Life in an Uncapped World
How no salary cap in 2010 will affect free agency, the draft, and the league as we know it
One of the biggest questions that has been swirling around the league as the 2009 season comes toward a close, and with no new Collective Bargaining Agreement(CBA) in place, is what will happen in 2010. As everyone is aware, when the owners opted out of the CBA in 2011, it meant that 2010 would be an "uncapped year." The thought of no salary cap brings images of George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees, and stirs fear in the hearts of fans everywhere that a Jerry Jones or a Daniel Snyder would go gangbusters on the free agent market and out-bully and out-spend their way into a Super Bowl.
However, the player's union and the owners had the foresight to anticipate such an event, and as such, there are safeguards in place to keep things from getting too out of control in the NFL world should the time occur that a season would go by without a salary cap. So, for all who are wondering, and to quell the fears of those who break into cold sweats that the NFL will see parity disappear and go the way of Major League Baseball, worry not. This is what life will be like in the brave new uncapped world of 2010.
The biggest changes that will occur in an uncapped 2010, obviously, pertain to free agency, although more accurately, who will be free agents.
Under the current CBA, players can restricted free agents after three years of service, and unrestricted free agents after four years. Unrestricted free agents are just that, unrestricted. They are free to sign with any team of their choosing.
Restricted free agency is a little more complicated. A restricted free agent is first offered a "tender" amount by the team that holds his rights. If that team does not tender the player, he is free to walk as an unrestricted free agent. If a team makes an offer for a player higher than the tender amount, the team to holds the player's right has one week to determine whether or not to match that offer. If that team chooses not to match the offer, then the player will go to the high bidder, and the previous team will receive a draft pick in return equal to the tender amount. The highest tender amount in 2009 was worth $2.792 million, and if a player tendered at that amount was to be signed by another team, the team that offered the tender would earn a first and a third round pick in return. The lowest tender was $1.01 million, and would give the offering team a pick equivalent to the round in which that player was drafted.
For example, in 2007, Miami offered Wes Welker a second round tender, which at the time was worth $1.35 million. We all know about the "poison pill" and the resulting trade, however, if New England had simply offered Welker a contract, Miami would have had one week to match that offer to retain Welker. If Miami chose not to match, then they would receive a second round pick from New England -- corresponding to the tender amount that was originally offered.
The big changes here, with no salary cap in 2010, is that the number of years of service are increased. A player now must accrue four years of service to become a restricted free agent, and six years of service to become unrestricted free agents.
Obviously, with unrestricted free agents requiring more service time, this will drastically reduce the number of players available in the free agent pool. Players such as Greg Jennings, Darren Sproles, Leon Washington, Brandon Marshall, Elvis Dumervil, and DeMeco Ryans, who would have been unrestricted under the current CBA rules, will be restricted free agents in 2010.
Another major change involves the franchise player and transition player tags. Currently, a team may apply a franchise tag to one player, who is given a one-year deal equal to the average of the top five salaries at that players position, or an increase of 20% over their 2008 salary, whichever is greater. For example, during the 2009 offseason, Carolina applied their franchise tag to defensive end Julius Peppers, which was worth $16.683 million, even though the tag amount on his position was only $8.991 million. Meanwhile, New England used their franchise tag on quarterback Matt Cassel, worth $14.65 million.
In 2010, teams will still have one franchise player tag. This means that even a player with six years of service can be tagged and retained should a team choose to do so. For example, New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has accrued six years of service, New England can choose to apply tags to him and two others at their choosing.
It is important to note that there are two types of franchise tags, exclusive and non-exclusive. An exclusive tag means that the player will be averaged based on the current years' average at his position, and is not allowed to negotiate with any other teams. A non-exclusive tag is based on the previous years' average, and is treated similar to a restricted free agent, in that other teams are allowed to make an offer, but the team applying the tag is allowed to match that offer. If a team fails to match an offer on a non-exclusive franchise player, that team will receive two first-round draft picks in return.
Along with the franchise tag, teams will also have two transition tags to use on players. Transition tags give a player a salary equal to the average of the top ten players at his position. No teams chose to use a transition tag on a player in 2009, and under the current CBA, could use a franchise or a transition tag, but not both. The transition tag, like a non-exclusive franchise tag, allows a player to negotiate with other teams. The transition tag was famously involved in the deal to bring offensive guard Steve Hutchinson to Minnesota, where poison pill clauses all but forced Seattle to let Hutchinson go. The transition tag also gives no compensation to a team should they fail to match an offer on a player on whom they have applied the tag.
In addition to who can be a free agent, 2010 will also change who can sign free agents. In an attempt to stop the "rich from getting richer," in a figurative sense, the eight teams that advance to the divisional round of the playoffs in 2009 will be restricted in how they can sign free agents.
The four teams that make their respective conference championship games will be prohibited from negotiating with, or signing, any unrestricted free agents unless they are either re-signing one of their own players, or the player was cut by his previous team. In 2008, the four teams this would have affected were Arizona, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh.
The four teams that make it to the divisional rounds in their conferences, but fail to make it to a conference championship game will be only be allowed to sign one player with a salary over $4.925 million. They may also sign any number of players to a first-year salary of no more than $3.725 million, and an annual increase of no more than 30%. The four teams this would have affected in 2008 were Tennessee, San Diego, Carolina, and the New York Giants.
However, it's not all doom and gloom for these teams. These team may also sign one unrestricted free agent for every unrestricted free agent that they lose to another team. They may not spend more than the value of the lost player's new contracts.
The draft in 2010, will not be too different from the draft in 2009. However, as wacky as this may sound, the rookie salary cap(who knew?) will be removed. Expect to see more holdouts and hardball negotiations involving rookies and the teams that draft them. We can also expect to see more underclassmen declaring for the draft as a result, especially with the specter of a potential 2011 lockout on the horizon.
While there will be no salary cap in 2010, there will also not be a salary floor either. In 2006, the NFL created a salary floor requiring that teams spend at least 84% of the cap amount, with that number increasing by 1.2% every year. In 2009, that number was 87.6% of the cap. Which means that with the 2009 salary cap of $127 million, teams were required to spend roughly $111.25 million on player salaries in 2009. With no salary floor, and no salary cap with which to apply penalties to, teams will be free to cut contracts that they see as an albatross, and thus save some serious money should they choose to do so.
If anything, the lack of salary floors may be more of a concern than the lack of salary cap, as owners who are in some manner of financial distress, such as the Glazer family, who amassed significant debts after purchasing English soccer team Manchester United, will be free to dump salary left and right. This could create a situation similar to the perpetual penny-pinchers in Major League Baseball, such as the Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Now, of course, all of this discussion is moot is a new CBA is approved. The owners and the NFL Player's Union have until March to agree to a new CBA before the 2010 provisions written above will go into effect.
So, for those expecting or hoping for the Dolphins to make a huge splash in the offseason during free agency, you may be disappointed, as many of the most sought after free agents will more than likely be off the market, or too costly to obtain in terms of draft picks.