All-star crop of new FAs could be on horizon

With unrestricted free agency in a new CBA likely to be rolled back to four years of experience, it could create an all-star-like crop of talent hitting the open market. The 49ers have two impending FAs who'd become unrestricted in that scenario and could attract substantial money instead of playing on a one-year tender. But neither would make a starting lineup of top players who become available.

To some young veterans and several agents, one of the most interesting elements to emerge from the owners' meeting in Chicago on Tuesday was the presumption that the proposed CBA agreement stipulates that the requirement for unrestricted free agency will return to four seasons of accrued service.

That was the threshold throughout free agency until 2010, when the rules for an "uncapped" season raised the bar to six seasons. There were a goodly number of disgruntled players who were unable to test the unrestricted market because of the "uncapped" rules, and who were forced to play under one-year restricted free agent tenders, rather than benefitting from total freedom.

That is likely to change when there is a CBA accord, and it will have a direct impact on several 49ers who have been in free-agent limbo during the lockout.

"Music to my ears," said one prominent agent, who represents several players with four seasons of experience, and whose clients figure to attract multiple suitors if the unrestricted requirement returns to four years. "We're talking about the difference between maybe playing for the (restricted) tender, and hoping to be free after five years, and having the leverage of being on the open market now. It's huge."

Last week, The Sports Xchange reported in The Tip Sheet that there were solid indications the unrestricted requirement would be dialed back to four seasons, and that approximately 130 players could be affected by such a move. The dial-back, if it is, indeed, a component of a new CBA, would dramatically upgrade the talent pool available during the free agency signing period.

The restricted, one-year tenders offered to most four-year veterans earlier in the spring would be meaningless. Personnel departments would be able to include four-year veterans in their free agency planning, although several general managers have indicated to The Sports Xchange they had already assessed the four-year players as part of their planning.

Safety Dashon Goldson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald – both promising young veterans the 49ers would like to have back in 2011 and beyond – have four accrued seasons of NFL experience and would become unrestricted free agents under that scenario. So would outside linebacker Manny Lawson, who has five accrued NFL seasons.

Each of those three players was a key member of the San Francisco defense last season. Goldson started all 16 games at free safety and finished fourth on the team with 102 tackles. Lawson started all 16 games at strong-side linebacker and finished with 64 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 31 quarterback pressures and two forced fumbles. McDonald was a key cog in the defensive line rotation and finished with 57 tackles and 56 quarterback pressures, which ranked second on the team.

While those players certainly would have suitors for their services, the increased pool of talent with the influx of other four- and five-year veterans would give the San Francisco trio more competition as they shop their services.

There are a few four-year veterans who were designated as franchise free agents – center Ryan Kalil (Carolina), inside linebacker David Harris (New York Jets) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (Pittsburgh) – and all three signed their one-year tenders as such before the lockout commenced. All are likely to continue negotiations on long-term deals once a CBA agreement is reached.

Even minus those players, the pool of four-year veterans who should be available in unrestricted free agency is an intriguing one. Impressive enough, in fact, to merit this fairly interesting all-star team, which does not include any of the San Francisco players:

WR: Sidney Rice (Minnesota)
WR: Steve Smith (New York Giants)
TE: Zach Miller (Oakland)
LT: Doug Free (Dallas)
LG: Justin Blalock (Atlanta)
C: Samson Satele (Oakland)
RG: Harvey Dahl (Atlanta)
RT: Marshal Yanda (Baltimore)
QB: Trent Edwards (Jacksonville)
FB: Le'Ron McClain (Baltimore)
RB: Ahmad Bradshaw (New York Giants)

LE: Charles Johnson (Carolina)
DT: Brandon Mebane (Seattle)
DT: Antonio Johnson (Indianapolis)
RE: Stylez White (Tampa Bay)
SLB: Stephen Nicholas (Atlanta)
MLB/ILB: Stewart Bradley (Philadelphia)
WLB: Clint Session (Indianapolis)
CB: Josh Williams (Baltimore)
CB: Chris Houston (Detroit)
FS: Eric Weddle (San Diego)
SS: Melvin Bullitt (Indianapolis)

K: Mason Crosby (Green Bay)
P: Sav Rocca (Philadelphia)
KR: Steve Breaston (Arizona)
Coverage: Corey Graham (Chicago)

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008

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