In a normal year, as we crept within a couple weeks of the NFL's free agency period, we could pretty much anticipate who would be dubbed the winners and losers based on the amount of salary cap maneuverability each team had, and whether or not the players who were expected to reach the market fit the needs (or desires) of the teams with the money to spend.
But of course, there's nothing normal about this year's let's-make-a-deal portion of the offseason. Thanks to the near certainty of the league's first uncapped season since 1993, free agency this year could be an exercise in uncertainty. No one's quite sure what is to come on the league's labor front in 2011, and the team executives and agents I spoke with this week say they'll be feeling their way once free agency opens on March 5. In the NFL's annual personnel shopping spree, the new rules and new realities will likely result in a new way of doing business.
That consensus is logical, given the increased restraints that serve to limit the mobility of this year's free-agent crop: Free agency will be a windfall for fewer players than ever before, and most teams will take a cautious, conservative approach, making selected, economical forays into the market.
There well may be a screaming headline deal or two early on (think Julius Peppers, Karlos Dansby and maybe Dunta Robinson), but overall there won't be a lot of heat and light generated by this year's signings. If anything, the trade market might receive a boost from the depth of talent available in the restricted free agent class, as teams attempt to cherry pick other clubs' rosters for solid third, fourth or fifth-year players who might be undervalued in terms of their free-agent tenders (who's the next Wes Welker?). Instead of matched or unmatched offer sheets, league sources expect a decent amount of trades to ensue in the restricted market.
"No one has ever been through this kind of free agency system, but I think when the dust settles, you'll see that a lot less money flowed out in free agency than in other years,'' said one veteran players agent who boasts more than two decades of experience. "I think free agency is going to work for less than 50 players this year, whereas maybe it was 100 players or so in years past. And I think that means you're going to only have 12 to 15 guys who are going to get good deals in the open market. That's it. The rest of the premier players will get tagged.
"A lot of teams won't do much because of the uncertainty of what's to come in 2011. A lot of teams are going to be cautious. Not knowing what the rules will be in the future, they won't want to commit to anything this year. The vibes I'm getting from everyone is that when we sit down and calculate how much money is spent on free agency this year, it'll be a lot less than it was last year. I'm sure of that.''
In reality, teams have been much more adept in recent years at protecting their own most valuable free agents, and being selective about their free-agent buys. Also, teams have significantly more tools at their disposal this year to limit personnel losses, with the uncapped year raising the bar for unrestricted free agency from four to six years of service, giving each team an additional transition-player tag to use, and saddling the final eight teams in last season's playoffs with restrictions regarding whom they can sign.
Add it all up, and uncapped free agency will be far from the wild bonanza of spending that was once envisioned by former NFL Players Association executive director Eugene Upshaw, who long preached that team owners would never want to face an environment where everyone was a potential Daniel Snyder in the marketplace. That scenario simply failed to materialize, and most clubs are bracing for the unknown next year, rather than seeking to take advantage of this year's lack of spending limits.
"It's hard to see there being a spending spree in this market, because teams are nervous, and owners are nervous about the uncertainty of next year,'' a veteran club personnel man said. "I think it's going to be kind of dull in free agency, because most teams are going to be very cautious. Even though there is no cap, most teams will operate like they have one. They'll have some sort of cap internally. Maybe I'm being naïve, but it's hard to see teams spending big this year.''
Some league sources I talked to believe Carolina defensive end Peppers is the only player who could approach the trumped-up $100 million market-topping jackpot that ex-Titans defensive end Albert Haynesworth received from Washington early in last year's free agency. Others scoff at the idea that anyone will approach a nine-figure contract in this year's fiscally conservative environment.
Most say the best of the available players will get paid well, but in many cases that will be by their own teams, such as the Colts extending themselves to retain middle linebacker Gary Brackett and the Saints ensuring that safety Darren Sharper returns to once again man centerfield in the Superdome next season. Between now and Feb. 25, we'll get to find out who teams have tagged with their franchise or transition designations, which effectively could take players such as Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson, Oakland defensive lineman Richard Seymour, New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, and Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton off the market.
Some team will show some love for a still-young veteran like Arizona linebacker Dansby, 28. Reliable veterans such as Vikings running back Chester Taylor and Houston receiver Kevin Walter could get a decent amount of interest on the open market. But sources say this year's market definitely won't include Monopoly money deals for veteran players with well-known character or health issues, such as Joey Porter, Terrell Owens and Antonio Pierce.
