NFL free agency may be only a court-ordered injunction away. But what players, teams and fans may find on the other side of that injunction is another extremely lean year.
As the Washington Post reported Sunday and as multiple NFL sources have said since the lockout was put in place midnight Saturday by owners in reaction to the NFL Players Association's move to decertify, the league is expected to use the rules from the 2010 season again in 2011. That means that NFL players will face another year of needing six years to become unrestricted free agents and an uncapped system that features no limit on how much or how little teams can spend.
While the NFLPA is expected to fight the six-year rule in court (along with fighting other rules such as the franchise tag), the question is how fast can it possibly win any changes? If it can't win shortly, that means that top players such as cornerback Antonio Cromartie(notes), wide receivers Santonio Holmes(notes) and Sidney Rice(notes), and cornerback Johnathan Joseph(notes) will be restricted free agents – meaning their most recent teams can retain their services much easier than they could if the players were unrestricted.
The reason the NFL will adopt that stance is simple: It really has no choice. Under labor law, management has some options to put in place rules once a collectively bargained contract expires. If the NFL can't close the doors to the business because of an injunction, it would either have to use the last offer it made or the previous agreement.
In this case, the NFL never really had a formal last offer. It had some basic concepts it had worked on with the players during the mediation sessions. However, it did not have specific rules on what free agency would be, a source said.
That means that the 2010 rules will be what the league leans on. In 2010, numerous players were unable to become unrestricted free agents. That group included offensive tackles Marcus McNeill(notes) and Logan Mankins(notes), and wide receiver Vincent Jackson(notes). All three players went through contract disputes last year, forcing them to miss some or most of the season.
On Friday, attorney Jeff Kessler, an outside counsel for the NFLPA, clearly indicated that he and the players will fight any restrictions on players being able to move. However, the critical question for those players will be how long it takes to win any gains.
If the fight takes only weeks, then those players could benefit in 2011. If not, they will lose leverage for long-term deals and likely have to play on one-year deals as restricted free agents.
Aside from Cromartie, Holmes, Joseph and Rice, other players who face losing out on unrestricted free agency include running back DeAngelo Williams(notes), defensive end Charles Johnson(notes) and defensive tackle Barry Cofield(notes).