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INDIANAPOLIS — While soon-to-be rookies went through a battery of medical exams, drills and interviews at the NFL Scouting Combine, general managers and executives were bombarded with questions about how they would handle what is likely to be the first uncapped season since 1993.
If the owners and players' union do not agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement by the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. ET March 5, there will be no salary cap in 2010 and a new set of rules to operate under. A lot of confusion could follow in an environment cloaked with a bit more uncertainty than usual.
The unrestricted free-agent pool will be significantly shallower in an uncapped year. It will take six accrued seasons to become an unrestricted free agent with no cap, rather than the four accrued seasons it took to become unrestricted under the old rules. According to an Associated Press report, 212 players who would have become unrestricted free agents will be restricted in 2010.
"Free agency is going to be completely different this year," Browns GM Tom Heckert said. "Especially because we don't know what the future holds. It's going to be a little bit of a wait-and-see approach for everybody. I'm sure the 200-or-so guys who would have been unrestricted free agents are going to be upset. That's just the way things go, and there's nothing really we can do about it."
There no longer will be a ceiling in terms of how much money teams can spend, and there won't be a defined floor, either. The notion of an uncapped season has had some players seeing dollar signs, but the players with expiring contracts and only four or five seasons under their belts aren't going to be reaping the benefits of it in 2010; they likely will be receiving one-year tenders from their teams. Clubs have the option of tendering restricted free agents at different levels, and opposing teams will have to give up a draft pick — or picks — if they sign the restricted player to an offer sheet and the team with the rights to the player chooses not to match the offer.
If they are tendered high, other clubs that might have interest likely will be scared off by the prospect of giving up coveted draft picks to sign them away. Using the highest tender on a player means a team would have to give up first- and third-round picks to acquire them. Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman is one player who will feel the effects of the uncapped season. He has played five seasons and will be restricted in an uncapped 2010.
"As far as my future, I just want everything to be fair," Merriman said. "As long as I'm able to go back to playing football where I can go out and perform and go back to dominating again, that's most important to me. As far as the CBA and all that stuff, I don't have any control over that."
When asked if his strategy for free agency and contract negotiations will be altered because of the uncapped year, Chiefs GM Scott Pioli said he does not expect to change anything.
"I don't think we know what the rules are going to be," Pioli said. "I don't spend a lot of time or waste a lot of time on things that I don't know what they are going to be. Too much time and energy would be wasted on speculating what the system is going to be or how it is going to be. I have to go with the way things are now and just hope that you are doing the right thing."
There will be a different dynamic at play in the uncapped year. The results, however, probably will not be much different, with the power-brokering general managers opting to approach things in the same way they have in the past.
"It's uncharted waters," 49ers GM Scot McCloughan said. "It'll be unique how it goes. I think the teams in the past that were risk-takers will probably still be risk-takers. The teams that have been conservative will remain conservative."
Six players who would have hit the open market as unrestricted free agents will not get that opportunity after receiving their teams' franchise tags. Niners NT Aubrayo Franklin, Seahawks PK Olindo Mare, Packers NT Ryan Pickett, Steelers PK Jeff Reed, Raiders DE Richard Seymour and Patriots NT Vince Wilfork were tagged before the Feb. 25 deadline for using it.
After placing the franchise tag on him in 2009, the Panthers chose not to use the tag on DE Julius Peppers again this year. He's considered the top player available in free agency and is expected to demand a contract similar to the one the Redskins gave DT Albert Haynesworth last year when he was the top player on the market, which included $41 million guaranteed. Some are saying Peppers might not be worth the risk that comes along with his massive price tag. Others say he might have already turned down his best possible offer. Carolina had held discussions with Peppers about a long-term deal in the past.
"It's going to be fascinating to watch because maybe the best deal (Peppers) would have had is the one he would have had a year ago (from the Panthers)," former Texans and Redskins GM Charley Casserly said. "Will there be some teams interested in him? I don't think you're going to see a big market for the guy.
"When you watch him as a player, his whole career has been the same. This guy can turn it on like he did against the Minnesota Vikings and put a Pro Bowler (OLT Bryant McKinnie) on the bench.
"But he has games where he doesn't show up for the whole game, doesn't play hard all the time, isn't totally productive. He's 30 years old. You're going to hold your breath a little bit on this one. But I think he's going to get a heck of a contract. And he clearly is the No. 1 guy out there. Haynesworth had some bidders a year ago.
"I don't know what Carolina offered, but Carolina has never been cheap with their players. Is this guy going to get Albert Haynesworth (or) Dwight Freeney money? He's certainly going to want that. We'll have to see. He might get it. I don't think there's going to be a lot of teams willing to pay it, though."
After all the talk and speculation about what free agency would be like with no salary-cap restraints, could it be that the owners and the players' union will suddenly find common ground, agree on a new CBA and keep the cap in place in 2010?
As NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a memo that was sent to players and agents the morning of Feb. 23, an uncapped season is now very likely. Negotiations might continue right up to the deadline, but there are absolutely no signs that the two sides are anywhere near a resolution, throwing a twist into free agency 2010.
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