By now, you've probably heard that the NFL is facing the possibility that there will be no salary cap for the 2010 season. You may also be aware of the fact that it places limitations on teams' ability to defer payments into the future, and also increase the time needed to achieve free agency from four years to six.
You may not know of the existence of the Final Eight Plan, a provision in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement which may haunt several franchises next year.
The basic principle of the Final Eight Plan—which will go into effect if there is no salary cap—is to prevent a mass movement of free agent talent in 2010 to the top teams from 2009.
In a nutshell, it places restrictions on the eight teams that reach the Divisional round of the playoffs. In other words, the two teams with byes in each conference, and the four teams that win their Wild Card games will have a harder time pursuing free agents.
The main restrictions on the four teams that reach the Conference Championship round are:
- They can resign their own players with no additional restrictions beyond those placed on any other team.
- Beyond that, however, they can only sign one free agent for each one they lose, and the departing free agent's new contract sets a limit on the size of the new player's contract.
- The teams can trade for players given franchise and/or restricted free agent tenders, but they cannot circumvent the above rule by trading for a player they couldn't sign as a free agent.
The four teams that lose in the divisional round are subject to the same rules, except that they are also allowed to assign free agents to relatively small contracts (and one free agent to a contract with a first-year salary of $5 million or more).
There's also one more loophole, which I'll get to a little later in this article.
So, what does this have to do with the New England Patriots? It's simple, really.
The Patriots, with quarterback Tom Brady returning, appear poised to make another run deep into the playoffs, which would mean they'd be subject to the Final Eight Plan—and they seem to have insulated themselves from its effects in three ways.
Using their 2009 draft picks
The Patriots have six draft picks in the first three rounds—No. 23 in round one; No. 34, 47, and 58 in round two; No. 89 and 97 in round three. It is the most of any team in the NFL. They also have five more picks in the remaining four rounds.
That said, the Patriots simply do not have that many holes in their roster. Sure, they could use another linebacker or two, and depth at other positions, but there is essentially no reason for the Patriots to use all 11 picks this year.
What will probably happen is that the Patriots will trade at least one of their eight tradable picks (the Patriots' three compensatory picks can't be traded), quite likely one of their three second-rounders, for a pick in 2010.
Since the Patriots have traded picks ahead almost every year during Belichick's tenure, there's no reason to assume this year will be any different.
Using the compensatory pick system
As noted, three of the Patriots' 11 draft picks this year are compensatory picks, awarded when a team loses more quality free agents than it signs.
One rule regarding this system, though, is that in order to count as a "quality" free agent, those free agents must reach free agency via an expired contract. Players who are waived by their previous team do not count against the teams signing them. More importantly, they also do not count as free agents in the Final Eight Plan.
In other words, any player who gets cut by his old team is fair game for everyone.
This is where the Patriots seem to have slipped under everyone's radar.
With the possible exception of former Cardinals center Al Johnson (whose contract may not be large enough to count under any circumstances), all of the Patriots' 2009 free agent signings—Fred Taylor, Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden, Chris Baker, Joey Galloway, and Nathan Hodel—were players released by their old teams.
Not one of them will count against the Patriots in determining compensatory picks, which means the Patriots could get as many as four picks on day two (for Jabar Gaffney, Heath Evans, Lonie Paxton, and LaMont Jordan).
It seems highly, highly unlikely that this is just by chance alone. Whether or not it's a "dry run" for 2010—when the only agents they'll likely be able to sign are those waived by their own teams—is impossible to say. What does seem fairly clear is that the Patriots are trying to accumulate compensatory picks for 2010.
As stated above, the Final Eight Plan allows the top four teams to sign a new free agent for each one they lose. That rule might explain why the Patriots were willing to sign Leigh Bodden to a one-year deal that prohibits them from using the franchise tag. Should his career take off, and the Patriots be unable to resign him, they will then be able to sign a new free agent to a contract with a similar cap hit.
The same holds true for any other free agents the Patriots might lose, such as defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork. If the Patriots aren't able to extend their contracts, they at least will have the ability to land a blue-chip free agent.
All in all, the Patriots are showing once again why they are one of the best-managed franchises in all of sports.