Can't Cash In: The NFL Free Agents Hurt Most if Salary Cap Is Kicked

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent IFebruary 16, 2010

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 1:  Shawne Merriman #56 of the San Diego Chargers enters the field before the game against the Oakland Raiders on November 1, 2009 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Much has been made about the possibility of an uncapped year in the NFL if the owners and union are not able to come to an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement in the next few weeks. 

Many fans have simply assumed that means that there's just no salary cap, and that any team can spend what they want on the usual crop of players whose contracts are up.

While that is partially true, there are actually a lot of stipulations that will severely limit the movement of NFL players who normally would be able to hit the open market.

First, there are heavy restrictions on what the top performing teams in 2009 can do in free agency unless they lose players first. That's going to restrict what they can do early in free agency—and should restrict movement overall, with big-market teams like the Jets and Cowboys in that pained top-eight group.

Basically, Minnesota, the Jets, New Orleans, and Indianapolis can only sign their own free agents, players who were cut, or if they lose a free agent—and even then, they can't spend more than what the player they lost received with his new club, according to NFL.com's Pat Kirwan, who has been on this story since last year.

To clarify—and further laud the work of Kirwan, who is the best source on the CBA right now—the teams that played in the conference championship games are limited, like above.

The teams that lost in the divisional round (teams five through eight) are limited to signing one unrestricted free agent, who will make a salary above $5.5 million in the first year of the contract and can sign any number of unrestricted free agents whose first-year salary will be under $3.7 million, as well as being able to sign an unrestricted free agent for every one that they lose, with the same dollar-for-dollar stipulation as the top four teams explained above.

Confusing, I know, but Kirwan does an excellent job of spelling the finer details like that out in this article on the Final Eight Plan here. That information is confirmed here by the NFL's labor website, which also explains some of the finer points of the Final Eight rules.

Second, and more importantly, any player who has three to five years of NFL service whose contract is ending will not become an unrestricted free agent, but will qualify only as a restricted free agent. For guys finishing up three-year rookie contracts, that was expected (usually low-round prospects or undrafted free agents). For the guys with four and five years of service, that's a big change, and it's going to cost them some money.

NBC's Pro Football Talk has a simple breakdown of what the six possible tenders are for restricted free agents with four and five years of service. The maximum is $3.268 million for a five-year player—certainly below what some guys on this list were hoping to make four or five years into the league.

According to the Associated Press, there are 212 players who normally would be free but would be restricted if the uncapped year goes into effect.

That's 212 guys who should be cashing in on some big guaranteed money who now have to survive another year in the NFL before they hit the open market. To put it plainly, it's likely that more than one of those players will get permanently hurt and lose out on millions of dollars.

With that, let's look at the elite players who stand to lose the most if (when, really) the salary cap—and their chance at unrestricted free agency—disappears for at least a year.

Logan Mankins, Guard, New England Patriots

The two-time Pro Bowl guard has been a mainstay at the position for the New England Patriots in his time in the NFL, not even missing a practice for his first four years in the league. 

The problem is that, even in an uncapped year, the Patriots still have to think long term. With Vince Wilfork hitting unrestricted free agency, Matt Light entering the final year of his contract, and the team likely looking to extend Tom Brady's contract to avoid paying a $3 million bonus in March, money might be tight around Foxboro for Light, let alone Mankins. 

Add to that the fact that he can be tendered at the "original draft pick" compensation level—which can default to 110 percent of his 2009 salary—and he can be had, with first-round pick protection, for as little as $1.54 million next year.

Do the Patriots try to pull that off? I doubt they'll sour the waters by basically hamstringing their Pro Bowl guard out of $2 million, but there's no telling.

Mankins' likelihood of staying in New England is hurt slightly less, though, because it seems he would've taken a bit of a discount to stay with the Patriots anyway. But any time a guy with his reputation, his talent, and his level of production isn't able to hit the open market, it's going to smart.

Jason Campbell, QB, Washington Redskins

Campbell isn't typically the kind of guy you would associate with the big free agent payday. He hasn't made a Pro Bowl. He doesn't have a cannon arm, and his stats are average.

