The Future of the NFL: What Will An Uncapped Year Look Like?

When the clock strikes midnight on March 5, the NFL will enter a new era. As most fans are aware, the 2010 season will be “uncapped” if a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached between the owners and the players association. By all accounts, the hope that an agreement could be reached in time has long passed. So what does this mean for the NFL?

Its a complicated scenario, but we’ll do our best to break it down into a few simple points:

1. There will be no salary cap
The most simple result of not having a new CBA in place is the termination of the NFL’s salary cap. This past season the cap was $128M. The fact that a cap has been in place has held the elite player’s salaries in check, unlike in baseball which essentially uses an uncapped system. The cap has also contributed to parity within the league, allowing teams like the Packers to compete on a level playing field with the Giants and Jets. Without a cap, owners with deep pockets such as Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder could, in theory, simply buy a Super Bowl contender.

An underrated aspect of the uncapped year, however, is the fact that the salary floor will also be eliminated. The current floor ($112.1M) ensures that every team is at least trying to put a quality product on the field. In an uncapped year, especially given the state of the economy, teams that are struggling financially can cut costs without any consequences. In essence, we run the risk of seeing certain teams become the Royals and Pirates of the NFL.

This won’t just hurt the fans, however. The players will won’t necessarily see a dramatic increase in salaries because there won’t be a competitive market for their services. As teams cut costs, they’ll begin to drop out of the free agent market, limiting the number teams each player can reasonably negotiate with. The elite players can force one or two teams to get into a bidding war, but it won’t impact your average players.

2. Players must wait until they have 6 years of experience to become unrestricted free agents
Under the current CBA, players only need three years of service before they are eligible to become unrestricted free agents. Take Braylon Edwards for example. His contract expires this season and he would have become an unrestricted free agent since he has been in the league for five seasons. However, if no agreement is reached Edwards will only be a restricted free agent. This will essentially force him to sign a one-year contract with the Jets before hitting the open market in 2011. In 2009, not a single restricted free agent signed with a new team – so don’t expect much turnover this offseason.

3. The “Final Eight” Plan
This is perhaps the most confusing aspect of the uncapped year. For a full explanation, flip to page 77 in the NFL’s CBA.

Essentially this means the final eight teams (those that advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs) can’t sign any free agents. They are allowed to replace departed players, but only at a comparable rate at which they were playing the departed player. There are numerous other complicated requirements which must also be met, but the result is that it will be extremely difficult for any of the “final eight” teams to improve through free agency this offseason.

4. Rookies will hold out at a record rate
The new CBA will include a rookie wage scale – something that both the owners and veteran players are pushing for. This means that the players in this year’s draft will be the last rookies to receiver ridiculous contracts. As a result, the teams owning high picks won’t want to shell out big money. They’ll take the approach of “be happy with what we’re offering ’cause you wouldn’t see half this next year.” Players, meanwhile, will be negotiating off of last year’s 1st-round contracts as they have for years.

Obviously teams want their players in camp early, but the power ultimately lies with the teams in this situation. Even if players hold out, they’ll eventually sign for less money because the alternative would be to sit out the entire season and re-enter the draft in 2011 when a wage scale will only further reduce their salary. Knowing this, teams will feel as though they have the ability to force players into contracts that don’t match up with last year’s values. It could create a messy situation and multiple Michael Crabtree-like holdouts.

5. Enjoy the 2010 season, because their may not be one in 2011
Despite the mess that may be the 2010 NFL season, you better enjoy it while it lasts. There remains a high likelihood of a lockout in March 2010. That said, no one wants to miss out on an entire season -  the owners or the players.

The power here lies with the owners. They have the ability to drastically cut costs in the uncapped year due to the lack of a salary floor, essentially saving up for the potential lockout. The majority of NFL players don’t have that luxury. Sure, they’re earning millions of dollars, but the average player is out of football before they turn 30. They have a precious few years to earn their money and missing out on a full season would be devastating.

Posted on by Ryan McCrystal in Free Agency 3 Comments

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Ryan McCrystal

Ryan launched DraftAce in 2004. His Top 100 board is currently ranked 1st out of 20 publications in The Huddle Report's five-year averages. His mock draft is ranked 10th out of 32 competitors.You can also find Ryan's weekly Heisman Predictor series on ESPN Insider every fall.