Without cap, Cowboys, Chargers can still strut

The Chargers have done one of the best jobs of locking up starters in case of an uncapped 2010 season, although retaining Philip Rivers (left) might be an issue. Ronde Barber's Buccaneers are among the teams facing big questions. Getty Images

Unless the NFL and the NFL Players Association reach a new extension of the collective bargaining agreement, an uncapped year for team salaries will hit the league in 2010.

Restrictions will apply in this uncapped year. Teams will be given an extra transition tag to go with their one franchise player designation to help them keep two of their top free agents. The best teams won't be allowed to jump into free agency.

The four teams that participate in the conference championship games will not be able to sign an unrestricted free agent until they lose a player in free agency. If those teams lose a player, they can enter the market to find a replacement. There are further limitations on the next four postseason teams, those that participate in the divisional playoff round.

The biggest change would be the time it takes to become a free agent. Under the current salary cap, a player can become an unrestricted free agent after four seasons accrued. In 2010, that time frame would increase to six seasons, mainly allowing players drafted in 2004 or earlier to enter the market freely. Unsigned players without six years in the league would be restricted free agents.

Which teams would be affected most if the league can't get a new labor deal before 2010?

Teams prepared to weather the uncapped storm

1. San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have done one of the best jobs of locking up starters in case of an uncapped year. The core group of the team is still young. San Diego has multiple starters who have been to the Pro Bowl and only four would qualify for free agency in 2010 -- guard Mike Goff, quarterback Philip Rivers, wide receiver Chris Chambers and defensive end Igor Olshansky. As long as he comes back successfully from knee reconstruction, Rivers won't be allowed to hit the market. His contract runs out after the 2009 season, and clearly the Chargers will either sign him to a long-term deal or, in the worst-case scenario, franchise him. The Chargers believe they have at least a two-year window to win a Super Bowl. An uncapped year in 2010 won't affect that window.

2. Dallas Cowboys:
Gene Upshaw, head of the NFLPA, reminded reporters last week that Jerry Jones locked up starters from his three-time Super Bowl-winning team during the last uncapped year, which happened in 1993. Jones is trying to do the same thing in anticipation of an uncapped 2010 season. Last week, he signed halfback Marion Barber and cornerback Terence Newman to long-term deals. With a new billion-dollar stadium, Jones will have the money to keep his key players.

Overall, the Cowboys have 13 players who have been to the Pro Bowl among the starters. Jones does have some work to do. The contracts of four starters -- wide receiver Terrell Owens, safety Ken Hamlin, right tackle Marc Colombo and linebacker Zach Thomas -- are up after this season. Defensive end Chris Canty is different from the previously mentioned four starters because he won't have six years in the league in 2010 and thus won't be a free agent then.
Linebacker Greg Ellis will be a free agent in 2010 but he also will be 34 at that time.

3. Cleveland Browns: Thanks to the aggressive moves of general manager Phil Savage, the Browns should be set to weather the uncapped storm after picking up Shaun Rogers, Corey Williams and Donte' Stallworth this offseason.

Only four starters could be free agents in 2010, and the Browns should be able to keep most of them. One free agent is linebacker Willie McGinest, who plans to retire after the 2008 season. Safety Sean Jones and linebacker Andra Davis will be free agents after this season and would have enough years to qualify for free agency in 2010. Guard Rex Hadnot signed a two-year deal to join the Browns this season, and his contract would be up in 2010.

4. Philadelphia Eagles: The forward-thinking Eagles have worried about the uncapped year for some time and started signing long-term deals with top young players several years ago. As a result, they are tied with the Cowboys, Jaguars and Jets for the league lead in signed starters in 2010 (15). They have only four starters up in 2010 and they have four players who will be free agents after the 2008 season: tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas, safety Brian Dawkins and tight end L.J. Smith. Thomas (33) and Runyon (34) could be in their final seasons with the Eagles. If Thomas isn't re-signed after the season, Andy Reid could move Shawn Andrews from guard to left tackle. Dawkins is 34. Smith could be re-signed after this season if he has a good year as a red zone target.

5. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts will stay in contention as long as Peyton Manning is around, and there is no reason to think there will be any drop-off in his game by 2010, when he will be 34. On defense, only middle linebacker Gary Brackett would have enough years in the league to qualify for free agency in 2010. The only other starter of concern is center Jeff Saturday, who's in the final year of his contract. Saturday is 32, but it's not out of the question for the team to prevent him from hitting free agency after this season.

Teams with concerns for the 2010 uncapped year

1. New England Patriots As well-prepared as the Patriots are for almost anything, they do have to worry about an uncapped year. Tom Brady is signed through 2010, so they don't have to worry about him yet. Nor are the next two seasons cause for concern. They would have 19 of the 22 starters locked up for next season if linebacker Jerod Mayo wins a starting job as a rookie.

However, several players could qualify for free agency in 2010. Hardest hit could be New England's defense. Defensive linemen Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green and Vince Wilfork are up in 2010, as are linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi.

Safety Rodney Harrison is in the last year of his contract.

The Patriots have one of the oldest starting defenses in football and it might be hard to find a lot of replacements in a limited free-agent market over the next two seasons. On offense, tight end Ben Watson could hit free agency in 2010. Guard Steve Neal is a free agent after this season.

2. Denver Broncos: Mike Shanahan is paying the price for relying too much on free agency and trades and not doing as well in the draft. The Broncos' biggest problem isn't which players they lose. Their biggest problem is finding replacements, particularly for a defense that is still one of the oldest starting units in football. They have 11 starters under contract in 2010. Linebacker D.J. Williams, perhaps their best young defender, is a free agent after this season. Safeties John Lynch and Marlon McCree are free agents after this season.

Defensive end John Engelberger is free in 2010, when he will be 33. On offense, Tom Nalen is 37 and entering the final year of his contract. This is a roster that is in transition, which is not good as the uncapped year approaches.

3. Detroit Lions:
Teams with older starting quarterbacks could be in trouble in the next couple of years because no top quarterback will hit the free-agent market. Jon Kitna will be 37 and unsigned in 2010 and the Lions have done very little to find their long-term starter. Drew Stanton is the best hope for the future.

The first big decision for Detroit involves wide receiver Roy Williams, who will be a free agent after this season. Williams could be asking for top receiver money, which could be around $10 million a year. The Lions could franchise him next year, but that doesn't answer the 2010 question. Kitna, center Dominic Raiola, guard Edwin Mulitalo, safety Dwight Smith, linebackers Paris Lenon and Alex Lewis and halfback Tatum Bell are among the starters whose contracts are up over the next couple of years. The challenge facing the Lions is not so much whom they could lose as it is finding starters for the future.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs also have to look long term at quarterback. Jeff Garcia is 38. Jon Gruden must figure out the long-term solution before 2010. Because the Bucs love veteran-laden teams, plenty of contracts come due over the next few years. Seven starters are under contract in 2010, including cornerback Ronde Barber, who will be 35 that year. Tackle Luke Petitgout, linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June, wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard and cornerback Phillip Buchanon are signed only through 2009.

5. Washington Redskins: The Redskins are in great shape for the next two seasons, but 2010 could be tough. Eleven of their 22 starters are in their 30s, including five starters on the offensive line. Age is also creeping up on their defense. Cornerback Shawn Springs is 33. Linebacker Marcus Washington is 30. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin is 31. Linebacker London Fletcher is 33. Defensive end Phillip Daniels is 35.

With more teams preparing for the chance of an uncapped year, finding replacements for older starters becomes harder and harder. The Redskins soon will have to prepare to replace the entire offensive line and five older starters on defense.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.