Offseason stories to watch: part two

On Friday, we took our first look at five of the top 10 stories percolating in the long, cold and potentially divisive NFL offseason. We now continue with the top five, dominated by the labor strife that seems to be settling in over football these days. The sides appear to be moving farther apart rather than closer together, with a high-ranking league official commenting to me over the weekend about the union, “They just don’t get it.” Strong words.

Continuing our list of the top 10 stories ahead for the long and turbulent offseason:

5. The restricted free-agent (RFA) market

As discussed here frequently, there are 212 players who, under the old system (four years required to be an unrestricted free agent, or UFA), would be free but now are not because of the lack of an extension of the CBA. This group has a greater talent level than the UFA group. Teams with especially attractive RFAs include the Broncos (Elvis Dumervil, Kyle Orton, Brandon Marshall), Chargers (Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, Shawn Merriman, Marcus McNeill) and Packers (Nick Collins, Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz).

Without a salary cap and with a dearth of talent in the UFA pool, it’s going to be interesting to see if there’s an active RFA market, and whether “poison pills” will be used to entice players. This is something to watch, leading to...

4. 2010: The offseason of discontent

How will all these RFAs react to being saddled with one-year tender offers when, under normal circumstances, they would have enjoyed unfettered bidding for their services? Probably not well. An RFA receives a tender offer and is under no obligation to perform any services for the team unless and until he signs that contract. We may have dozens of RFAs not sign their tenders in symbolic acts of defiance, excusing themselves from offseason programs, minicamps, OTAs and, in extreme cases, training camp. They won’t be fined since they would be unsigned players.

There will be low rumbles of discontent throughout this offseason from players who think they should be getting new deals – either from their team or other teams – and are sitting with tender offers of relatively low one-year deals.

3. The quarterbacks

This will definitely be an offseason of megadeals for the game’s A-listers: Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Colts owner Jim Irsay – in a fit of passion and bravado prior to the Super Bowl -- publicly proclaimed that he would make Manning the highest-paid player in the history of the sport. Look for the numbers to be in the eye-popping range of $50 million guaranteed and $140 million in total value.

Brees would appear to have a case to make Peyton money, although he has two years left compared to Manning’s one. Nonetheless, it would be a major upset if his contract isn’t also jaw-dropping, although not quite at Manning’s level.

The most interesting of the three will be Brady. Although the Colts and Saints are on record to address these contracts that expire soon, the Patriots are not. I get a sense they would rather wait on paying, leaving Brady, an alternate NFL Players Association representative, to determine whether to make an issue of their reticence to reward him. Stay tuned on that one.

2. An uncapped world

For the first time since the advent of free agency in 1993, the NFL is careening toward a year without a salary cap, set to begin March 5. While many will point to teams such as Dallas and Washington potentially engaging in Steinbrenner-esque spending without any limits on their credit cards (unlikely), the less-discussed and more likely scenario is the pulling back on spending by teams without any thresholds that a salary cap required in the past.

In talking to people on the teams’ and players’ sides, the most likely to roll back spending in 2010 are Jacksonville, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Carolina, San Diego and perhaps Denver. Player payrolls may reach new lows, the result of a poison pill that was built into the 2006 CBA opt-out for an uncapped world in 2010. The union got caught on that one.

1. No NFL in 2011

This idea is starting to gain traction, and I’m being asked a lot about a lockout. My answer is that it’s way too early to tell since nothing spurs action like a deadline, and there is none until a year from now. However, that doesn’t mean that both sides haven’t started preparing for the possibility.

The NFLPA has started setting aside money for a strike fund, an amount said to be close to $200M.
The NFL has been advising its clubs on this possibility since 2007, when it hired Bob Batterman, the attorney who guided the NHL through its recent lockout (I was at the meeting introducing him in December 2007 in Dallas). Teams have also been negotiating coaching contracts with setoffs and pay decreases for 2011 in the event there’s no football. And the league has funding from broadcast contracts that will provide revenue even in the event stadiums are dark (with appropriate setoffs later in the deals).

It’s far too early to say a lockout is looming, but it’s certainly in the pre-loom stage.

Union executive director DeMaurice Smith has a tough job.

Welcome to the end of the NFL as we know it (discussed in the Webinar). But hey, the Sept. 9 kickoff to the 2010 NFL season is not that far away. Well, let’s be real. Yes, it is.

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