Uncapped year presents player pitfalls

For those who believe the potential for no salary cap in 2010 is a win all around for the players, think again. There are some benefits to the teams and big downsides for a select group of players, including several Vikings.

On DeMaurice Smith's first day on the job as the executive director of the NFL Players Association, he was already hoping to talk to the league's commissioner, Roger Goodell, about the potential labor strife.

"There isn't a day where I don't hope for peace. But at the same time, there isn't a day where we won't prepare for war," Smith said on a conference with reporters, according to the Associated Press. "So, as we move forward, I hope that our discussion with the owners is both early and fruitful. And it is my sincere hope that we can come to an agreement extremely quickly."

The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players union is set to expire in March 2011 and deadline for an extension to avoid an season without a salary cap is the day before free agency in 2010. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello pointed out that the last time the CBA needed to be extended, the start of free agency was delayed. That was in 2006.

"Last time, however, the start of the league year was extended by agreement with the union while we continued to negotiate and ultimately reached an agreement on an extension," he said.

But without an extension in place, the 2010 season is currently scheduled to be unrestricted by a salary cap for the league's teams.

On the surface, that might seem like a good thing for players, whose salaries have been rising along with the league's salary cap over the past decade. For 2009, the salary cap is set at $127 million for each club.

But with a salary cap comes a minimum amount of dollars that teams are required to spend on player salaries each year. The minimum team salary for 2009 is about $111 million, but next year there will be no minimum team salary if there is no extension to the collective bargaining agreement.

There would still be individual minimum salaries, and some larger market teams would likely spend well above a team salary cap that might push $130 million if an extension is reached. But many teams likely would spend far less without knowing the future structure of their labor agreement, especially with the current economic strife in the world.

Smith said it was important for players to have a CBA extension in place to avoid a potential lockout in 2011, but he also acknowledged that reaching labor peace would be a benefit that goes beyond the players and the league.

Another consequence of the end of the CBA drawing near is that a 30 percent rule has been put in effect, limiting annual player salary increases to 30 percent between 2009 and 2010. That was the issue that originally had 2009 free-agent center Jason Brown's contract disallowed by the league after he signed a deal with the St. Louis Rams. That has since been resolved, but it is believed to be the first known instance where a signed contract had violated that rule and therefore was rejected.

But perhaps one of the biggest player pitfalls to 2010 potentially becoming an uncapped year is a change in the rules regarding unrestricted free agents. In the past, including this year, players whose contracts expire and who have four or more accrued seasons in the league have been unrestricted free agents. If 2010 is the "final league year" (with a CBA in place), a player whose contract has expired becomes a free agent only if he has six or more accrued seasons. Any fewer seasons than that and he will be deemed a restricted free agent, where his current team would be allowed to match offers from other teams or receive compensation if they declined to offer.

"You have to prepare for both ways – if there is an extension that gets done and there is an uncapped year in 2010," said Rick Spielman, Vikings vice president of player personnel. "I think the biggest thing is if there is an uncapped year, it will be interesting to see what type of unrestricted free-agent market it is. Now guys will not be unrestricted until their sixth year, instead of their fourth year. Now you at least have the ability to keep those guys because they're restricted free agents. It's a lot harder for those guys to move than if they're out on the open market. I think potentially there could be a bunch of players looking for another bite of the apple."

For some perspective on the difference between restricted free agents signing with new teams compared to unrestricted free agents, look at the most current NFL data from this year's free agency. More than half (56 percent) of the unrestricted free agents who have signed new contracts have done so with a new team. As of Monday, 70 unrestricted free agents had signed with a new team while 56 re-signed with their old team. While the numbers for restricted free agents could change, no restricted free agent has signed with new team yet (there haven't been many offer sheets reported either), while four have re-signed with their old team, according to the NFL's most recently released data.

The increase in the number of accrued seasons – from four to six – that it will take for a player to reach unrestricted free agency will especially affect players from the 2006 draft who signed four-year contracts. Under past operating conditions, most players drafted from the second round on down in 2006 would have become free agents in 2010. Now, if no extension is reached, they will have to settle for the less appealing restricted free agency for the next two years.

For the Vikings, that group includes cornerback Cedric Griffin (second round), tackle Ryan Cook (second round), quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (second round) and defensive end Ray Edwards (fourth round). First-round pick Chad Greenway signed a five-year contract, which is standard for a 17th overall draft pick, so he isn't scheduled to become a free agent until 2011.

Other Vikings who could be adversely affected by not becoming an unrestricted free agent include defensive tackle Fred Evans, who was tendered a one-year deal as a restricted free agent; fullback Naufahu Tahi, who was also tendered a one-year deal; cornerback Charles Gordon, who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings and currently has three accrued seasons; and tight end Garrett Mills, who was drafted by the Patriots in 2006.

And then there is the hard-luck case of defensive end Kenechi Udeze. He was drafted in 2004 and he would have been scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this year if it weren't for needing to take a year off to battle leukemia. Udeze is trying to make a comeback this season, but because he was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list, he isn't credited for an accrued season in 2008, Aiello confirmed Monday. That would leave Udeze with only five accrued seasons after the 2009 season if he plays this year, which would leave him as a restricted free agent if there is no extension to the CBA.

Players may not be "winning" without a salary cap in place in 2010 due to other rules changes if the CBA isn't extended, and some players are likely to lose out more than others. Just ask most of the 2006 draft class and Udeze.

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