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.
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. There may be a flurry of trades among some teams, although it is uncertain whether that will ultimately materialize.
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:
1 Overall salary costs are expected to decrease. Sure, there will be megabucks deals to be struck by the top free agents, including Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby and Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson. But this year's unrestricted free-agent class is considered one of the weakest in recent memory, with only a handful of elite players on the market. Many teams have indicated that they will operate as if there is still a salary cap in place, lest they push their overall salary structure out of whack.
Remember, too, that with no salary cap, there is also no salary floor. In years where there is a salary cap that teams cannot exceed, there is also a salary minimum the teams must meet. With no salary floor, many smaller-market teams such as the Bengals, Bills and Jaguars do not figure to be heavy players in free agency and should see their payrolls decrease.
2 Restricted free agency will further curtail movement. Under a salary-cap system, players who have at least four years' experience are eligible for unrestricted free agency once their contracts expire. However, in an uncapped year, the minimum goes up to six years. Thus, several high-profile players are caught under the added restrictions, including receiver Braylon Edwards and running back Leon Washington of the Jets, defensive end Elvis Dumervil and receiver Brandon Marshall of the Broncos and linebacker DeMeco Ryans of the Texans. That means you'll see far less movement among those players, many of whom will not receive long-term contract extensions from their respective teams but will be forced to play on a one-year contract tender.
3 The Final 8 plan will limit some teams' options, and thus limit player movement even more. Another element of the uncapped year is that teams that reached the divisional round of the playoffs - the final eight teams remaining in the tournament - will be severely restricted in terms of signing free agents. In essence, they have to wait for their own unrestricted free agents to sign with other clubs before being allowed to sign other unrestricted free agents. The rule does not apply to players released by other clubs.
4 An increase in holdouts, especially among restricted free agents. One general manager suggested there could be a mini-strike by players in training camp among restricted free agents. Because many of those players would have been eligible for long-term deals on the open market but are restricted under the current system, several might decide to boycott training camp or perhaps minicamp and other offseason programs as a protest. I'm told that owners are prepared to hold the line on these players, even if it means going into the season without them. If the players do not report in time for the first game, they do not get paid for each game they miss.
5 Owners are in no rush to forge a CBA extension. Despite recent bargaining sessions with the NFLPA, owners are prepared to go into the uncapped year with few reservations about not extending the deal. Owners also seem prepared to move forward with a 2011 lockout to force a deal that will see more moderation in player costs than in recent seasons. Owners believe they have tremendous leverage over the players.