But he's a 28-year-old quarterback who has been hampered by instability in Washington and has markedly improved every single year.

It's also a limited market for quarterbacks, with few others available, and the draft crop is not looking especially ripe.

Having watched Campbell play during the last three years in D.C., I can say that he's a competent quarterback with good athleticism and solid mechanics—but he hasn't quite found his groove in the NFL yet.

His time under Zorn was valuable, and you have to hope Shanahan will get even more out of him—but you have to wonder if he's ever going to get more than two years with any one offensive system.

Put him in a dome in a weak division (Hello, St. Louis!) in front of a decent offensive line (Goodbye, St. Louis!), and I think that's a QB that could do well. Unfortunately, he'll likely have to settle for another year of Ben's Chili Bowl, Dan Snyder, and Eastern Motors commercials.

Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers

For the first time in his career, Jackson was a late addition to the Pro Bowl because of the timing of the game and injuries, but he was snubbed again during the voting process.

However, he's no slouch, and he's a big part of the Chargers passing game—literally, at 6'5'' 240 pounds. Yet he's still a solid downfield threat, and he would be an unbelievable investment for any passing offense.

He's got two straight 1,000-yard seasons with 16 touchdowns combined as Philip Rivers' favorite target.

Jackson can't be in any rush to leave San Diego, as he's developed a good rapport with Rivers and is the team's main option most of the time. As a second-round pick, he should get at least the first-and-third tender of more than $3 million, but it's a far cry from what he'd get on the open market.

Despite all that, he's not even the Charger who is most hurt by all this uncapped shenanigans.

Shawne Merriman, OLB, San Diego Chargers

After missing almost all of 2008 because of injury, Merriman followed it up with a pretty dreadful 2009. While able to start 14 games, Merriman racked up just four sacks and seemed a shadow of his former self.

Yet despite the lack of production this past season, he's still got three Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro to his name, and he's known as one of the most feared outside rushers in the league when healthy.

Make no mistake, this is a league that is desperate for outside rushers. The 3-4 defense has taken grip across the league, and there's two things you really need in that system, no matter what variation (single gap slant, two-gap, zone blitz, whatever) you like to run: a mammoth nose tackle and an outside linebacker who can get to the quarterback.

The Patriots had Mike Vrabel, the Steelers have James Harrison, the Cowboys have DeMarcus Ware, the Packers now have Clay Matthews (and Aaron Kampman could still make the transition to 3-4 OLB as well), and the Chargers get Merriman on the cheap for another year.

Merriman's situation could go either way for him long term. He could get hurt or continue to play poorly—and find himself a far less valuable option when he does eventually hit free agency. He could reclaim his Pro Bowl form next season in San Diego and make a big splash if there's football in 2011. He could star in his own reality show about a washed-out NFL star adjusting to life selling real estate in Orange County. I have no idea.

He'll be 26 in May, and his career is on the line.

There's no way to know until Merriman suits up next season what he still has in the tank, but San Diego only has to bet a few million to find out rather than decide if he's worth it now.

If Merriman comes out and has a monster year, he might be one of the few guys happy to have been restricted this offseason. There might not be another elite player in the game benefiting more from a second chance at a contract year than Merriman.

Jahri Evans, Guard, New Orleans Saints

Like several other Saints players, Evans put together unquestionably his best season in 2009.

That he did it during a year when the Saints not only won the Super Bowl but also brought in a national following certainly doesn't hurt his long-term value.

What does hurt is being maybe the best guard in the league in 2009 and suddenly unable to cash in. Evans might be a flash in the pan, or he might be a legitimate talent—but 2009 won't be enough to earn him that big payday just yet, as the Saints can retain his rights.

The Saints will likely tender him at least the first-round number—as any team would jump to sign him for just the fourth-round pick he was originally drafted at—but he's got to stay healthy for another year if he wants to really see the financial windfall his play this year merited.

Antoine Bethea, S, Indianapolis Colts

One name you didn't hear too often in these playoffs was Bob Sanders. After his second injury-plagued campaign in a row, Sanders must be kissing his agent for getting him $27 million guaranteed in 2007.

