As everyone knows, the NFL is on the edge of a likely labour struggle with the players’ union. In 2009, the league exercised its right to terminate the CBA two years early. This meant that the upcoming 2010 season would be played without a salary cap. For those worried that your beloved Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns or other small-market teams would not be able to spend with the Dallas Cowboys or perennial playoff teams like the Indianapolis Colts, your fears have been addressed because the CBA put in place stricter free agency rules for an uncapped year to make sure that the more successful teams wouldn’t run amok with player spending.
Article XXI of the CBA, dubbed the “Final Eight” Plan sets out restrictions on free agent spending in 2010 for the best eight clubs from 2009, by order of playoff finish.
The top four teams who made it to the NFC and AFC Championship Games last year, (Saints, Colts, Vikings and Jets) are not allowed to negotiate or sign a contract with an unrestricted free agent (UFA) in 2010.* There are three exceptions:
1) They can sign any UFA that they picked up on waivers.
2) They can sign any UFA who was on their roster at the end of the last season of the player’s last contract.
3) They can sign one UFA for every UFA who was under contract with them at the end of the 2009 season and signed with a new team. To be eligible, the old player cannot be cut, his contract must expire. However, the new player’s first year salary cannot be more than the old player’s first year salary. The team and the player are not allowed to renegotiate to increase the player’s salary under the contract for one year after it is signed.
* An unrestricted free agent is a player whose contract has expired and is free to negotiate and sign a contract with any team. To qualify as an unrestricted free agent in a capped year the player must have four or more years of experience at the end of his contract. BUT in an uncapped year, a player is not an unrestricted free agent unless he has six or more years of experience at the end of his contract. This means that in an uncapped year there will be less unrestricted free agents available for teams to sign.
The four teams who lost in the divisional playoffs (Ravens, Chargers, Cardinals, Cowboys) are subject to the same restrictions and exceptions as above, but have additional exceptions. These teams may sign one UFA to a contract that has a first year salary of $5,807,475 or more. They may also sign any number of UFAs to contracts that have a first year salary of $3,861,823 or less and annual increases in future years of no more than 30% of the first year.
Not only are these eight teams limited in the unrestricted free agents they can sign, but they are limited in the trades they can make. These teams are not allowed to trade for any unrestricted free agents that they would otherwise be unable to sign. This means that a second team cannot sign an unrestricted free agent for them and then trade him to that team to get around the rules.
Let’s take a look at an example: the New York Jets. They made a big splash in the offseason and acquired several veterans for a Super Bowl run, despite being subject to these stricter free agency rules. How did they do it?
The Jets made six key acquisitions: LaDainian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, Jason Taylor, Mark Brunell, and special teamer Lance Laury.
Tomlinson had been cut previously by the Chargers so the Jets could sign him because he was not an unrestricted free agent under the rules as his contract did not expire. Holmes and Cromartie were both acquired via trade. If they had been UFAs, the Jets would have had to lose two UFAs to other teams to acquire them. However, both only have four years of experience, so they were not eligible to be UFAs and the Jets could freely trade for them.
This leaves Taylor, Brunell, and Laury. All three were UFAs, meaning that the Jets had to lose three UFAs off their roster to sign them, and they did. The Jets lost kicker Jay Feely, long snapper James Dearth and defensive end Marques Douglas.
Have these new rules worked? At the outset it does look like the Jets beefed their team up with free agents and a couple solid young players despite the stricter free agency rules. However, a closer look reveals that the Jets only added a special teamer, three veterans on the downside of their career and two players by trade that any team had the opportunity to acquire. They didn’t throw tens of millions around for a stud player in the absolute prime of his career or for a couple of five-time Pro-Bowlers, which would be a concern in a year with no salary cap. In this sense the “Final Eight” Plan has been a success as it has kept teams like the Jets from opening the vault for star players but has allowed them to supplement their team with veteran free agents who could help take them to the top come February.