peppers for 8 years and 100 million, not only are you spending money in the uncapped 2010 league year, but you are spending ample millions in a possibly capped 2011 year.
That said, this free agent class is much stronger, and teams with solid payrolls would be able to address needs with long term contracts without really impacting their bottom line the next year. For example, our 49ers are in a good situation and could add 2-3 top tier free agents without it really affecting their long term strategy in free agency.
III. No Minimum Team Salary
This means that the normal appropriations in terms of payroll (107 million), league year 2010, wouldn't apply. Teams could have payrolls of less than that if they decided to. Additionally, the 123 million dollar cap would no longer be in place (see above)
Ten different teams, including 7 playoff teams, fell under this group in 2010. The Green Bay Packers had a total team payroll in 2010 of 94 million. This pretty much means that payroll doesn't necessarily equate to wins. For example, the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys had the two highest payrolls and failed to make the playoffs.
IV. Service Time Restrictions And Potential Free Agents
In a regular league year a player whose contract had expired and accrued four or more years of experience would be a free agent. In a final league year (off-season rules with no CBA), players whose contract expired would have to have six years of service time in order to become an unrestricted free agent.
Restricted free agency would be affected as well. Under new league year rules players whose contract had expired and accrued three or more seasons of experience would be a restricted free agent. Under final league year rules, that player would have to acquire 4-5 seasons of experience in order to become a free agent.
Obviously, these two restrictions in terms of the final league year would severely impact the free agent market. Many of the top available free agents would either be off the market or become restricted free agents.
V. Franchise/Transition Tenders
This is pretty clear cut. Normally a team could assign either a franchise or transition tag on ONE player set to become a free agent. New rules would allow the team to assign a franchise AND transition tag on possible free agents.
This means that the 49ers would be able to franchise Aubrayo Franklin and place a transition tag on David Bass. Obviously, they wouldn't do that; but, this was just to give you an idea of exactly how this rule would work.
You are looking at between 125-150 less free agents if it is an uncapped free agent period. Certain players that the 49ers would target just wouldn't be available. Accordingly, the chance at finding major upgrades would be minimal. At least, major long term upgrades. On the same note, this free agency would severely limit other teams ability to improve. In short, the 49ers would find a way to bridge the gap between themselves and the Seahawks, if there is actually a gap in talent between the two.
The final eight rule makes sense if there is not going to be a gap. While teams like Indianapolis and Green Bay usually sit out the major free agent period. Other teams such as the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets, who have been active in free agency, would find it a way to expand the gap between them and other competitive teams within their division.
The way football salaries are structured, payrolls really don't mean much. We are not talking about the Oakland Athletics attempting to field a competitive team against the New York Yankees whose payroll tops 200 million. Instead, you are looking at a difference in off-season strategy.
There is something to be said about the way Green Bay built their team compared to the New York Jets. Both teams were extremely successful in 2010 with Green Bay winning the championships. But, the Packers rarely venture into the large spending free agent pool, yet are still extremely talented. All this while the Washington Redskins spend hundreds of millions in order to fail and win less than half of their games.
The 49ers would be looking for upgrades at corner, safety and possibly guard during the free agent period. A continuation of 2010 league rules would severely hamper their ability to upgrade here.
Later this week I will take a look at a couple of other free agent systems that could be possibilities once the dust is settled either in the meeting room or the court room. Additionally, I am starting to get my feet wet in terms of free agent posts by positions. However, those article will have to wait until we get a little more information on what is going on. These article will act as a guide for you to understand the possible rules regarding NFL free agency moving forward this summer.