But all along there was Bethea, the steadying force in the Colts defensive backfield.

Not necessarily a playmaker like Sanders, Bethea is nonetheless a very solid player, and as a sixth-round pick who has worked his way into a starter's role, he's likely to see a pay jump—even getting the restricted free agent tender.

In all likelihood, he'll be another first-round tender—or the Colts will try to extend him long term. His contract isn't publicly known, but I imagine he'd jump at the chance to get a little long-term security. Sixth-round picks just don't make a ton of money for the NFL.

The fact that he's such a solid option and yet is restricted in what he can get from teams is a shame, and it leaves the Howard alum with just two options: Bite at the long-term offer now or play one more year of injury roulette and hope that guaranteed money is still on the table if he's able to hit free agency next year.

Jammal Brown, OT, New Orleans Saints

Oh, to be an elite left tackle in the NFL hitting free agency.

You can practically taste the dollars—especially when that elite tackle also happens to be a two-time Pro Bowler, was named a first-team All-Pro, and is still just 28 years old.

Placed on injured reserve in September, Brown now has to contend with an injury history nagging behind him—and he's not quite up there with the Joe Thomas/Ryan Clady group of tackles—but he's a superb player.

He had to undergo hip and sports hernia surgery this year, which is what put him out for the year, and there's no knowing just yet what kind of shape he'll be in when he gets back.

The Saints aren't likely to let him go quietly, as Jermon Bushrod was adequate, if not spectacular, in filling in for Brown. Bushrod would be far better as a third option to spell Brown when the match-up dictates.

If they're smart, they'll try to sign Brown to a long-term extension if they believe his injuries weren't cause for concern as, like Bethea above, they'd likely get a discount given Brown's injuries and will be stuck getting RFA money.

Still, with the sudden boom in quarterbacks who can sling the ball around with ease (11 guys with a passing rating above 92 in 2009) and the decline in relevance of the running back last season, left tackle may still be the position with the fewest guys who could truly be considered "elite."

If Brown comes back and shows he doesn't have the stuff anymore, he'll have missed out on an awful lot of dollars because of his injury-shortened 2009.

Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Denver Broncos

I don't fall in with a lot of fantasy football theories about a receiver's third year—or a good quarterback on a bad team.

One theory I absolutely believe in is the motivation of a contract year.

The average NFL career is shorter than Darren Sproles, and when you're one quality year from cashing in the biggest paycheck of your life, the ephemeral reality of the NFL sets in.

It's a potent motivator, and guys elevate their play to meet the moment. Although he surely knew he wouldn't be entering unrestricted free agency this year, Dumervil came through with easily his best season.

Now he has to face the daunting task of repeating the feat in order to finally hit free agency or somehow force a long-term deal—or a trade—from the Broncos.

Normally, he'd be the most intriguing player on the market. He had 17 sacks in 2009 after just 26 combined the first three years of his career. Did he finally put it all together? Was it a one-year outburst? How much do you gamble on a 26-year-old whose ceiling could be 15 sacks or more per year?

Either way, he better hope he has another year like 2009 in him—or else he'll be far poorer for his efforts than other contract year wonders who came before him.

Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver Broncos

Despite all the talent above, Marshall may be the most interesting player on this list.

Like Merriman, there are significant questions about the safety of any long-term investment in the player. He's had a freaky injury history and a spotted off-field past, and he seems to have had issues maturing.

Like Merriman, there is absolutely no question about his talent as a football player when healthy and on the field. His coach went so far as to hug him during a press conference. He had 21 catches in a single game this year.

He's another fourth-round pick who has pulled himself up to become one of the elite in the league at his position. He's posted three-straight 1,000-yard seasons and has 23 touchdowns during that time.

He's a dynamic downfield threat, has the size to go over the middle, and is an absolute match-up nightmare.

The Broncos and Marshall have talked contract before—most notably last season during his intermittent temper tantrums—but now he'll be under the restricted free agent rules.

If there's any player for whom a team wouldn't balk at giving up a first-and-third for, it might be a receiver of Marshall's caliber. The maturity issues are obviously a concern, but there's not an offense in the league that couldn't use a Brandon Marshall.


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