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Free agency is changing, and NFL players aren't happy about it

For years, players who had logged four or five years of experience by the time their contracts expired were allowed to offer their services on the open market, absent a franchise or transition tag. That'll no longer be the case if the NFL Players Association and the league fail to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement by March 5. Word is the sides aren't even close.

So instead of, say, Chargers wideout Vincent Jackson offering his services to the highest bidder after five mostly productive seasons in San Diego (1,067 yards in 2008; 1,167 in 2009), he and others are out of luck until they have six years of service -- thanks to the most recent CBA as it was negotiated in 2006.

Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards is so upset, he went so far as to criticize Roger Goodell after learning the NFL commissioner made $9.759 million in 2008.

"I don't see him out there getting hit or nothing like that," Edwards told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "The commissioner makes $9 million, so you tell me where the balance is? He doesn't put his life on the line, he pushes a pen.

"It's frustrating because we play this game to take care of our family and we eventually are at the team's mercy of what they are going to do with us.

"That's what we fought for with the whole Reggie White thing [a lawsuit in 1992], was to have free agency and this is not free agency if you sign for four years but you've got to serve two more. That's not free agency."

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The elephant in the room for these players is not that they have to prove themselves for yet another year, although that's part of it. The far bigger concern is that they have to stay healthy for an additional season, which is no small task. Just ask Leon Washington and Owen Daniels.

Washington and Daniels sat out of most offseason programs a year ago in hopes of landing a new contract before their fourth seasons with the Jets and Texans, respectively. Both were mid-round draft choices in 2006 -- Daniels 98th, Washington 117th. Both became stars and clearly had outplayed their rookie contracts. But neither got a new deal before the 2009 season, so they had to play another year without the security they desired. And both suffered serious season-ending injuries -- Washington broke his leg in Week 7 while Daniels tore his ACL one week later. The end result is likely the same: Neither player will ever receive the type of contract he hoped for. Sure, both could still bounce back, have good seasons and get a nice long-term contract at some point. But even then they will still be viewed as damaged goods to some extent.

The risk of physical injury will hang over the heads of the 200 or so players who will likely play under one-year tender offers this season. You can bet a decent percentage of that group will suffer the type of injury that has the potential to change their lives dramatically. And not in a good way.

These guys have seen other players cash in for several years now, and it is supposed to be their turn. But it isn't. These guys were holding winning lottery tickets, and while they were standing in line watching the people in front of them cash in theirs, the cashier put up a sign saying no more tickets would be accepted. Better luck next year.

That's why more and more players will begin to speak out over the next couple of weeks. Right now a lot of them are still holding out hope that their franchises will offer lucrative contract extensions that will give them the type of financial security they believe they deserve. Unlikely.

Over the next couple of weeks, restricted tenders ranging from $1.1-3.3 million (based on years of service) will start being placed. When that happens, the NFL Players Association is going to have a whole lot of unhappy constituents on hand.