Free Agency

Suffering from a case of NFL withdrawal? Well, cheer up because The Wise Guy is here to give you a regular dose of, well, let’s call it methadone.  The off-season.  When the past is merely prologue to a bright future of new players, new schemes and, if you’re Jerry Jones, new botox injections and hair plugs.

To “kickoff” the excitement (get it?), we’ll be discussing byzantine rules of NFL free agency.

The basic rule is this: for the 2010 season, an NFL player not under contract must have at least 6 years of experience to be an unrestricted free agent, like, say, Conan O’Brien has no restrictions on choosing which second-tier cable station to offer his unique but off-putting brand of comedy to.  Because rookie contracts last a minimum of three years, this leaves players with 3-5 years of experience as restricted free agents.

So what does that mean?  As you might guess, it means you’re a highly paid serf.  Your former team still owns your services and can “tender” you a contract offer for the next year.   Tender offers range from $1 to $3 million.  Not chump change, but if you’re, for example, Brandon Marshall, you might want to seek out a better offer that’s consistent with your market value.  But it will likely be very hard for the Brandon Marshalls of the world to find a new, properly compensating home, for two reasons: (a) the original team has a right of first refusal to match any offer; and (b) if the original team doesn’t match, the new team has to compensate the original team with draft picks.  The higher the tender offer, the more draft picks you have to compensate the original team with, up to a maximum of a first and third-rounder.

The draft pick compensator is a real kicker because draft picks are valuable commodities in the NFL.  They represent hope.  Who knows where the next Brandon Marshall may lurk? And better yet, you can lock that guy up for another six years, whereas the veteran Marshall could bolt at any time.

And therein lies the great irony about all this hype regarding the “uncapped” 2010.  A casual observer might think, finally, we can have a system like baseball and have all the big market teams and stupid spenders dominate the poor and penny pinching!  But guess what, in previous years, unrestricted free agency began at a player’s 4th year, not his 6th.  Take a look at the unrestricted free agents out there.  They’re basically broken down running backs and kickers.  Meanwhile, the good players, who are actually in their prime, are subject to two more years of indentured servitude.

No wonder there’s talk of a lock out next year.