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Free-agency restrictions will apply in an uncapped year

Will the Saints be players in free agency? How much will it hurt the Bears not to have a draft pick until the third round with a limited free-agent pool? Will LaDainian Tomlinson be the top running back in free agency?

With a labor stalemate between the NFL and NFLPA likely triggering an uncapped 2010 season, I'd like to address how some of the rule changes that will come into play could directly affect your team. So let's take a look at some of the issues that could make this a vastly different offseason than we're used to.

Could there be a salary cap and normal free agency in 2010?

Yes, if NFL owners and the NFLPA reach an accord before March 5. That seems highly unlikely, though, as both sides admit there is a wide gulf to be bridged. The odds are that the sides will be more aggressive to complete a new collective bargaining agreement before the 2011 season, when the current CBA expires. If a deal isn't reached, a work stoppage is possible, but Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the sides are trying to avoid things getting that far.

What is the big deal about unrestricted free agents vs. restricted free agents?

Typically, a player, such as Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil or Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson could test the open market once his contract expires after four seasons. But with no salary cap, they can't be unrestricted free agents until after six seasons. So, if no deal is struck by March 5 and we go to an uncapped year, they will be restricted free agents, meaning their teams can place tenders on them to allow themselves the right to match any offer and receive draft-pick compensation should they not match.

A team can place a variety of tenders on its players, with the highest being compensation of first- and third-round picks, a first-round pick and descending draft selections. Because of this, the unrestricted free-agent pool could be reduced by more than 200 players, many of whom are in their primes and could be difference-makers, like Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Most of the top unrestricted free agents are closer to 30.

Is it ruinous to a player to be a restricted free agent?

The lack of competition for a player's services could diminish his earning potential. However, it's not necessarily gloom and doom.

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For example, let's say the Colts put a tender for first-round compensation on restricted free-agent safety Antoine Bethea. A team with that specific need, like the Giants, who might plan to use their first-round pick on a safety, could opt for a proven, young veteran like Bethea and offer him a financial package the Colts don't want to match. The Giants would surrender the first-round pick and have to pay Bethea a decent salary, which could be comparable to what they might have paid a first-rounder.

Something like this would be an exception, but being a restricted free agent doesn't mean a complete dead end to player movement.

Will Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers be in play for the Saints or Vikings?

That is a major long shot. In a new rule that will try to keep the rich from getting richer, the teams that finished in the top four (New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minnesota, and the Jets) can't sign a free agent until one of their free agents signs with another team. They can only sign one free agent per player lost. Making things even more difficult, the Saints, Colts, Vikings and Jets couldn't sign a free agent to a first-year salary greater than that of the free agent they lost signs with his new team.

Peppers could command a salary that starts well into the double-digits of millions of dollars. If none of the top four teams' lost free agents signs for similar loot, then they're out of the process.

Couldn't one of those top four teams cut a player to create that void to sign somebody else?

No. A cut player will not be considered an unrestricted free agent. This rule applies to all teams who finished in the top eight (enter San Diego, Dallas, Arizona and Baltimore). Only a player with an expiring contract counts as an unrestricted free agent for those top eight teams.

So if the Chargers were to release Tomlinson, they couldn't re-sign a free agent in his spot?

No, because San Diego is a top eight team. Tomlinson would not qualify as an unrestricted free agent for the Chargers. He would be free to sign with any team, though. Whether he draws as much attention as free-agent running backs Chester Taylor (Minnesota), Larry Johnson (Cincinnati) or Willie Parker (Pittsburgh) remains to be seen. It is not a deep group as of now.

Are the additional four teams that round out the top eight as hamstrung as the top four?

They have a little more wiggle room. They can't sign an unrestricted free agent until one of their lost free agents signs with another team. However, they can pay one unrestricted free agent a first-year salary of $5.5 million or more in the first year of his contract. They also can pay any another unrestricted free agent $3.7 million or less in Year One of the deal. There are caps as to how large the annual raises can be.

Do any of those restrictions apply to the remaining 24 teams?

No. Those teams can spend however much on free agents as they'd like. It's simply a matter of how much payroll an owner wants. This is huge for a team like Chicago, which doesn't have a first- or second-round draft pick because of trades for Jay Cutler and the late Gaines Adams, respectively.

The only way the Bears can augment their roster outside of their remaining draft picks is by being a player in free agency (most of their trade tools have been dealt already). The Bears could make a play for Seahawks unrestricted free agent wide receiver Nate Burleson or former Jaguars wideout Torry Holt and go after an offensive lineman like the Packers' Chad Clifton.

Since there is no cap, can teams cut players without some of the previous adverse consequences?

Yes. Let's say the Jets feel that 2008 draft pick Vernon Gholston, the No. 6 overall pick, isn't living up to his high draft status and want to clear him out to bring in someone else. They can let him go without suffering a "cap hit" because there is no cap. When there was a cap, any signing bonus money was pro-rated over the team of the contract and if a player was released, the remaining amount would accelerate and eat up space under the cap. Not anymore, though. When a team cuts a player, it doesn't have to pay him any more base salary unless it was guaranteed.

One agent referred to this as a "sewer" scenario, because any bad contracts could be discarded. Once a labor agreement is reached in the future, a lot of teams can have clean books and move forward with better financial structure.

Can teams dump salary and not spend much on other contracts?

Yes. If there is no salary cap, there is no salary floor. If a team desires, it doesn't have to spend anything in free agency and only add the new payroll of draft picks. If that were to happen, it would create a baseball scenario like the Yankees spending on the high end and the Marlins running a discount operation. It's unlikely, but it is possible.

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