October 22, 2009

One byproduct of the looming labor showdown facing the NFL in the likely uncapped season of 2010 is the very real possibility that team general managers and contract negotiators will feel "a real sense of pressure coming down from the league on high'' to not have it result in a bonanza for next spring's free-agency class, a veteran club official told SI.com this week.

The veteran club official said he senses a growing league-wide mentality to encourage clubs to tread carefully in the uncapped year, with the clear understanding that profligate spending in free agency would only serve to work against the portrayal of the new and harsher financial realities the NFL hopes to convey to players union leadership during the pitched battle that will be the coming CBA negotiations.

"Something I've caught wind of lately is a real sense of pressure coming down from the league on high for teams not to go crazy next year, not only in the draft but in free agency,'' the veteran club official said. "To not be self-interested only, but to think about the league and the good of the league in an uncapped year. Don't go on a spending spree that won't help the league.

"I know for a fact that's been communicated to the teams, to try and keep things in line and not have a catastrophe for the league salary-wise.''

Does that add up to the potential for the players union to accuse the league's teams of collusion next year? For now, that judgment is probably in the eye of the beholder. While several NFL front office executives interviewed by SI.com acknowledge that a message of caution has been conveyed to teams in these uncertain financial times, none say they have been specifically instructed by the league to curb their spending next year. The league's general theme is to encourage teams to not let their salary rolls get out of control in an uncapped year, team officials said.

Another longtime club executive points out that there are "built-in governors'' in the 2010 uncapped season that will serve to limit the amount of money some teams can spend next year. For instance, the final eight playoff teams from 2009 will not be able to sign premium unrestricted free agents next spring unless they lose one of corresponding value. Also, with the trigger for unrestricted free agency being pushed from four to six years of league service in the uncapped year, it removes about 200 of the best potential free agents from the market place. Not surprisingly, next year's projected free-agent crop is considered one of the weakest in years.

"In the CBA, the system was actually set up to prevent a wide-scale spending spree in the uncapped year,'' one veteran club executive said. "It was done on purpose to get both sides back to the table and motivated to reach a new agreement.''

Whether it's an implied message or a direct message from the NFL to its 32 clubs, the tone within the league, club executives say, is to be cautious in terms of spending, given the amount of uncertainty that surrounds 2010 and the potential of a league work stoppage in 2011 -- which would be the NFL's most pressing labor crisis since 1987.

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