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How the expiring NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement is affecting new contracts

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Being a bit of a conspiracy theorist, I'm always looking for the story behind the story.  We all know about all the Chargers who are going to be free agents after this year.  The list is a veritable who's who: Philip Rivers, Shawne Merriman, Marcus McNeill, and others.  All of us assumed that Rivers' deal would get done first, then management would consider working through the others.  If Rivers' deal doesn't get done, then none of the other biggies are going to get done. There is still a long time between now and the start of the season, but if Rivers' deal isn't done by then, I think we can all agree that we are nervous about what free agency in 2010 might bring.

We've all heard that the owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and that 2010 is an uncapped year and then, in 2011, there is no agreement, which means strike or lockout.  Guys in the media have mentioned that one of the reasons that there aren't more deals getting done is due to the uncertainty of the uncapped year and what is going on with the cap beyond that.  There may be something to that, but I suspect the reason is simpler and traces back to one simple thing... Money.

One thing that is subtle about the uncapped year is who is actually an unrestricted free agent (UFA).  Currently, anyone without a current contract and 4 or more years in the league is unrestricted.  They can sign with whoever they want.  Teams can also use the franchise tag on one player a year.  If you have less than 4 years in the league and an expired contract, you are a restricted free agent (RFA).  This means the team can give you a "tender" offer.  If any other team signs you, they will have to give up draft picks to get you.  The number of picks and where they are depends on what level the tender is.  If you remember, the last contract we gave Michael Turner was a RFA offer and we tendered him with a 1st and 3rd offer which means that if anyone had signed him, they would have had to give us their 1st and 3rd round picks.  A year later, he was an UFA and he signed with the Falcons and they didn't have to give anything up for him.  The tender offer for Turner was good money, but well below his market value.  The system is in place to give teams some risk protection for when they bring in a raw player who might take a few years to develop.  They are assured of being able to keep the player at least 4 years without have to compete for his services.

With the uncapped year, the rules change.  In order to be a free agent you now need to have 6 years in the league.  If you have less than 6 years in the league, you are an RFA.  There are some pretty big names on the Chargers and elsewhere who would have been UFAs, but with the uncapped year are now RFAs.  This will be a huge financial swing for some of these players.

So, after the jump, I'll run down our FAs in 2010 and point of the ones who fit into this scenario.  I'll give some rough numbers about what they would cost as RFAs and franchise players.

Name Position Years Age 2nd rnd tender 1st rnd tender 1st and 3rd rnd tender Franchise (2009 value)
Vincent Jackson WR 5 27 $1.7M $2.4M $3.0M $9.8M
Malcom Floyd WR 4 27 $1.7M $2.4M $3.0M $9.8M
Tim Dobbins LB 4 27 $1.7M $2.4M $3.0M $8.3M
Shawne Merriman OLB 5 26 $1.7M $2.4M $3.0M $8.3M
Marcus McNeill LT 4 26 $1.7M $2.4M $3.0M $8.45M
Philip Rivers QB 6 28 NA NA NA $14M
Chris Chambers WR 9 32 NA NA NA $9.8M
Kassim Osgood WR 7 30 NA NA NA $9.8M
Brandon Manumaleuna TE 9 30 NA NA NA $4.46M

 The years column indicates the year they are going into, so at the end of the 2009 season, VJ will have 5 years of service, Rivers will have 6.  If 2010 is uncapped, the guys in bold above will be restricted free agents instead of  unrestricted.  That means we could give them a RFA tender offer and any team that signs them will have compensate us with the appropriate picks (and they have to have the pick to give up as well)

Let's assume for a moment that VJ has a career year and solidifies himself as one of the top 5 WRs in the league.  Let's assume Merriman is healthy and is tearing it up and let's assume McNeill is healthy and back to his pro bowl form.  Those are three guys who would get REALLY BIG contracts.  They would all get long term deals that would average out to around what the franchise value is for their position (more or less).  Would the Chargers be able to sign them AND Rivers??? Not a chance...

However, if there is no new CBA, 2010 will be an uncapped year, and those three guys will be RFAs and the Chargers will be able to give all of them the max tenders for less than one of them would have cost individually.  Now, it's possible some other team would give up the 1st and 3rd rounder for any one of those guys, but that is a significant barrier.  In addition, we have 2 franchise tags in an uncapped year so we could us that if we are really worried about losing someone.

So, why aren't these new contracts being done?  Because the teams don't have to.  They are dragging their feet because they will be able to put off paying big money for these guys for one more year.  I also believe that this is one of the big reasons why we won't have a new CBA until after the 2010 season when lock outs or strikes are upon us.

If you are conspiracy minded and a bit paranoid, you can start to see this motivating a lot of the things going on in the NFL right now.  Why is Brandon Marshall being given a new contract? He's a RFA next year if it's uncapped.  Why give him a risky long term deal when you already have him locked up for next year as a RFA. It's also why the Broncos won't let him go for less than a 1st and 3rd.

I think we are all conditioned to think uncapped year = bad.  And in the long term it might mean just that, but for 2010, it might buy us one more year with our core impact players intact.