NFC South bracing for a new free agency

Barrett Rudd, Tyson Clabo and Thomas Davis would have been unrestricted free agents under the old rules, but are poised to become restricted free agents if a new CBA deal isn't reached by March 5. Icon SMI/US Presswire

TAMPA, Fla. -- Get out your crystal ball and try to picture what March 5 is going to look like.

Hint: Those snowstorms that have been hitting the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast recently might have featured better visibility than the NFL’s upcoming free-agency period.

“It’s all pure speculation by everybody,’’ Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said Friday.

Welcome to a new era in the NFL in which there is no salary cap and the rules are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. That’s all because the NFL and the NFL Players Association have been unable to come to a new agreement on the collective bargaining agreement. Unless that happens -- and the chances of that seem extremely slim -- before March 5, we all could be looking at the land of confusion.

“There will be a dramatic difference,’’ Dominik said. “Over 200 players who ordinarily would be unrestricted free agents won’t be unrestricted free agents.’’

Actually, the number is 212. Players who, in the past, would have been unrestricted free agents after four years, can’t become unrestricted until their sixth season. Instead, they’ll be restricted free agents -- and the rules on those guys are changing too. We’ll get to all that in a moment, but let’s take this thing from the top.

Dominik and the Bucs held an “informational’’ session with the Tampa Bay media Friday morning to discuss the upcoming free-agency period and the likely changes. Memo to the rest of the NFC South and probably the rest of the league: The Bucs may have been 3-13 on the field last season, but Dominik and the public relations department at least know how to make things clear for the media -- and, by extension, their fans.

Dominik took the time to run through an overview of how free agency will work if no CBA agreement is reached before March 5. It’s complicated and far different from what we’ve been used to for the last couple of decades.

First, there is no salary cap. There also is no salary floor. Teams can spend as much or as little as they want. For those who like to say the Bucs are cheap, go ahead and start the bashing and say they won’t spend a dime in free agency.

You’ll be wrong. Dominik wasn’t going to unveil his team’s whole plan for free agency, but he did say the Bucs will consider free agents who they think might fit their plans and that ownership has placed no limits on what the front office can do.

But this column isn’t specifically about the Bucs. It’s more to look at the new rules of free agency and how they’ll impact the entire NFC South.

Just because there is no salary cap, don’t go assuming other teams will spend like crazy on free agents. With the possibility of a lockout in 2011, some owners probably are going to be hesitant to dish out long-term deals for big money.

That brings us to the highest-profile potential free agent in the NFC South. That’s Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. He played with the franchise tag for about $18 million last season. The Panthers could use it again this year, but it will cost more than $20 million. If anything, the Panthers might tag Peppers and trade him for draft picks before they have to pay him.

That might be the best route for Peppers to play for an elite team because there’s another major change coming up. Unless he’s traded to one of them, it’s extremely unlikely Peppers would end up signing with any of the last eight teams standing in the playoffs.

In particular, the four teams that reached the conference championship games won’t be able to do much in free agency. That’s where the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints come in. The new rules prohibit the final four teams from signing an unrestricted free agent unless they lose one of their own unrestricted free agents at a similar price.

In other words, it would be pretty much impossible for the Saints to sign Peppers as an unrestricted free agent. If you’re thinking they could cut a high-priced veteran like Charles Grant to create an opening, forget it. It doesn't work that way.

The four other teams that reached the divisional round get one exception to that rule.

There’s another change with tags. In the past, teams could use one tag -- a franchise tender or a transition tender. This time around, they can use a franchise tag and a transition tag or two transition tags. That will limit the number of unrestricted free agents even further.

The 212 players who will be restricted free agents instead of unrestricted make up a list of some pretty prominent NFC South players: Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Cadillac Williams, Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl and Carolina’s Thomas Davis and New Orleans' Jahri Evans.

Ordinarily, most of those players would have been locked up with long-term contract extensions long ago. But there’s not that sense of urgency right now because their teams can protect them as restricted free agents and receive draft-pick compensation if they choose not to match offers made by other teams.

With five different restricted tenders available (two more than in the past), teams have plenty of ways to protect their restricted free agents. The minimum tender to a restricted free agent will be approximately $1 million.

Dominik said the Bucs also have a plan in place in case a new CBA deal suddenly comes about. But the Bucs and the rest of the league are preparing for an offseason with new rules that put everybody into uncharted territory.

“Nobody knows what it’s going to be like,’’ Dominik said. “There could be some caution. But there are so many variables. We don’t know what the [CBA] rules will be going forward. We’ll still be burning the midnight oil because of all the unknowns. There could be more trade opportunities and things like that. It’s going to be different.’’