What to expect in an uncapped year
By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst

(Feb. 10, 2006) -- There is a chance that 2007 will be an uncapped year if the collective bargaining agreement doesn't get extended. The closer we get to the start of this year's free agency, the more we will hear about an uncapped season in 2007 and the ramifications of such a situation. So I thought it might be a good idea to let the readers know what an uncapped year means, since the term is getting mentioned in the media on a daily basis.
  1. If 2007 is uncapped, then qualifying free agents can be paid as much as can be negotiated. This sounds great for the players, but who are the qualifying free agents?
  2. The rules to become a free agent change in an uncapped year. To become free, a player will need six years of service instead of four years and his contract has to be expired.
  3. A player with five years of experience who under capped season rules would have been free, will now be a restricted free agent if the club decides to designate him as restricted. Quality players with five years of service will be restricted and not many teams will be willing to surrender high draft picks for them. A player waiting for his big 'free agency' contract with a nice fat signing bonus will probably play for a one-year salary with no signing bonus and risk a career ending injury.
  4. The same rules apply to players with four years of service to those players with five years as mentioned in point No. 3. The group of potential free agents will be significantly reduced in 2007 because of the loss of four- and five-year players. The best players from the 2002 and 2003 draft classes will not be moving around too much in 2007.
  5. If that isn't bad enough for the players hoping to hit the market, each club will also get an additional 'transition tag' to protect an older veteran. As long as the club offers a player in this category a one-year contract for the average of the top 10 players at his position, the franchise retains his rights unless another club wants to give significant draft compensation. Figure the top 32 veterans (one per club) who was supposed to hit free agency will now be tagged.
Just from points Nos. 3, 4, and 5, there should be very few quality free agents in 2007 if it is uncapped. My best guess is that 70 percent of the players who warrant big contracts because of their 2006 production and their age will be off the open market.

Ahman Green's value is on the decline because of his age and injuries. Need a running back? Willing to pay? This might be a very good year to get one. Or maybe, just maybe, with upwards of four draft picks getting first-round grades, the potential free-agent backs are going to have trouble getting the big bucks. We are entering an era in NFL personnel matters where securing a running back close to his 30th birthday is not fashionable. The teams in need of a 'bell cow back' can look at Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, Jamal Lewis, Ahman Green and even consider a call to the Dolphins about Ricky Williams, before they evaluate Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Laurence Maroney or DeAngelo Williams, which means the veteran running backs free this year are in "no man's land" as it relates to their value.
The 'trend' in the NFL is not to get deeply involved financially with a veteran running back for what he has done in the past by paying him for the future. Until a running back like James goes elsewhere and has a 1,500-yard season while his former team struggles, it's not going to change for the ball carriers. Right now, the clubs are in the driver's seat with the guys who carry the ball. When Alexander says he wants a fair deal to stay in Seattle, that sounds great, but who knows what a fair deal is anymore for a running back of Alexander's stature. I asked three personnel men who acquire talent for a living and they struggled with his value in this market.

In years, past pro personnel departments spent the whole offseason grading the NFL players whose contracts were expiring at the end of the season. Today, the bigger focus is on the players who have contracts that must be terminated in order to get the team under the 2006 salary cap.
The 2006 salary cap should be $93 million, so pro personnel directors around the league look at all the teams projected to be over that figure to decide which quality players have to be released. There are eight teams projected to be over the $100-million-cap figure this season -- Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, New York Jets, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Washington -- so that is a good place to start. Pittsburgh is close at $96.5 million, but Jerome Bettis is on the books for a $5.3 million salary in 2006 and his career is over. So they will be under the cap when the business season starts in March. The Falcons have less wiggle room so they have to renegotiate a few players' contracts to get under the $93 million figure. Denver has the three former Browns -- Ebenezer Ekuban, Courtney Brown, and Gerard Warren -- on the books for $11 million in salaries, so they have some room to massage the cap. Will Shields might retire in Kansas City and free up $5 million, but if he decides to play the team has work to do. The Jets can dump a few older veterans and be clear of the cap restrictions. And so it goes in the 'football business' season. Trust me, teams with lots of cap space like Cleveland, Arizona, and Green Bay are prepared to take advantage of their cap space to acquire some veteran players.

After 14 seasons, the Steelers were rewarded for sticking with Bill Cowher. Last year, the top three teams in the draft -- San Francisco, Miami and Cleveland -- all had new coaches because of the won-loss record from the 2004 season. This year, five of the top six teams drafting have new coaches -- Tennessee kept Jeff Fisher while the others decided to start fresh -- and eight of the top 11 drafting have a new head coach. Firing your coach and replacing him with an inexperienced guy is no guarantee. The success of the Steelers and Seahawks didn't rub off on the owners who believe a new coach is the answer. Once again, I remind everyone that one of the greatest strengths a team can have is stability at the head coach position. Just because the head coach doesn't count in the salary cap, doesn't mean he should be shown the door when a team has a losing season or two.
Baltimore could have created a reason to release Brian Billick, but decided against it. While Green Bay and St. Louis went in a new direction even though their coaches had success in the recent past. The foundation developed by sticking with a coach will pay dividends down the road. Tennessee admitted it is in cap jail and that the head coach should go out on the field and do the best he can with the young talent he has to work with. There is no one better suited to win in Tennessee than Fisher. Lesson 1 from the Super Bowl is, don't count a team out if it keeps its coach through the bad times. I wonder if the Titans get well before those other eight teams picking at the top of the draft?