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2011 could be the best free agent class ever, or the worst

Before 2010, free agency was easily defined. A player needed 4 years of accrued seasons to be an unrestricted free agent, and 3 years of accrued season meant a player would be a restricted free agent. Players were almost always unrestricted free agents after the end of their first contract, and were allowed to test the market frequently. But in 2010, this changed. Suddenly you needed 6 seasons of accrued service to be an unrestricted free agent. Most restricted free agents worth a dime were tendered offers that gave the teams the right to compensation in the form of draft picks if the players were signed by another club. As a result there was only one restricted free agent who switched teams in free agency: RB Mike Bell, who was tendered a contract that didn't require the signing team to give up draft picks. Obviously this free agency class was severely diluted, but it still featured some stars.

Julius Peppers was the best player in the class, was signed to a $91.5 million contract with $42 million guaranteed over the first three years. He had a dominant year with the Bears, and justified his price tag. Dunta Robinson was the other big signing, and the Falcons paid big money for the solid but unspectacular cornerback. Other unrestricted free agents include Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Aaron Kampman. Obviously there was some real talent in that class, but a lot of very good players missed out because of the rules. Davin Joseph, Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill, Brandon Marshall and Ray Edwards are just some of the stars that missed out on a big payday last season, and only a few of them ended up with a new contract. But all those talented players could wind up being unrestricted free agents this year, along with any of the players who were credited with their fourth accrued season last season. 

If that scenario were to play out, this year's free agent class would probably be the highest-quality class ever. Signing quality free agents would be relatively cheap because the competition would drive prices down, and even the Bucs could sign a few players under those circumstances. But for that to happen the labor situation has to be resolved, and it has to be resolved in a particular way. A new CBA is likely necessary for the old free agency rules to return, and no one knows if that CBA will ever be agreed upon. if the NFL is forced to open its doors, it could decide to play under the 2010 rules and if that happens, this potentially great free agent class will be decimated.

Instead of choosing from the likes of Ray Edwards, Johnathan Joseph, Antonio Cromartie, Deangelo Williams, Ahmad Bradshaw, Sidney Rice, Cullen Jenkins, Charles Johnson, Tamba Haley, Lamarr Woodley and Brent Grimes, the class would be headlined by Nnamdi Asomugha, Aubrayo Franklin, Anthony Hargrove, Thomas Davis and Darren Sproles. That's hardly an inspiring list of names, and many teams would find it hard to fill their needs if this were to happen. 

But for the Bucs, these rules wouldn't be a bad thing. They could keep Davin Joseph for another year without offering him a huge contract. Quincy Black and Adam Hayward would remain on the team, as would Jeremy Trueblood. Barrett Ruud and Cadillac Williams would still be unrestricted free agents, but they're the only players the Bucs would have to lose or offer a new contract. But the Bucs would also be unable to add a quality cornerback unless they went for the best free agent on the market. And they may need one with Aqib Talib's legal problems.