Because of the new rules brought about by the owners opting out of the collective bargaining agreement, the timeline to become an unrestricted free agent has moved from four years of accrued experience to six. Because of that fundamental change, the vast majority of the top free agents will be restricted. In this year's Scout.com rankings, 31 of the top 50 are restricted. Last year, only three of the top 50 were restricted.
A recent review by The Associated Press found that 212 players who would have been unrestricted free agents now will be restricted. That list includes eight Pro Bowlers: receivers Miles Austin and Brandon Marshall, linebackers Elvis Dumervil and DeMeco Ryans, safety Nick Collins, guards Logan Mankins and Jahri Evans, and fullback Leonard Weaver.
So, barring a late deal, there will be no salary cap but fewer quality players to spend the money on when free agency opens on March 5. And that list of attractive unrestricted free agents figures to get shorter. Rather than being able to use a franchise tag (average salary of top five players at position; two first-rounders as compensation) or transition tag (average salary of top 10 players at position; no compensation but seven days to match offer), teams will get a franchise tag and two transition tags. Thus, a team could practically lock up three of its unrestricted free agents instead of just one.
That means bidding will be hot and heavy for the top unrestricted free agents who reach the open market.
"The first thing you've got to know is there's no limit to what teams can spend," said Scout.com senior NFL reporter Adam Caplan, who compiled the free agent rankings. "Is that going to affect a lot of teams? Probably not, because they're not going to go crazy. First of all, if you look at the list of unrestricted guys, it's not a very strong list. Is it going to be more toward restricted free agents and will those guys get a lot of interest? I think more than usual, absolutely."
The new rules do not impact a team's right to match another team's offer to its restricted free agents by making a qualifying offer. There are four tender levels — original-round compensation ($1.01 million last year), second round ($1.545 million), first round ($2.198 million) and first and third round ($2.792 million).
That combination of money and draft picks generally was enough to scare away suitors. Last year, for instance, none of the 55 restricted free agents changed teams. But without a salary cap and because the majority of the top players are restricted, that figures to change.
Another interesting change is the "Final Eight Plan," which prevents the top teams from buying a championship. The eight remaining playoff teams can sign an unrestricted free agent only after losing one, and the player they're signing can't get more money than the player they lost. That rule, however, does not apply to restricted free agents.
So, if your team needs a player, where are the positions of depth?
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"Wide receiver is phenomenal," Caplan said. "I have Vincent Jackson as my No. 1 guy, and I have Miles Austin over Brandon Marshall, just because Austin is a good kid and Marshall's a pain in the butt. They're both restricted. Terrell Owens is my fourth guy, based on his age. Braylon Edwards and Malcom Floyd are next. Owens is the only unrestricted guy that's really got a lot of value. Antonio Bryant is unrestricted but I'm not sure how much interest he's going to get. Kevin Walter is unrestricted but is coming off a disappointing season; '08 was very strong. Derrick Mason is getting up there."
For the offensive line, center is weak, with the best of the bunch being 16-year pro Kevin Mawae. Guard is OK, but Evans and Mankins are restricted. Tackle is incredibly strong.
"Here's the problem, though," Caplan said about the tackles, where only the injury-prone Chad Clifton, who turns 34 in June, will be unrestricted among the top 10. "Chad Clifton's unrestricted, but Jammal Brown, I have him as the top guy and he's restricted. Willie Colon is restricted, Marcus McNeill's restricted, Jared Gaither's restricted, Alex Barron's restricted, Tyson Clabo's restricted. There are a lot of good players and it's very deep, but almost all of them are restricted."
On defense, tackle is the best position, with Caplan's top four players — Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, Ryan Pickett and Fred Robbins — all unrestricted. Of the top eight ends, only restricted Marcus Spears has less than eight years of experience. Five of the top six middle linebackers are restricted, led by Ryans. Outside linebacker — led by the restricted Dumervil and unrestricted Karlos Dansby — is deep with 4-3 and 3-4 players of various levels of experience. Safety, led by the Oshiomogho Atogwe and Antoine Bethea, is deep but the top six are restricted. Cornerback lacks depth, with the top player being unrestricted Dunta Robinson, who missed 12 games spanning the 2007 and 2008 seasons with a knee injury.
"The cap was $127-plus million, so now you don't have to worry about that," Caplan said, "but it's not going to be the great free agency that people and some of the players expect. That's not going to happen because of what teams have done over the past six to nine months. They're simply keeping their core players. The fringe players or the middle-level free agent, those guys are going come free, but who's really going to want to spend money on them?"