The last time NFL free agency opened without a salary cap, the biggest financial bonanza in the league's history unfolded in a matter of weeks.

Led by Reggie White's free-agent deal with the Packers, a $17-million contract that dwarfed any previous deal for a defensive player, players racked up so much money in new contracts that an automatic trigger for a salary cap was reached for the following season.

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This was 1993, the first year of the NFL's current collective-bargaining agreement. It was a watershed season for players, who finally had won the right to enjoy unrestricted free agency, and they quickly took advantage of the money available. And even when the salary cap kicked in the following year, contracts continued to escalate; the 1994 salary cap was $34.6 million per team, and climbed to a whopping $123 million last season, a nearly fourfold increase in only 16 seasons. It's not uncommon now to see the league's top players sign contracts in excess of $100 million.

But as free agency unfolds beginning at midnight, it is a far more sobering scenario that awaits players.

While there will be a handful of stars who figure to strike it rich on the open market, the restrictions brought about by the failure of the league and the NFL Players Association to extend the collective-bargaining agreement will place an overall downward pressure on salaries.

After discussions with players, general managers, owners, coaches, union representatives and player agents, a clearer picture has emerged of what awaits the NFL in its most uncertain period in nearly two decades of labor peace. My column from today's paper details the rest.