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Crash Course: Understanding free agency in 2010

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I’ll shoot you straight. This will be one of the most boring articles of mine you will ever read. It will not be creative. There will be little comedy and few parodies. There will, however, be critical information to understanding free agency in the National Football League and why 2010 is a pivotal year not only for free agents, but for the future of the NFL.

Some of the words being thrown around are scary, particularly the words "uncapped" and "lockout". Though we gather round the television on Sundays to watch grown men play a physical game, the NFL is still a business. The deadline to reach a Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the NFL is March 5. (You may have heard the NFLPA also referred to as the union or the players in other media, which is also correct. The NFL, the league and the owners are also synonymous.)

If an agreement is not reached by March 5, the most notable result is an uncapped year in 2010, which means there will be no cap or floor as to how much teams can pay players and personnel. This is the system Major League Baseball employs, which is why there is controversy over the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox buying up all the great talent and leaving teams like the Pirates and Reds left to battle mediocrity both on the field and at the ATM. More importantly, an uncapped year in 2010 will dramatically affect free agency and could change the direction of the NFL.

There are essentially two types of free agents: Restricted and unrestricted. In a capped league, unrestricted free agents are players who have completed at least four NFL seasons and whose contracts have expired. These players are free to sign with any team they agree to terms with. Restricted free agents are players whose contracts have expired, but have completed just three years or less of service. These players are free to entertain the market and accept offers, but the team they are contracted to has the option to match that offer and retain the player. If the player’s current team chooses not to match the offer, they may be rewarded draft choice compensation for the player depending on the size of the contract.

Confused yet? It continues.

In the event of an uncapped year, the four-year rule changes to a six-year rule, meaning that, to become an unrestricted free agent, a player must have an expiring contract and at least six years of NFL service. If there is no CBA reached by the March 5 deadline, the free agency status of 212 players would change from unrestricted to restricted, giving their current teams rights to match any contracts offered to them.

These players include, among many others, wide receivers Miles Austin, Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson, defensive end Elvis Dumervil and safety Antoine Bethea. All of whom are players that would address the Buccaneers’ offseason roster needs. Additionally, for Tampa Bay, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud, Maurice Stovall, Jeremy Trueblood and Cadillac Williams are among the players who would become restricted free agents, which could change the way the Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik look at both the draft and free agency.

The final year for the current labor deal between the NFL and the NFLPA is 2010. If no CBA is reached and 2010 is an uncapped year, it will likely lead to one of two scenarios: More uncapped years to come, or a lockout in 2011, which means the cancellation of NFL games and potentially an entire season.

March 5 is a date for football fans to keep their eye on. The business side of sports rarely finds its way to the headlines or to the forefront of general discussion. But when it does, it’s likely because decisions made between owners and players, particularly when dealing with salary cap issues and collective bargaining, have the potential to change the game as we know it. Which makes it our business.