When the new collective bargaining agreement is finally resolved, it appears that players with four and five years of NFL service will go from restricted to unrestricted free agents, getting their chance to hit the open market.
In last year's free-agent market, which required players to have six years of service to become free agents, teams didn't spend a great deal of money heading into an uncapped season on what was a limited pool of talent. That could drastically change this time around, as potentially 250 players -- including roughly 100 who are starters -- will enter the market and look very attractive to teams with money to spend.
It's no surprise, then, there are rumors floating around that teams want "right of first refusal" clauses and the opportunity to use franchise tags in the new labor agreement to control the quality players who could be added to the market.
A right of first refusal clause means teams have a chance to match any offer a player gets before he signs with a new team. It sounds reasonable from a team perspective, but players have no leverage in the event they don't want to return to their former team. I've dealt with these issues many times in the past, and the right of first refusal clause can drive the market for a player -- which is great the player, unless the offer from a new club isn't strong and he's reluctant to sign because his old club will match.
Consider the case of Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards, who I interviewed last week and expects to change teams this offseason. If another team -- let's say the Broncos -- make an offer the Vikings could easily match, does he sign expecting the Vikings to do exactly that? Of course, if a team really wants a restricted free agent they can also drop "poison pills" in deals the home teams simply can't match. For example, the Broncos could write into a deal a clause that if Edwards plays eight games in Minnesota, the team owes him $10 million. Obviously, the Vikings couldn't match such a stipulation.
I always felt these types of clauses had no place in NFL contracts. For that reason, I hope there aren't right of first refusal clauses granted to teams in the new CBA.
Questions also surround the ability of clubs to use franchise and transition tags going forward, after many elected not to do so during the tagging period in the winter. If another window is opened for teams to apply the tags, it's really unfair for the teams that previously took advantage of protecting their interests.
The Eagles exercised their right by using a franchise tag on Michael Vick and a transition tag on kicker David Akers. The Vikings applied the franchise tag to linebacker Chad Greenway, but chose not to put the transition tag on receiver Sidney Rice, who will now likely be a free agent. The Panthers franchise tagged center Ryan Kalil and could have put transition tags on defensive end Charles Johnson or running back DeAngelo Williams, but chose not to. The Cowboys put the highest possible restricted free-agent tender (first- and third-round picks) on Free but didn't tag him, and he would also be unrestricted.
With all of that in mind, here is my list of the most interesting players set to join the free- agent market under the presumed guidelines of the new CBA. As one GM said to me this weekend, "We will be ready to go after some of those quality four- and five-year guys who are young enough to play out a full contract but old enough to prove they can play at a high level in this league." Some of the players below have medical issues to resolve, but most ready to sign.
Defensive end: Ray Edwards (Vikings), Jacob Ford (Titans), Charles Johnson (Panthers), Mathias Kiwanuka (Giants), Stylez G. White (Buccaneers).
Defensive tackle: Barry Cofield (Giants), Brandon Mebane (Seahawks), Daniel Muir (Colts).
Inside linebacker: D'Qwell Jackson (Browns), Rocky McIntosh (Redskins), Paul Posluszny (Bills), Stephen Tulloch (Titans).
Outside linebacker: Quincy Black (Buccaneers), Manny Lawson (49ers), Clint Session (Colts).
Cornerback: Antonio Cromartie (Jets), Jonathan Joseph (Bengals), Richard Marshall (Panthers), Eric Wright (Browns).
Safety: Melvin Bullitt (Colts), Dashon Goldson (49ers), Roman Harper (Saints), Michael Huff (Raiders), Dawan Landry (Ravens), Danieal Manning (Bears), Chinedum Ndukwe, Eric Weddle (Chargers), Donte Whitner (Bills).
Quarterback: No starters.
Running back: Joseph Addai (Colts), Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants), Jason Snelling (Falcons), DeAngelo Williams (Panthers).
Wide receiver: Steve Breaston (Cardinals), Santonio Holmes (Jets), Lance Moore (Saints), Sidney Rice (Vikings), Steve Smith (Giants).
Guard: Justin Blalock (Falcons), Daryn Colledge (Packers), Harvey Dahl (Falcons), Davin Joseph (Buccaneers), Deuce Lutui (Cardinals), Marshal Yanda (Ravens).
Tackle: Jermon Bushrod (Saints), Doug Free (Cowboys), Jared Gaither (Ravens), Ryan Harris (Broncos), Jeremy Trueblood (Buccaneers).
Center: No starters.
Tight End: Kevin Boss (Giants), Zach Miller (Raiders).
While I didn't name all of the four- and five-year veterans who could get their first shot at free agency, I think you get a sense of how the market will be loaded with talent with the addition of these 50 players. It's also easy to understand why teams would want to protect their rosters with added restrictions.