An Uncapped 2010 in the NFL Could Hurt Teams and Players

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An Uncapped 2010 in the NFL Could Hurt Teams and Players
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

A few months ago, I wrote an article here at B/R on the impending poison pills added to spur both owners and players to negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement before the salary cap expires at the end of the 2009 league year.

Unfortunately, the two sides appear to have made little progress; with the current league year now half over, it appears quite likely that 2010 will be an uncapped year.

(Before I continue, let me note that there is zero chance of a lockout or strike in 2010, which is the final year of the CBA. The CBA specifically mandates that the final year be uncapped, and also forbids both strikes and lockouts while it remains in force. A strike or lockout in 2011, however, is quite possible if no new CBA is signed by then, as Peter King recently warned.)

While many in the NFL, and in the public, see the expiration of the salary cap as a good thing, it may not be nearly as beneficial as it might appear at first glance.

Teams

For teams, there is one major downside, the Final Eight Plan, that affects only the teams that reach the Divisional Round (the second week) of the playoffs.

Teams that lose in the second week will be limited in their ability to sign unrestricted free agents. They'll be able to sign one UFA to a large contract (more than about $5 million per year), and as many players as they want to small contracts.

Teams that reach the Conference Championships, however, get both presents and coal in their stockings. Win or lose, by being one of the final four teams, they will be subject to three major limitations:

  • 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 teams are free to sign players that clear waivers, but not all players go through the waiver process before becoming UFAs.

In very simplistic terms, if 2010 is uncapped, 2009 is not the year a team wants to be  Cinderella showing up at the ball.

Players

For players, there are four major downsides.

First, the owners' obligations to player benefit plans is either greatly reduced or non-existent. A tiff erupted between NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over the possibility that the NFL could reduce disability and/or pension payments for disabled payments (which the NFL wisely chose not to do). Similarly, the owners won't have to contribute to pension plans and other benefits for current players.

Second, many players who were expecting to be free agents won't be. Currently, players reach unrestricted free agency after four years of service. If the salary cap goes away, that number becomes six years. So, players now in their fifth year, such as Patriots guard Logan Mankins, will only become unrestricted free agents if a new CBA is signed this year.

Those players will instead become restricted free agents, which means that their teams can restrict their rights for relatively small salaries. So, while Mankins might easily earn $5 million per year in free agency, the Patriots could tender him, requiring a first-round pick in return, for about $2.5 million.

Somewhat paradoxically, this may mean there are fewer quality free agents available, rather than more, a fact that might please teams such as the New England Patriots that have many players with contracts expiring in 2009.

Third, not only does the dreaded franchise tag remain, but teams get an additional transition tag (which allows teams right of first refusal on any offer sheet signed by tagged players).

Finally, and most importantly, in addition to the salary cap, there is also a salary floor. In 2009 teams are required to spend a minimum of 87.6 percent of their salary cap allotments. If 2010 is uncapped, however, then owners are free to spend as much or as little of their money as they see fit. The net result may not be more money for every player, as players might hope, but rather for a select few.

It's hard to say exactly what will happen if 2010 turns out to be uncapped. But it stands to reason that many people who might be looking forward to it now will be unhappy if it actually comes to pass.

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