When I first heard the idea of an "uncapped" season, it conjured images of billionaires chasing free agents around, throwing bags of money out of the windows of their Bentleys. It sounded like a boon for the players, something of an offseason utopia, and a scenario that ownership and management would surely never let come to pass.
Boy, was I wrong. When you parse through the other stipulations in the CBA, an agreement that was reached in March 2006, and examine all of the other mechanisms that are triggered by an uncapped year, it's anything but savory for the players and union. Turns out it's a scenario they would very much like to avoid. The closer we get to March 2010, the more obvious it becomes that the uncapped year will actually restrict spending and free-agent availability more than anything else.
Best free agents under the radar
That, in and of itself, is no newsflash. It continues to seem remote than an extension to this CBA will be complete prior to the start of the 2010 league year, and the reality is that this current deal does not expire until March 2011. Ample time remains in that regard.
But when you look at how all of this breaks down, what all of the poison pills create in terms of who actually gets to the market this March, it's difficult to imagine any sort of prolonged spending frenzy. The elimination of any floor on overall spending, the ability to use an extra franchise or transition tag, the measures that limit the ability of the final four playoff teams in each conference to sign really only one player for every free agent lost, and most importantly, the fact that a player must have six seasons of service to become an unrestricted free agent (rather than four), results in a mundane group of free agents hitting the open market.
The sheer list of potential free agents, as of Nov. 1, 2009, as much as anything else, points toward anything but a cash grab for players. Now, this list will change, because the elimination of the cap would allow teams to cut unwanted high-priced players without cap ramifications -– so some other big names will likely hit the market.
But there are also many big-name players who are underperforming who have big chunks of guaranteed money coming in 2010, which makes it prohibitive to cut them even in an uncapped year. So that further restricts the market. And the kind of guys most likely to be cut free –- someone like LaDainian Tomlinson or Reggie Bush, come with obvious caveats. Most of those being released will have age, health or production issues. Those who would have been the best of this free-agent class have already been re-signed or, barring no new CBA, will be restricted free agents still bound to their current teams for the most part.
So, with preamble out of the way, let's take a look at the free-agent class of 2010, as of this month (a list of 236 names I acquired through a league source), and the lack of starpower at the skill positions in particular (and let's face it, that's where the bulk of the big money deals in this sport go).
But, hey, your team is already set at QB, given this golden era we're in at that position. Okay, understood. But you're in the market for a running back. ... Well, I'd suggest you draft one or make a trade.
Slim pickings. A few older third-down backs on the list and Larry Johnson and Tomlinson could well join this group come March, but even then, we're talking about nothing like a sure-fire franchise back.
It's the same thing at wide receiver. Antonio Bryant is on the franchise tag and has been injury prone. I'm not sure the Bucs actually let him get to the market. Derrick Mason is still a starter at age 35, but the Ravens may well opt to keep him around before free agency begins. Terrell Owens had trouble getting more than one team to give him a big contract last offseason, and that was before his lost season in 2009. Other than that, it's guys who you could get on waivers.
Arnaz Battle, Marty Booker, Antonio Bryant, Nate Burleson, Tim Carter, Chris Chambers, Antonio Chatman, Terrance Copper, Bobby Engram, Brian Finneran, Mike Furrey, Greg Lewis, Brandon Lloyd, Derrick Mason, Shaun McDonald, Sean Morey, Muhsin Muhammad, Kassim Osgood, Terrell Owens, Josh Reed, David Tyree, Bobby Wade, Kevin Walter, Kelley Washington, Ernest Wilford.
The tight ends and fullbacks are lacking stars as well (not that there are too many star fullbacks around to begin with). Plenty of serviceable players but no one who is going to put executives and fans in a lather.
Justin Griffith, Jeremi Johnson, Dan Kreider, Brandon Manumaleuna, Tony Richardson, Terrelle Smith.
Starting tackles get paid, but this bunch includes mostly guys who were already on the street looking for jobs last season and into this season, with Chad Clifton (suffering through an injury-plagued season) the lone real exception.
What if interior linemen are more your thing? Okay, here's all the guards and centers. Again, hard to find someone you can count on to be a solid starter at this point. Kevin Mawae is the stud of the bunch, but he's 38.
You have to go to the other side of the ball to find something resembling depth at a position. Defensive end has some intriguing names with Kyle Vanden Bosch and Julius Peppers among them (Peppers could get franchised again or extended, though). I would expect the Buccaneers to try to get Jimmy Wilkerson extended before March, and Adewale Ogunleye is still productive for the Bears. I also expect the perpetually heavy spending Raiders to throw a lot of money Richard Seymour's way to try to keep him off the market after trading a first-round pick for him.
Jason Babin, Alfonso Boone, Tyler Brayton, Phillip Daniels, Ryan Denney, Nick Eason, Dwan Edwards, Jarvis Green, James Hall, Reggie Hayward, Vonnie Holliday, Jevon Kearse, Travis Kirschke, Leonard Little, Adewale Ogunleye, Julius Peppers, Cory Redding, Richard Seymour, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jimmy Wilkerson, Renaldo Wynn.
