March 4, 2010
For an Uncapped Season, Uncharted Waters in the N.F.L.
The New York Times

Perhaps the clearest indication of what the N.F.L.’s most unusual free-agency period will look like comes from Atlanta, where General Manager Thomas Dimitroff offered a sobering view of the Falcons’ internal calendar.

“There aren’t that many players out there,” he said. “In the past, we would have seen a lot more and been contemplating, Let’s jump in here. I sense that we are a lot more focused this year on draft prep earlier. Usually we take it in segments. This was definitely a free-agency segment leading up to the beginning of free agency. Now we are focusing more on the draft.”

Cue the sound of players grumbling and agents worrying.

Four years ago, the prospect of a season without a salary cap so unnerved N.F.L. owners that they raced into a new labor deal. Now, the owners have unwound that deal, and Tuesday they rejected a last-minute plea from the players union to restore the cap.

It is a turnaround so complete that it says everything about how teams will approach the open market when it begins Friday morning. Anticipated player riches for all but the luckiest few have turned to rust. The union is watching for collusion. And the absence of a salary floor — hello, $50 million payroll? — may speak to almost as many teams as the lack of the cap.

Players used to long for an uncapped season, imagining bidding wars driving up their contract values. No more. With a labor war looming and restrictive rules in place governing free agency, willing bidders are scarce, and eligible and deserving players scarcer still.

Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers is likely to be one of the few players who will be happy come Friday morning. He is the biggest name in a pool of unrestricted free agents who are free to sign with any team, a pool that shrank by more than 200 players because the minimum service for unrestricted status jumped to six seasons from four in an uncapped year.

That has pushed talented players like Elvis Dumervil and Miles Austin into the restricted pool, where there is usually little movement because teams must surrender draft picks if they sign a player. It also means that the players who are unrestricted are older — in their 30s or approaching them — making signing them riskier.

“You can get mileage out of 29- or 30-year-olds as long as you have a specific role for him, because you’re not going to have a lot of start-up time,” Detroit Coach Jim Schwartz said. “There’s just a lot more urgency with the unrestricted class.”

Tom Condon, an agent, said: “Unrestricted free agency is terribly restricted and depleted. By and large, I think because management is cautious and the class isn’t so great, they’ll wait and see.”

Even Peppers and Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby — another coveted unrestricted player — may not find the depth of interest in their services that other players have in the past. Chastened by the knowledge that the best-run teams build through the draft and do not spend the most money — only one of the top five payroll teams from 2009, the New Orleans Saints, made the playoffs (and won the Super Bowl) — all but a few teams reject big spending sprees even in a normal year. The disappearance of the cap will not alter their overriding philosophy.

The four teams that reached the conference championship games cannot sign an unrestricted free agent until they lose one of greater or similar value. That largely takes the Jets — in recent years, big free-agency spenders — out of the mix. And the four additional teams that made it to the divisional round can sign only one unrestricted free agent before they lose their own.

“Getting to the final eight makes us approach it very differently,” Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said.

That still leaves wealthy and risk-embracing teams like Washington and Seattle in the mix. (Jerry Jones’s penchant for a splash will be curtailed by Dallas’s divisional-round appearance.) But at last week’s scouting combine, general managers spoke of operating as if the usual rules were in place, franchise operating budgets standing in for the salary cap.

“We’re going forward as if there is a capped year,” San Francisco General Manager Scot McCloughan said. “I don’t think it’s a really good market. There might be some teams that go blow it out. Do you blow it out, see if you get one year, win a championship, or do you stay consistent, thinking you’ll play in 2011 and we’re not going to hurt ourselves? No one really knows. Teams in the past that were risk-takers will probably still be risk-takers. Teams that were conservative will still be conservative.”

That most likely means plenty of one-year contracts and players playing under one-year tenders because teams will be reluctant to do expensive, long-term deals without knowing the accounting rules of a new collective bargaining agreement. And some of the lowest-spending teams, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were well below the salary cap last season, may go even lower, using the absence of a salary floor to save their pennies in anticipation of a 2011 lockout.

For most teams, the desire to remain competitive — and for coaches, to keep their jobs — will outweigh stinginess, but in the days leading up to free agency, there was speculation among players and agents that as many as five teams could scrape rock bottom with payrolls nearing $50 million. That seems virtually impossible because of contracts already on the books. But it is possible teams could go below last year’s salary minimum of $107 million.

Conservative spending helps a team’s bottom line and is likely to win out for one more reason: It is hard for teams to cry poverty during a labor negotiation while spending millions in free agency.

“There is no incentive for clubs to sign any of their restricted guys for long term,” Ralph Cindrich, an agent, said. “Why not just sit on them, use them while you can, especially until everybody knows what we’ll have with a new deal?”

If there is a glimmer of hope for wheeling and dealing, it comes in the restricted free-agent market, which is flooded with talented players who would otherwise have been on the open market. Agents and executives expect more teams to consider trading draft picks for restricted players, but a deep draft could stop some teams from going after players with the highest tenders, which would force them to sacrifice high-round draft picks.

Restricted players are the angriest of all this year — they did not anticipate being caught in a labor bind simply because they were born at the wrong time — but they could join a bonanza of a free-agent class in 2011. They would most likely be unrestricted, as would the players who signed one-year deals and those who were due for free agency anyway. But that depends on something as unpredictable as this year’s free agency: getting a labor deal done.

“What I expect is for teams to keep deals as short as they can so that come 2011 in March at the beginning of a lockout, they don’t have to pay roster bonuses that haven’t already been earned,” Cindrich said. “Then it’s just surround the fort, starve them out, and wait for them to fold.”