2011 NFL Free Agent Primer: Best Case Scenario

With the NFL and NFLPA meeting at a "secret location" this week, it remains extremely possible that a new collective bargaining agreement may be reached; even as early as this weekend. Well, this would be the best case scenario for the NFL and its fans.

Besides the obvious fact that football in its off-season form would begin again, there are other things we need to take into consideration; among them, free agency. A collective bargaining agreement would mean that new rules in regards to free agency would be implemented. This would have wide ranging ramifications for the NFL in general, and the 49ers in specific.

After the jump, I will look at some of the rules that may be implemented; again, MAY be implemented...........

On Monday I took a look at how free agency would look like if it were to move forward with 2010 rules. This wouldn't be the best case scenario for a number of reasons. First, it would most likely mean that a new CBA wouldn't have been agreed upon. Secondly, it would extremely limit teams ability to upgrade through free agency during the summer. This would have a direct impact on our San Francisco 49ers. If a new CBA is agreed upon there promises to be new rules guiding the signing process and there promises to be a larger number of impact players on the market. Let me address this via bullet point.

 

1. No franchise or transition tags

This remains unlikely considering both sides believe that these tags are important in retaining the competitive balance of the league. However, recent information suggests that eliminating the franchise and transition tags remain on the table.

What it means? When a player is given a franchise tag the team that signs said player must give his former team two 1st round picks. Needless to say, a player that is franchised doesn't get much play in the open market. I could probably count on one hand the number of players in the NFL that are worth two 1st round picks.

Eliminating the franchise and transition tags would enable players like Peyton Manning and Tamba Hali to hit the open market without being handicapped by the two 1st round pick compensation the Colts and Chiefs would have to receive. 

 

2. A hard salary floor and cap would be put in place

If you remember my article from Monday, I covered that the definition of these two key terms were; but, I will briefly recap what the mean. A salary floor means that each NFL team would have to spend a certain amount of money on player salaries. A salary cap means that each NFL team could not go over a fixed salary for the combined 53 men on their roster; player trades, signing bonuses and released player contracts would to some extent count against the annual salary cap. Of course, this is extremely hard to explain in a simple article not covering the nuances of the salary cap. For more information on that, click here. 

The salary floor had been set at 87.6% of the salary cap. For example, the last year that was conducted under a salary cap, the cap was 128.1 million dollars and the floor, 86 percent of that, was 112.1 million. A salary floor means that teams must spend above that 112.1 million dollar.

Using NFL revenue and percentage of increases in previous years, the 2011 team salary floor would be 115 million in 2011, while the salary cap would be 132.5 million dollars. Forgive me if I am wrong on this, but I used my extremely limited math skills to come up with those conclusions. This means that the San Francisco 49ers would be roughly 32.5 million dollars under the cap. 

 

3. Unrestricted and Restricted Free Agent Rules

As I discussed in the article Monday, a new CBA would mean a renewing of previous rules in regards to restricted and unrestricted free agency. Of course, the two sides could decide to change these rules; but, I find that to be extremely unlikely

Players with four or more years of NFL service would be an unrestricted free agents. Players that have accumulated three or more years of service would be unrestricted free agents. Last season, it was six or more seasons for unrestricted free agents and four or more seasons for restricted free agents.

Obviously, this would open up the free agent pool a great deal for teams looking to upgrade through that area. Players such as Johnathan Joseph would now be unrestricted free agents. 

2007 Draft Class: Unrestricted Free Agents (Unless Extension Previously Signed) 

2008 Draft Class: Restricted Free Agents (Unless Extension Previously Signed) 

 

4. No Final Eight Rule

For those of you who did not read Monday's article, the final eight rule is as follows. 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.

I know that this was meant to keep the competitive balance in the NFL when no salary cap was in place. However, teams should be able to spend the money they need in order to make their roster better. If you are going to have a salary floor and a salary cap; make it that way for all 32 teams. It isn't fair to tell a team like the Green Bay Packers they cannot sign a free agent for more than 4 million dollars, when in fact they are 30 million under the cap. That isn't keeping competitive balance going, it is handicapping teams for being successful the previous season.

 

5. Sliding Scale

This doesn't impact free agency as much, but it would affect the salary cap and teams ability to sign free agents in the future. Currently, there is no sliding rookie salary scale in the NFL. However, both sides have acknowledged that this should be part of a new CBA. A sliding scale means that rookies would be paid a set amount of money during their initial contract. The NBA currently uses this system, and it works great. 

For Example, the 1st pick of the 2011-2012 NBA Draft will make 4.4 million dollars his rookie campaign, the 2nd pick about 3.9 million. Each would see that annual salary increase over the duration of their initial contract. By the time each had hit the final season of his rookie contract the annual salary would be about 65% higher than his rookie year contract. 

This makes sense in the NFL for multiple reasons. The Oakland Raiders are stilling paying a lot of money on their cap for the mistake that was JaMarcus Russell. While drafting a QB bust 1st overall sets a team back years, it should not affect their ability to upgrade and add more money to the cap. This would ultimately lead to more competitive balance in the NFL and owners wouldn't be left to foot the bill for a mistake made by a previous front office. 

 

6. The Possible Elimination of Restricted Free Agency

This may come out of left field, but it has been brought up by both the NFL and NFLPA, well it had been brought up in the past. NFL contracts are not guaranteed and if their is going to be a rookie sliding scale, there needs to be something done to off-set their diminished finances as a rookie.  

You would be looking at the possible elimination of restricted free agency and the lowering of four years service time in order for a player to be eligible for unrestricted free agency. This isn't like MLB, where no salary cap is in place. So, it doesn't mean that a rookie would play out his initial contract and sign with a large market team. I doubt that the sides would come to an agreement in regards to this, and it obviously isn't a deal breaker in regards to a new CBA.

 

Analysis: This type of free agency would take the handcuffs off elite teams looking to make upgrades. However, it would affect other teams that need to make those upgrades that much more. Our own San Francisco 49ers would be immediately impacted by this new CBA and the ensuing free agency period. Instead of worrying about signing older veterans to long term deals and risking salary cap hell in future years, the 49ers would be able to spend money on top of the line young talent. 

I am not going to get into specifics in regards to the free agents that would be available, that will be left for another time (I plan on doing free agent position posts in the coming weeks). Also, you can look at the two links I provided above in regards to the 2007 and 2008 draft classes in order to get a better idea. I will, however, say that this type of free agency would add another 200 players to the pool of available players in 2011. 

The hard cap is really the only way to go to keep competitive balance in the NFL. With revenue sharing allocations promising to be a part of the new CBA and the amount of money each team gets having a major role in that, the salary cap needs to remain. 

I don't think it is a coincidence that teams in smaller markets (Green Bay, Indianapolis and Kansas City) were among those with the lowest team salaries in 2010, While, markets in Dallas and Pittsburgh were in the top 10. Now, that has all changed due to impending free agency and players coming off each teams payrolls, but I am sure you get the point. If you cast aside the salary cap true football cities such as Cleveland and Green Bay will be affected the most. 

Now you have to take a look at increases of players annual salary, but the 49ers seem to be in a great position to add elite players in free agency if this system was implemented. They would have about 33 million dollars to spend, this without the restructure/release of Nate Clements, which would add between 4-10 million to that number. With the available pool of available players much greater than in previous seasons, the 49ers would be real players in the market.

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