The slumping economy and augmented salary-cap rules forced by a potential uncapped year in 2010 could have an impact on the 2009 free-agency period. Players that hoped to land big deals in free agency might have to settle for significantly less money as owners this offseason have a need to be more thrifty.
Free agency begins at 12:01 ET Friday morning, and some players, like Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, figure to strike it rich. The top-tier difference-makers typically do, as they are viewed as sound investments that can generate short- and long-term dividends.
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However, there are teams that don't have the cap space, won't use their cap space, or have opted to dedicate much of their available funds to pay their own players, either by reaching long-term deals or applying the franchise tag on them to restrict their free-market appeal and options.
New England quarterback Matt Cassel ($14.6 million), Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers ($16.7 million), Tampa Bay wide receiver Antonio Bryant ($9.88 million), San Diego running back Darren Sproles ($6.6 million), and Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs ($10.2 million) are all guaranteed those huge one-year sums by signing their franchise tenders.
However, the pool of teams willing to pay the big bucks is limited, even though many teams will have in excess of $15 million to spend under the $123 million salary cap.
"Belt tightening will definitely be a concern," said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who added that Atlanta won't be a big spender in free agency, even though it has close to $20 million in cap space. "People have to approach the economy with caution. It's not like we're driven by the economy but we're very aware of it and we want to make sure we make the right business moves and we get the best value at the positions we need."
New salary cap rules also are causing teams to enter the season in August with a surplus of cap space -- more than $5 million in some cases -- that typically is spent on talent. Instead, it's being held in rainy-day escrow.
By owners opting out of a collective bargaining agreement with the players union last spring, there will be no salary cap for the 2010 season (unless a new CBA is in place by then). That means charges that typically could be pushed from the current season to the next year are void. Any incentives or payments that would have been prorated from cutting or trading a player will count toward the 2009 cap.
For example, teams had been allowed to cut players after June 1 and have any cap costs pertaining to those moves split between the current year's cap and the following year's salary cap. Now, any costs that come with cutting a player counts against the current cap.
A high-ranking team official whose franchise has more than $20 million in cap space broke things down as to how the dynamics of an uncapped year affect everything else that comes with offseason money management.
» Roughly $5 million must be kept available entering the football season, not only to sign free agents in the event a roster player gets hurt, but in case roster players hit incentives and to account for certain bonuses (roster, workout, etc.). In the previous agreement, those charges could be pushed to the following year's salary cap.
» At least $6 million in cap space has to be tied up with tenders to the team's restricted free agents.
» Another $6 million to $8 million had to be left available to sign draft picks. That number could be higher for teams with top-five draft picks.
So, what looks like a vat of available cash to spend is now being managed to care for needed housekeeping. There is still money to spend, but not necessarily the type to sign someone like Haynesworth, who could garner a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $40 million.
Salary-cap space can be created by restructuring contracts and cutting players, which has already begun in places like Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Oakland and Washington.
However, after Haynesworth, Warner, Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins and Cincinnati wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the number of big-name free agents is relatively minute. There are even questions about the high-dollar worthiness of Warner and Collins outside of their current teams.
Wide receiver Marvin Harrison, running backs Deuce McAllister, Warrick Dunn and Fred Taylor, linebacker Derrick Brooks and safeties Brian Dawkins and Lawyer Milloy are free agents, but age and declining productivity likely won't prompt a rush to sign them. Other veterans, like Rams wide receiver Torry Holt or Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking could soon be on the market, released for salary-cap purposes.
"Well, we have greater concerns given the uncapped years because there are more complications, more rules that we have to pay attention to," said Cardinals GM Rod Graves, whose team was projected to have more than $35 million in cap space before franchising linebacker Karlos Dansby ($9.6 million). "I don't know that it is any more difficult in terms of dealing with the players. I think it is a matter of how we structure the deals to make sure we accomplish what we want.
"For the players, it's all about the money, so I don't know if it is any more difficult dealing with them. It does present a greater challenge for us."