A precarious state for NFL players

The decision by NFL owners in May 2008 to opt out of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has left the game in a precarious state. Barring a deal being struck in the coming weeks between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, we are done with salary cap football in the NFL for the near term and possibly the long term.

I will continue to discuss the ramifications of an uncapped system, the Final Eight Rule (limiting free agency options for the eight playoff teams in the divisional round) and the potential for great disparity between player costs without a ceiling and – more important – without a floor for player spending.

The reciprocal change without an extension of the CBA is that NFL free agency as we know it would change.

To review, since 1993, four years have been required for an NFL player to be an unrestricted free agent (UFA). A player with three years of service has been -- and will continue to be -- a restricted free agent (RFA), able to receive offers from other teams, with his incumbent team having a right to match any offer, depending on the level of tender (offer) made to the player.

In the event of no new CBA – and no salary cap -- prior to the bell ringing for 2010 free agency in late February or early March, the requirement to be a UFA will shift from four years to six years in the league. A player with four or five years in the NFL will not be a UFA in 2010; that player will become an RFA, subject to control by his team just as three-year RFAs have been

An RFA’s incumbent team has a right to match any offer – a right of first refusal (ROFR). And depending on the level of tender made to the player by the incumbent team, the team will receive compensation from the acquiring team in the form of a draft choice(s).

Suffice it to say, the status of UFA is much more desirable to an NFL player than the status of an RFA. Players work the early parts of their careers to gain unfettered bidding among teams for their services and create escalated prices; they do not want other teams to know that their team can always match any offer made to them. And the amount of RFAs changing teams has been minimal – last year there were no RFAs who switched teams.

Now there are 212 players who – under the prior capped system – would be UFAs who are not going to be as we sit here today. Rather, they will now be RFAs.

With that in mind, let’s take an early look at the players from each team who find themselves in this uncertain status. Let’s call then the “limbo group” of RFAs. As a few general managers have told me, this group is certainly more attractive than the true UFA class of 2010 – the potential UFA class with six years of service, that is.

Starting with the AFC, here’s a team-by-team look at some of the players in this limbo group. We’ll take a look at the UFA list at another time.

AFC North

Baltimore: Dawan Landry
Cincinnati: Frostee Rucker
Cleveland: Jerome Harrison, D’Qwell Jackson, Brodney Pool, Lawrence Vickers, Matt Roth
Pittsburgh: Willie Colon


-The Ravens’ Landry has been a starter since the team drafted him in the fifth round in 2006.
-The Bengals’ Rucker may scare off suitors because of character questions.
-The Browns didn’t have to worry about Harrison a few weeks ago. Now they do. Jackson and Pool each missed games as a result of injuries. The Browns like Roth.
-The Steelers’ Colon may have some interest from teams as the Steelers have a lot of UFAs to deal with, including Casey Hampton.

AFC East

Buffalo: Keith Ellison
Miami: Ronnie Brown, Anthony Fasano
New England: Logan Mankins, Stephen Gostowski, Pierre Woods
New York Jets: Braylon Edwards, Leon Washington, Brad Smith


-Ronnie Brown had a six-year rookie contract that voids to five, meaning it will expire. He certainly expected it to expire and become a free agent. Now the Dolphins will own his rights another year.
-The Jets have interesting decisions with Edwards -- for whom they gave up two picks and two players – Washington, now on injured reserve, and Smith, someone they like a lot.
-The Patriots have a host of issues to deal with in the offseason, including UFA Vince Wilfork and the last year of Tom Brady’s deal.

AFC South

Houston: DeMeco Ryans, Owen Daniels
Indianapolis: Marlin Jackson, Antoine Bethea
Jacksonville: Clint Ingram
Tennessee: Bo Scaife, Stephen Tulloch, LenDale White


-The Texans will have an interesting offseason, with decisions on their coaching staff, a couple of desirable RFAs in Ryans and Daniels and the issue of what to do with franchise player Dunta Robinson.
-The Colts have a rising star in Bethea, but their primary issue will be addressing the expiring contract of Peyton Manning, whose next deal will no doubt be the largest in the history of the sport.
-Coming into the season, it appeared that Titans Scaife and White might be in line for big paydays. Now, not so much. The team will have other issues with UFAs and how to deal with Kerry Collins’ contract.

AFC West

Denver: Elvis Dumervil, Brandon Marshall, Kyle Orton
Kansas City: Brodie Coyle, Derrick Johnson, Jarrad Page
Oakland: Thomas Howard, Kirk Morrison
San Diego: Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd, Marcus McNeill, Shawne Merriman


-No teams in the NFL are more affected by the potential lack of a salary cap and six years required for free agency than the Broncos and Chargers. Their limbo groups are as impressive as any in the league. Having rights to these players compared to not having them – in a capped year – are worth tens of millions. The only question is how much the teams will spend to address these players as RFAs, albeit a much smaller amount than if they were UFAs.

Coming soon: a look at the NFC.

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