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Six ingredients for banner free-agent period

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Posted July 06, 2010 @ 10:41 a.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

As a basketball fan and an occasional co-host of our Pro Football Weekly / Basketball News nationally syndicated radio show, I've watched NBA free agency unfold with interest. And even if I weren't interested in basketball, I would be fascinated by the NBA's summer spending, for I am an NFL writer, and I am used to that league's relatively ho-hum version of free agency. Every year, as winter hangs on by its fingernails with spring still a few weeks away, there are a few big-name signings early in NFL free agency, then tumbleweeds.

It's hard to envision a scenario in which the NFL would ever have a free-agent period as star-laden and as active as the NBA has had in its first week this offseason. But let's say it did. How would it happen, and why?

Here are six scenarios, all of which are unlikely but fun to contemplate nonetheless:

  1. Several teams have deep and outstanding drafts in the same year. Obviously, said teams would be challenged to keep those draft classes together for their entire careers — and particularly if some or all of the below scenarios unfold. Imagine several members of a 1974 Steelers-like draft class hitting unrestricted free agency at the same time.
  2. The franchise tag, in all of its forms, is eliminated. The tag significantly restricts the movement of prospective unrestricted free agents. There is even an "exclusive" franchise tag, which forbids the free agent from receiving offer sheets from other clubs. If the tag were to disappear, free agency would undoubtedly become more interesting.
  3. The salary floor is eliminated or lowered significantly. In the 2009 league year, teams had to spend a minimum of 88.8 percent of the salary cap on player compensation (excluding benefits) — a "minimum team salary," per the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The minimum team salary has disappeared in the uncapped year, though there is still somewhat of a salary floor — owners need to put together a roster and are bound by minimum annual-salary requirements for each player. Let's suppose that, in the next CBA between the owners and players, the minimum team salary requirement is lowered or disappears completely. That, coupled with a few thrifty owners facing decisions on whether to re-sign free agents, could lead to some offseason excitement.
  4. The rules governing compensation for teams that have restricted free agents signed away changes. Teams that have to surrender a first-round pick for a restricted free agent have to be completely sold on the player to make the move, given the value of No. 1 selections. If draft-pick compensation were removed from the equation or changed to, say, no more than a third-round choice, the RFA market would heat up significantly.
  5. The salary cap is eliminated. No cap, plus a pool of excellent talent, would result in a free-agent period to remember. Short of that …
  6. The salary cap becomes a "soft cap," allowing teams to exceed the cap but pay a luxury tax. The NBA has such a system; if a team exceeds the salary cap, it has to pay a one dollar in tax for every dollar it is over the cap.

This is a time of year, and an offseason, that leads to daydreaming. After all, training camps don't open for several more weeks, and the CBA between NFL owners and players expires at the end of the league year. Perhaps we'll see some changes in the next CBA that lend themselves to more free-agent fireworks, but I would be surprised.

Contemplation of any such changes aside, teams have usually been quite proactive when it comes to keeping their blue-chip talent for the long term. For instance, though Patriots QB Tom Brady and Colts QB Peyton Manning are both slated to become free agents after the 2010 season, I doubt very much that either of them will be taking sales pitches from various NFL teams, a la LeBron James, on the first day of free agency in 2011.

Especially if the franchise tag is still around. And that has NFL staple written all over it.


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