Now that NFL owners have voted unanimously to end their agreement with the players' union in 2011, they still have all of 2008 and 2009 to negotiate a new CBA before the "trigger" points that are in place to encourage negotiations would fire and things wouldn't be as we know them today.
The one factor fans have heard the most about is that 2010 and 2011 would be "uncapped" years. But there are three main trigger points that will go off in 2010 if there isn't a new CBA in place, and they may offset the fear of life with no salary cap. They are: 1) free agency will require six years of service (instead of four years in 2010 and five years in 2011); 2) teams will have three tags to use to restrict free agents instead of one tag, as they do now; and 3) teams that go deep in the playoffs could have some spending restrictions.
Let's take a look at the practical side of these three concepts to get a better understanding of just what they mean to the players and the clubs:
Longer to hit free agency
To get a clearer picture, let's see what this year's free-agency period would have looked like if players needed more than four years of service to reach the open market.
Let's start with the Tennessee Titans. They lost defensive ends Travis LaBoy (Arizona) and Antwan Odom (Cincinnati) as well as guard Jacob Bell (St. Louis). The three players signed for a combined total of $87.5 million ($32 million guaranteed). If the extension on time to free agency was in place, none of these players would have been free. All of them had just four years of service and would have remained Titans for upwards of two more years. The Titans would have probably changed their draft strategy and not gone after defensive linemen Jason Jones or William Hayes and could have taken a receiver or a corner.
Other players that never would have seen a big payday: Michael Turner, who signed a $34.5 million deal ($15 million guaranteed) with Atlanta, would still be LaDainian Tomlinson's backup in San Diego; Gibril Wilson would still be a Giant; D.J. Hackett a Seahawk.
Teams have gotten very smart about the type of players they pay in free agency. They target young players four or five years removed from college that are approaching the big second contract in their careers. That group would be eliminated if teams vote not to continue the current CBA and it gets to an uncapped year in 2010 and 2011.
All you have to do to realize how lean the free agent market will be is go back and look at all the players from the 2005 draft who signed five-year deals, all the players from the 2006 draft who signed four-year deals and even players from the 2007 draft who signed four-year deals. None of these players, under the non-CBA trigger points, would be eligible for unrestricted free agency when their originals contracts expire. Here are some examples of whom it might affect if the owners choose not to continue the current CBA and a new CBA isn't negotiated:
Second-round picks from 2006 such as DeMeco Ryans, D'Qwell Jackson, Rocky McIntosh, Thomas Howard, Deuce Lutui, LenDale White, Cedric Griffin, Marcus McNeill, Greg Jennings, and Tarvaris Jackson should be the core of the free-agent market in 2010, but unless they have the ability to "void" their contracts, they will not be free as planned. They would stay with their teams as restricted free agents and it might mean two more years of service before they experience the big payday.
The 2007 draft, especially in the second and third rounds, already has a number of budding stars such as Justin Blalock, Trent Edwards, Eric Wright, James Jones, Tony Ugoh, Samson Satele, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith, David Harris, Zach Miller, LaMarr Woodley, Brandon Mebane, and Arron Sears, to name a few. All are scheduled to be free in 2011, but all would fall short of the five years of service required under the trigger points.
There are at least another 30 to 50 quality young players from later rounds of the '06 and '07 drafts who will not see free agency -- players such as Elvis Dumervil, Willie Colon, Dawan Landry, and Antoine Bethea from 2006, and Marshal Yanda, Kevin Boss, Michael Bush, Cliff Ryan, and Tanard Jackson from '07.
Three tags instead of one
Currently, a team can put either a franchise tag (average of the top five salaries at his position) or a transition tag (average of the top ten salaries at his position) on any one player on the club to protect the team from losing the unrestricted free agent. If the NFL gets to an uncapped year in 2010 and 2011, teams will have use of one franchise tag and two transition tags. So not only would none of the young players with less than six years of service be free, but now the top three players who are eligible for free agency on a roster can be protected.
If this situation existed in 2008, a team like Pittsburgh -- which used a transition tag to retain OT Max Starks -- could have also tagged Alan Faneca with either a transition or franchise tag if it so desired. If every team in the league used one or two tags, not even the three they would possess, it could take another 40 quality free agents off the market.
There is speculation teams would not overuse this trigger because so many of their quality younger players would not be free to depart.
If the league gets to the point of an uncapped year, people are afraid that deep-pocket owners such as Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder will come in and buy a championship. If the aggressive owners already have playoff teams, there will be restrictions on how much money they can spend. The formula may slide with the number of players they lose in free agency, but the plan is designed to not let teams buy a championship. The truth is, the first two triggers aren't going to leave too many players available to acquire anyway.
Time will tell, but I think the NFL and the NFLPA will negotiate a new CBA before we ever get to 2010. I also believe a number of the players looking at the prospect of 2010 and 2011 being uncapped and preventing them from being free agents will try to sign long-term extensions with their teams in the near future.
And don't think all the trigger points favor the clubs, because there are other things -- like the end of the NFL draft in 2011 -- which the league doesn't necessarily want to see. And the emergence of a new league could complicate matters. If the owners decide not to continue the CBA this week, all is not lost. There is time, and there are triggers in place, to get this solved.