"History is your best predictor, and the eagerness to win by some owners is always going to manifest itself," a veteran club general manager told me. "But guys with issues, it's a little bit of buyer beware this year. If you're going to spend some money this year, you better spend it only on quality. Even though there's not a ton of it out there, some guys are going to get pushed up to the top of the food chain by the relative lack of depth in this market.''
As much as free agency has historically served to stoke the competitive instincts of teams owners who want to buy a championship team and win now, the undercurrent of the NFL's desire to display a united front to the players union as CBA negotiations loom could affect how aggressively teams spend this year. The league obviously wants to stay on message in terms of convincing the union that its financial concerns are serious and must be dealt with. That case would grow considerably harder to make if free agency 2010 turned into an orgy of check-writing.
"The owners didn't like this (CBA) deal and they voted unanimously to get out of it,'' another NFL general manager said. "So I can't see them wanting to turn around and reward the players union for the system they're hoping to get changed. That's why this year could be different.''
The swelled ranks of the restricted free agent market, buoyed by the more than 200 players who would qualify as unrestricted if a new CBA were reached before March 5, might be the most intriguing facet of this year's unique free agency period. There are two schools of thought regarding the restricted market:
-- One is that with the depth and strength of the 2010 draft, thought to be the best in several years, teams will be more reluctant than ever to surrender draft picks in exchange for signing restricted free agents to offer sheets. Teams are generally expected to "over-tender'' their restricteds this year, with the highest tender bringing a first and third-round pick in compensation for the team that loses a restricted free agent. According to one NFL general manager, that means "95 percent'' of the restricted free agents will essentially be "out of the pool'' of available players.
-- But secondly, some teams are viewing the restricted market as one of rare opportunity, and intend to shop for players who might carry an affordable tender in terms of draft compensation, reasoning that those players would be upgrades in comparison to what they could expect to get in the corresponding round of this year's draft. Ironically, the final eight teams from last season might be more inclined to shop in the restricted market, given that their draft picks are arguably of less value coming toward the bottom of each round.
As one veteran personnel man told me: "Teams will be hesitant to give up picks in this draft. There's some real value in this draft, so teams want as many picks this year as they can get. But I think there will be some action in the restricted market, with people looking for bargains. If a guy is tendered in the fourth round, and he's better than what you can get in the fourth round, teams are going to go after that player.
"We've got some restricted guys that we frankly hope some teams come after, just to get the draft picks. If someone says they're interested, we'll say you can have them, and you don't even have to overpay. We'll work out a trade then.''
More than one club executive told me he expected the trade market to be more active than ever next month, because with unrestricted and restricted free agency expected to be so limited this year, only the draft and trades remain as ways to upgrade rosters.
"It may be a situation where there are more trades, because if a club tendered a lot of guys, but now someone comes after one of them, maybe they're willing to be flexible and work with you on a trade,'' another veteran NFL general manager said. "Just because his tender is a (first) and a (third)-round pick, maybe they're willing to take less than that and be creative, and now you've got a deal. I think there's going to be a lot of that type of dialogue because of the circumstances this year.''
Besides the fourth-year veterans who are now restricted rather than unrestricted, the biggest losers in this year's free-agent market will be the veteran players seeking the third or fourth contracts of their careers, one NFL club executive said. Much like in baseball in recent years, those players may either choose or be forced to accept one-year deals, with an eye on testing their free-agent value again next year -- in what is hopefully less of an unknown market.
"The most disappointed guys will be the players who were due to earn large salaries this year, but get cut,'' the club executive said. "That group isn't going to be happy. Antonio Pierce, Joey Porter, I don't know how much money will be available for that type of player. What will be fascinating will be the mindset of the guys who don't get signed in the first wave. What will they do?
"I'm curious whether they choose to take a one-year deal and then try to hit the market again next year in a more stable environment? If a player get an offer of a two-year, $5 million deal, will they rather sign for $1 million for one year, and then be out there again next year in 2011? They may be a bargain this season and then just try to view it as an aberration market.''
An aberration market sounds about right to me. NFL free agency should be fascinating in its own way this year, if only because nobody really knows what to expect. To be sure, there will still be winners and losers. But the smart money says we'll see far more of the latter than usual, and significantly fewer of the former.