Judge Susan Nelson, who is presiding over the current NFL anti-trust litigation, is expected to make a decision within the next few weeks as to whether the work stoppage will end. If she rules as such, players and teams could begin their offseason programs. Players would be able to collect insurance and, in some cases, bonuses.
The players, as outlined in Tom Brady's suit against the league, do not feel the lockout is justified and want to return to work. Yet if Nelson does lift the work stoppage, the NFL will exist under the 2010 rules. Under those guidelines the salary cap would not exist and players would need to accrue six years of NFL service, not four, in order to be considered an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
Most with knowledge of the situation assumed once the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was signed, it would include the four-year rule for UFAs, as it had been under the old CBA. Yet if the court orders everyone to go back to work, that won't be the case. This would mean big-name players like WR Sidney Rice, G Justin Blalock, CB Johnathan Joseph and OT Doug Free, among numerous others, would not be as freely available on the open market.
A restricted free agent (RFA) is a player who has received a "qualifying" offer from his old club, but is free to negotiate with any team through the free agent signing period. If he accepts an offer sheet from a new club, his old team can match the offer and retain him, or not match the offer and possibly receive draft-choice compensation depending on the amount of the qualifying offer. If an offer sheet is not executed, the player's rights revert to his old club after the free agent signing period ends.
CB Corey Graham
By these rules, and with the premium teams put on draft picks, RFAs stay with their existing teams the vast majority of the time. In early March, clubs began tendering qualifying offers to players with less than six years of experience. Most considered this a formality. Yet, unless a miracle happens and the NFL and NFLPA come to an agreement, the 2011 season will be played under the 2010 rules.
For the Chicago Bears, this means LB Nick Roach, CB Corey Graham and S Danieal Manning will be RFAs, and thus very likely to stay with the team. Roach is a solid special teams contributor and could be next in line to start at SAM linebacker. Manning started every game last year at safety and is a very good kick returner. Graham led the team last year in special teams tackles and is considered one of the best kick and punt coverage players in the league.
Each player has significant value to the team, which is why the Bears' front office tendered each a free agent offer in March. By next week, Judge Nelson could force the league to begin operations under the 2010 rules. In an instant, Chicago would have three less roster spots to fill. If this ruling comes down before the draft on April 28-30, it will also surely change the Bears' war-room strategy.
First off, with both Manning and Devin Hester on the roster, the Bears won't need to draft a player with kick-return skills. Manning could again be a contributor in the secondary as well. On the flipside, that could stunt the development of second-year safety Major Wright, although the competition in camp would most likely do him well.
In the late rounds the Bears like to draft players who can contribute as coverage men on special teams. If Graham is forced to stay in Chicago, that's one less coverage player the team needs to worry about. So instead of drafting a linebacker in the sixth – a position they like to pull from for coverage men – the team could grab a developmental wide receiver or offensive lineman.
Keeping Roach on the roster could be the most important outcome of this situation. Other than Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, the Bears have no other linebackers under contract. If Roach stays and can step in and be a strong-side starter – something he's shown in the past – then Chicago won't need to shell out big dollars for a free agent linebacker. They also can forego the position in the draft, at least until the later rounds.
For NFL players with four or five accrued seasons that were hoping to test the open market, this is not good news. Obviously they want to go back to work, but it most likely won't be under ideal conditions. As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for.
Yet for the Bears at least, a ruling to conduct business under the 2010 guidelines would be ideal and would allow the team more roster flexibility heading in to the draft and free agency.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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