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Free agency underway in NFL
nfl pic
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell leaves a hotel ballroom after a meeting with the NFL Players Association in Indianapolis, Feb. 25. The collective bargaining agreement is set to expire March 5, 2011, leaving the likelyhood of an uncapped salary year for the 2010 season. - photo by Associated Press

NEW YORK — The NFL has swallowed the poison pill.

When the league and the players association reached a new collective bargaining agreement in 2006, a clause called for eliminating the salary cap in 2010. Both sides assumed an uncapped season would be so distasteful that a new contract would be finalized long before the cap disappeared.

Even when the owners opted out of the CBA in 2008, little thought was given to an actual removal of the salary cap that generally has been beneficial for both owners and players.

On Friday, pro football's salary cap dies. Free agency begins under a whole new set of rules, and no one is sure where it will lead — perhaps even to a work stoppage in 2011.

Yes, the most profitable and popular sport in America is entering territory even more uncharted than the end zone was for the St. Louis Rams last season.

"The situation we're walking into is certainly unknown for everyone," Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik says. "So no one can really look at the crystal ball and say here's what people are going to spend and here's what people aren't going to spend. It's all pure speculation."

Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting company Sports Corp. Ltd., thinks teams will be tightfisted.

"That's one of the possibilities in the uncapped season, will some teams be spending far below the current floor, especially teams that perform poorly on the field?" says Ganis. "Teams will have the option of spending the amount on their team that they think it is worth. A 4-12 team does not have the caliber players a consistently 12-4 team has.

"I expect the small and midsize market clubs are going to start to pay in this uncapped year based on what they can afford."

But sports agent Joe Linta, who represents Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco among others, is optimistic the pocketbooks will remain open. His thoughts echo those by many of his colleagues:

"The owners are all wealthy," Linta says, "and as much as they need and want to make money, the need to win is greater than the need to make money — they already have plenty. Their insatiable desire to win will override their greed to save and make money. So, yeah, they'll spend."

Some can spend more than others. But the crop of unrestricted free agents contains few difference makers and is inferior to the group of restricted free agents.

Under the CBA that expires next March, the top conference semifinalists from January's playoffs have extra restrictions in signing free agents. The final four, for example, must lose an unrestricted free agent (UFA) before they can sign one.

That hamstrings the Saints, Colts, Jets and Vikings.

"I think it is a penalty for sure," Jets coach Rex Ryan says. "Maybe you need a tight end or whatever it is and you don't have that ability to go out and get some of the top guys that might be available."

Many of those top guys aren't available at all. With no salary cap, it takes six years of service to become an unrestricted free agent, two more than in the past. Players with four and five seasons now are restricted, meaning the team losing them would earn compensation or would have the right to match offers from other clubs.

Among the 212 players who now are not totally free because of the uncapped season are All-Pro defensive end Elvis Dumervil of Denver, who led the league in sacks in 2009; San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman and receiver Vincent Jackson; Miami running back Ronnie Brown; Dallas receiver Miles Austin; and Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans.

While Dumervil, Austin and Ryans might be worth the heavy compensation they would cost, how many teams are willing to part with high draft picks and all the money it will take to sign such standouts?

"For us it's not changing," San Francisco 49ers GM Scot McCloughan. "We're going to go forward as if there is a cap. ... We're not going to be considered a big free agency team anyway. But we'll do what we need to do in free agency if we think it's a smart move."

Not that there won't be lots of bucks flying into players' bank accounts. Teams always want to procure as much talent as they can. If someone perceives defensive end Julius Peppers as the answer to their line issues, the money figures to be there — although certainly not on the scale of the $20 million-plus Carolina would have needed to spend to make him a franchise player for the second straight year.

"When we talk about possible free agents, certainly Julius is one of the guys we talk about," Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren says when asked if Peppers could have the kind of impact free-agent Reggie White had in Green Bay when Holmgren was the coach. "Then I have to put on my other hat because there are some financial ramifications there.

"As great a player as Julius is, I'd be reluctant to compare anybody to Reggie White. We did it, at the time we bonused him for I think $8 million. Everybody thought we were nuts. It was numbers off the chart. Now think of that today."

Think of this today, as well: NFL teams must consider the ramifications of high spending in an uncapped 2010 if a salary cap returns in subsequent years. The money spent on Peppers or another quality UFA this year might be unlimited, but contract provisions beyond that could hinder staying under a salary cap in the future.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz sees more experienced, but possibly more worn-down players available in free agency this year. That, too, could curtail spending.

"Most of the ... unrestricted players are going to be players that are 29, 30, 31 years old. I think the biggest thing about that is, it places a lot more emphasis on getting the player right," says Schwartz, whose club needs all the talent it can get just to reach mediocrity. "You can get mileage out of a 29-year-old or a 30-year-old as long as you have a very specific role in mind for him and he fits your scheme and you feel good about that, because you're not going to have a whole lot of startup time with him."

Many team executives also believe April's draft carries more significance than usual because of the flux in free agency.

"I sense that we are a lot more focused seemingly this year on draft preparation," Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said. "Usually we take this in cycles or segments. There was definitely a free agent segment leading up to beginning of free agency. Now we tend to be focusing on the draft that much earlier. I will be interested to see how much interest there is going into free agency with the fewer numbers."

Dimitroff and everyone else can only wonder.