I don't know anyone in the league who doesn't expect the Patriots to franchise or extend Vince Wilfork, the cream of the defensive tackle crop. So we might as well take him off the list. The Steelers could opt to draft Casey Hampton's replacement rather than re-sign him, and he and Tank Johnson would have ample suitors as well. The strength of this free agent class is defensive linemen, but you're not going to see any Albert Haynesworth deals floating around.
Tully Banta-Cain, Bertrand Berry, Gary Brackett, Keith Bulluck, Derrick Burgess, Khary Campbell, Brandon Chillar, Vinny Ciurciu, Danny Clark, Angelo Crowell, Karlos Dansby, Chris Draft, Larry Foote, Ryan Fowler, Scott Fujita, Tony Gilbert, Nick Greisen, Larry Izzo, Aaron Kampman, Paris Lenon, D.D. Lewis, Darrell McClover, Chike Okeafor, Junior Seau, Jason Taylor, Chaun Thompson, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Jeremiah Trotter, Jeff Ulbrich, Mike Vrabel, Tracy White, Matt Wilhelm, Sam Williams, Jamie Winborn.
The defensive backs are not nearly as strong. Leigh Bodden has been a good fit with the Patriots and he's another guy who may receive a new deal from his current club. Dunta Robinson tried to get a guarantee from the Texans not to franchise him again. Most of the rest have been barely hanging on, and age is particularly critical at these positions. Many have been cut recently already, and are nickel guys at best.
Among the safeties, Ryan Clark is a heavy hitter who is having another strong year for the Steelers. He'd have options with several clubs. But with Tyrone Carter, the Steelers' quality third safety, also able to hit the market, I'd expect the Steelers to keep one of them around. Jermaine Phillips would be a good addition to some teams, but the full list is not glamorous.
The list of kickers isn't bad, but no one is getting paid huge money from this group.
So there you have it. The full monty. Again, we'll see guys not on this list cut in order to shed payroll, and some will surely catch on quickly elsewhere and make an impact. But this list in and of itself is a strong indicator of just how restrictive the uncapped year really is, and who benefits most from it. The idea that a Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones could assemble a mega-roster if unbound by the shackles of the cap; the idea you could buy a championship in one March and alter the fortunes of your franchise for the near and long term ... not too likely. At the most critical positions there is precious little open for sale, and another reason why players should fear what no cap means in 2010, more than celebrate it.
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» Jay Ratliff continues to impress me with his play for the Cowboys. He is the unsung hero of that defense from the tackle spot. When they move him around on the edge for a matchup advantage he can dominate on the pass rush and he more than holds it down against the run in that 3-4 scheme. His athleticism and power set him apart. DeMarcus Ware is getting a lot of praise, and rightfully so, but Ratliff makes that thing go. The Cowboys are also getting their best secondary play probably of this decade. That's been their soft spot for years, but if the defense continues to function like this, they're going to be a tough out (assuming Tony Romo doesn't implode in December, which wouldn't be out of character). ...
» It's hard to watch the Redskins and not come away startled by how their top draft picks have regressed. Jason Campbell was excellent in the first eight games of 2008 (or at least a thriving young player) and he badly needs a change of scenery now (no offensive line will do that to you). LaRon Landry is the master of the late hit, but wrapping people up and making plays in coverage remain big issues for him. They're dabbling with moving him to the strong side, a more natural fit, but his technique issues are very real (the departure of Gregg Williams, who worked very closely with him as he did with Sean Taylor, has affected his play). Carlos Rogers' used to look like a solid cover corner, albeit it one with bad hands, but he's been lost since DeAngelo Hall came on the scene. Those are crucial first-round picks in recent years who are all suffering, and part of the reason why things are so bleak there. ...
» Former Ravens star cornerback Chris McAlister, who has struggled with major injuries and fell out of favor with Baltimore for attitude and off field issues as well, is healthy now and very much looking to get back in the league. I Wouldn't be surprised to see him get a workout or two down the stretch. ...
» Wide receiver Bobby Engram is unhappy in Kansas City and would welcome his release, hoping to catch on somewhere with a chance to play. He's expressed this to the Chiefs, according to a league source. ...
» I Still haven't heard a word about Marvin Harrison getting a shot anywhere. The Colts had some injuries to receivers and still he didn't get the call there, with young wideouts emerging. That's probably as damning for him as anything else, with most teams figuring if he had anything left he'd at least get a look from the Colts.
Coming off by far my worst week of the season (6-7, uggh, no excuse for that). I Called for a bunch of upsets last week, and while some came close (like the Panthers), that's not good enough in the big leagues (81-47 on the season). I liked the Bears in the now completed Thursday night game, and give me the Panthers, Dolphins, Vikings, Jags, Steelers, Saints, Titans, Broncos, Chiefs, Cardinals, Cowboys, Eagles, Patriots and Ravens.