Executive and coaches around the league genuinely weren't sure what to expect as free agency approached tonight at 11 p.m. Central.
Without an extension on the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the unrestricted free-agent pool has shrunk and more than 200 players that would have become unrestricted free agents are now restricted, meaning their current teams have the ability to received draft-pick compensation from any other team that offers them a contract that the original team declines to match. The rule is place to stop a mass exodus of player movement when teams aren't restricted by a salary cap, which goes away in 2010 if no extension to the CBA is reached before tonight's deadline – and the NFL and the players union are believed to be months away from really hammering out the issues.
So what does it all mean for the Vikings?
The new rules also prohibit the final four teams in the playoffs from signing an unrestricted free agent until they lose one of equal or greater value. Essentially that leaves the Vikings waiting for another team to sign one of their unrestricted free agents before they can follow suit by signing another unrestricted free agent.
Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman's reaction to a question about watching Brett Favre appear on Jay Leno tonight said it all about how active the Vikings are going to be early in free agency: "What are we going to do? We're not going to be active," he said.
That's because they can't be active until they lose one of their own players, and they would like to hold onto their own.
"I think all our guys are that are unrestricted free agents helped us win ballgames last year. I think everybody in the organization feels strongly about at least trying to get these guys back," Spielman said.
While they are talking with their unrestricted free agents, both the team and the players expect them to hit the market and test their value. Spielman and vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski met with the agents for the team's unrestricted free agents at the NFL Scouting Combine last week, but the only player to sign was WR Greg Lewis, who is believed to have signed a one-year deal near the league minimum, which is $755,000 for his experience.
Spielman called those Combine meetings a "first date."
"Sometimes you get into figures. Sometimes you talk about what the player is, where you feel he is, where the agent feels he is. Maybe the range they're looking for, where they think his market is. Maybe we can do that. Maybe we can't do that. Let's kind of regroup over the next week and put some figures together," he said. "It's the first time that we're actually getting the chance to sit there and speak. We do a lot of listening to the agents and then I'll regroup with Rob and kind of go through where, hey, potentially we could get this thing done and then we'll sit with Brad (Childress). And the Wilfs will get involved at that point."
The problem is that first date turns into a bachelor-like setting tonight when any other team can come wooing the unrestricted talent of the Vikings, which includes running back Chester Taylor, offensive lineman Artis Hicks, defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy and cornerback Benny Sapp.
"I don't know what other teams are going to do. No one knows what other teams are going to do," Spielman said. "I know what our situation is. I know what our restrictions are. That's basically where we're focused. It will be interesting to see, but who knows?"
While it may all sound negative for the team, there is one aspect of free agency to watch closely when it comes to the Vikings – the restricted market. The new rules of free agency and the CBA don't prohibit the Vikings from making a splash there, and they are closely watching how other players around the league get tendered.
Restricted free agents that are tendered an offer by their original team can talk to other teams, but if another team signs them to an offer sheet and the original team declines to match it, the new team would owe the old team draft-pick compensation in most cases.
There are different levels of draft compensation, starting with first- and third-round picks, a first-round pick, a second-round pick or a pick in the player's original draft round. There is also a level of tendering of that doesn't require draft-pick compensation, called the right of first refusal, and there could be a few players to watch in that category by the time all the tenders are released late this afternoon.
"Talking to the agents for our players, they don't know how it's going to work out," Browns general manager Tom Heckert said last week at the Combine. "Free agency is going to be completely different this year. Especially because we don't know what the future holds. It's going to be a little bit of a wait-and-see approach for everybody. I'm sure the 200 or so guys who would have been unrestricted free agents are going to be upset. That's just the way things go and there's nothing really we can do about it."
The Vikings had decided last week already how they were going to tender their restricted free agents, but they waited until this week to tell the players. One of the reasons for waiting is so they could try and gauge the interest for a long-term contract before offering the one-year tender. That didn't work out for their top restricted free agents, so most of their tenders were issued on Wednesday.
So were a lot of other ones around the league, and you can bet the Vikings are matching up their perceived value on those players and weighing it against the value they place on their draft picks. But the most important group to watch is the players who received the low tender of "right of first refusal." Since it won't require any compensation, it's a very viable option for the Vikings to pursue.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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