NEW YORK (AP) — Into the great unknown.
The NFL has begun the final season of its contract with the players union by eliminating the salary cap. Free agency started Friday with no ceiling on spending for teams, and no floor, either.
Predictions on how free agency without a salary cap will turn out are pointless. Will teams go on wild spending sprees? Will some operate on the cheap because there is no payroll minimum? Will players who became unrestricted this year find lots of bidders or few?
Might the union scream collusion if teams shy away from big-money deals when there's virtually no cutoff on spending — ironic considering how the salary cap was designed to protect ownership?
With team owners so willing to enter this twilight zone, could the salary cap be gone for good? Will it become a divisive issue in negotiations that will lead to no football in 2011?
The only certainty is, well, the uncertainty.
"Too much time and energy would be wasted on speculating what the system is going to be or how it is going to be," Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli said. "I have to go with the way things are now and just hope that you are doing the right thing."
Agent Eugene Parker, who represents Richard Seymour and Michael Crabtree among others, believes both sides will do the right thing and come to a deal before any potential labor stoppages in 2011. But the first uncapped season since 1993 is here.
"I am optimistic," Parker said. "The teams are comprised of business people and they understand they have the best game in town right now. And in a recession, they are doing great, so why risk that? I don't see them risking that at the end of the day."
Still, not having the salary cap — something the owners seemed eager to explore after opting out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008 — means a major upheaval in the way teams and players do business.
With no salary cap, players need six years of service to become unrestricted free agents, two more than in the past. Players with four and five seasons now are restricted, meaning the team losing them would earn compensation or would have the right to match offers from other clubs.
Among the 212 players who now are not totally free because of the uncapped season are All-Pro defensive end Elvis Dumervil of Denver, who led the league in sacks in 2009; San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman and receiver Vincent Jackson; Miami running back Ronnie Brown; Dallas receiver Miles Austin; and Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans.
While Dumervil, Austin and Ryans might be worth the heavy compensation they would cost, how many teams are willing to part with high draft picks and all the money it will take to sign such standouts?
"The first change," Parker noted, "is obviously less young, talented players who will be unrestricted under the CBA rule changing the years required for free agency. And that is the biggest change.
"The other one is teams will probably try to take advantage of no floor and save some money, which means the minimum-role guys will have a hard time in free agency. The impact player and expensive ones will do OK."
Adds agent Joe Linta, who represents Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco among others: "The owners are all wealthy, and as much as they need and want to make money, the need to win is greater than the need to make money — they already have plenty. Their insatiable desire to win will override their greed to save and make money. So, yeah, they'll spend."
Some can spend more than others. But the crop of unrestricted free agents contains few difference-makers and is inferior to the group of restricted free agents.
Plus, under the CBA that expires next March, the conference finalists from January's playoffs have extra restrictions in signing free agents. The final four, for example, must lose an unrestricted free agent (UFA) before they can sign one.
That hamstrings the Saints, Colts, Jets and Vikings.
"I think it is a penalty for sure," Jets coach Rex Ryan says. "Maybe you need a tight end or whatever it is and you don't have that ability to go out and get some of the top guys that might be available."
The Jets took a step toward that by agreeing in principle with the San Diego Chargers to acquire talented but troubled cornerback Antonio Cromartie on Thursday night, a few hours before free agency began.
Not that there won't be lots of bucks flying into players' bank accounts. Teams always want to procure as much talent as they can. If someone perceives defensive end Julius Peppers as the answer to their line issues, the money figures to be there — although certainly not on the scale of the $20 million-plus Carolina would have needed to spend to make him a franchise player for the second straight year.
NFL teams must consider the ramifications of high spending in an uncapped 2010 if a salary cap returns in subsequent years. The money spent on Peppers or another quality UFA this year might be unlimited, but contract provisions beyond that could hinder staying under a salary cap in the future.
"I see teams being probably very aggressive taking advantage of the uncapped year, but not getting ridiculous," Parker said. "From a practical standpoint, if you have owners out there who want to be aggressive, before they vote for a new CBA (in the future) they will want some assurances it is not impacted by what they spend this year."