Assuming momentum continues to build and a new labor deal is agreed upon at some point this summer, the National Football League will launch its new league year by enabling a large group of veteran players to negotiate contracts with teams of their choice.
The formal term to describe this concept is free agency, which was only adopted by the NFL 19 years ago and has become increasingly fun to observe in recent offseasons. This year, though, free agency is expected to be completely unique from the 18 periods that preceded it. (Then again, this entire offseason has been unique, so that shouldn’t be a surprise.)
What makes this year especially intriguing is the mystery that has surrounded it. Historically, a player simply had to have four years of experience (and, of course, an expired contract) to become an unrestricted free agent. But because of the precarious labor situation, the rules changed in 2010. Last year, only players with at least six years of experience were free to move about the country.
It was anybody’s guess as to what a new labor deal would mean for players who had accrued four or five years in the league. Would they re-install the old rules, tweak those rules or stick to the altered 2010 rules?
Good news, football fans. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the the rough copy of a new collective bargaining agreement calls for the unrestricted free agent threshold to move back to four years of experience.
That dramatically deepens what was considered to be one of the shallowest free agent pools we’ve ever had.
If indeed only four years need to be accrued for a player to become an unrestricted free agent, here’s a look at the top 10 players who will become available upon the launch of the new league year. Our No. 1 guy would be a free agent either way. The next nine players on the list would’ve been restricted.
1. Nnamdi Asomgha (CB, Raiders) — He’s the best corner in the game.
2. Carl Nicks (G, Saints)* — He’s the best guard in the game.
3. Santonio Holmes (WR, Jets)* — He isn’t the best receiver in the game, but if he can stay out of trouble, he’s only going to get better.
4. Charles Johnson (DE, Panthers)* — With 11.5 sacks, Johnson was probably more effective than Julius Peppers in 2010.
5. Eric Weddle (S, Chargers)* — I have no idea why the Chargers might let the Pro Bowler walk.
6. Ahmad Bradshaw (RB, Giants)* — Dude had 1,549 rushing/receiving yards in only 11 starts last year. Very underrated.
7. DeAngelo Williams (RB, Panthers)* — He’s probably the biggest name on the list, but his injury history could be an issue.
8. Zach Miller (TE, Raiders)* — He’s been the most reliable cog in Oakland’s offense for three years running.
9. Johnathan Joseph (CB, Bengals)* — He’s a top-10 corner, but for some reason everyone’s talking about Ike Taylor, not him.
10. Brandon Mebane (DT, Seahawks)* — His ceiling’s a lot higher than the Seahawks seem to think it is. Same goes for Aubrayo Franklin in San Francisco.
* Wouldn’t have been a free agent under 2010 rules
And there are a couple ancillary factors that could make things significantly more entertaining when free agency gets underway.
First, teams will reportedly be forced to spend like never before. The new deal is expected to include a spending floor that is very close to the cap (90 percent is the popular prediction). If that’s the case, small-market teams with low payrolls will have a lot of money to spend.
And they’ll have to spend it in a short amount of time. There’s also a belief that the new league year won’t start until mid-July, which would give teams only a week or two to get free agents signed in time for training camp. This year, there likely won’t be two or three separate waves of free agent signings. Instead, expect a free-for-all, with some teams — like the Buccaneers, Jaguars, Bengals, Chiefs and Bills — obligated to spend upwards of $40 million in that short window.
Let the frenzy begin.