Teams adjusting to new free-agent rules

NFL general managers and coaches aren't exactly sure what to expect in free agency this year with new laws of the land since there is no extension to the collective bargaining agreement.

The negotiating process to try to extend the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players union has already started, but it's, well, laborious.

It could be a year or more before anything is solved, but the implications of what is expected to be an uncapped year is what all the NFL coaches and executives are trying to sift through as free agency approaches on March 5 and decisions are being made.

The NFL's deadline to place franchise and transition tags on players came and went Thursday and only six players were ultimately named franchise players, allowing their teams to retain them for at least one more season and pay them the average of the top five salaries at their position last year. Four of the six players were defensive linemen – Packers DT Ryan Pickett, Patriots DT Vince Wilfork, Raiders DE Richard Seymour and 49ers DT Aubrayo Franklin. Steelers kicker Jeff Reed and Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare were also given the franchise tag by their teams.

With no extension to the CBA in place before the start of this year's free-agent period, the 2010 season will have no salary cap or salary floor, meaning teams can spend as much or little as they choose on player salaries.

"For us it's not changing. We're going to go forward as if there is a cap," 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said. "As you guys are well aware, we're not going to be considered a big free-agency team anyway. But we'll do what we need to do in free agency if we think it's a smart move, if it makes us better. But it's not going to change us, our spending, one way or another because I think we have a good plan in place, and the vision and philosophy we've had in the past we're going to keep the same."

NFL teams generally have a free-agent plan in place at this point in the offseason, but while they know what they want to do, no one seems sure of how other teams will approach free agency.

 "I don't know what other teams are going to do," said Vikings vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman. "No one knows what other teams are going to do. I know what our situation is. I know what our restrictions are. That's basically where we're focused. It will be interesting to see, but who knows?"

McCloughan echoes Spielman's uncertainty.

"Uncharted waters. I don't know," he said of how teams will react to the new rules of free agency. "There's always been teams that approach free agency in a different manner and like to spend more and give away draft picks. I know from our standpoint we're not going to change our way."

One of the changes is that players whose contracts are expiring won't be unrestricted free agents unless they have six or more seasons in the league. Previously they only needed to have four years in the league to become unrestricted.

That means there will be fewer unrestricted free agents, which could place more importance on the draft.

"Our situation with free agency definitely puts more of an emphasis on the draft. There's not many ways that you can improve your team for the long haul other than the draft, and I think you always need to keep that in mind," said Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. "But most of the players that are going to be available in free agency, the unrestricted players, are going to be players that are 29, 30, 31 years old. I think the biggest thing about that is, it places a lot more emphasis on getting the player right.

"You can get mileage out of a 29-year old or a 30-year old as long as you have a very specific role in mind for him and he fits your scheme and you feel good about that, because you're not going to have a whole lot of start-up time with him. You're not going to have a whole lot of time to say, ‘Well, it took him a year to figure out our defense,' or, ‘It took us a year to figure out him and to find a way to get him on the field and those kind of things.'"

With agents, union representatives, NFL executives and team personnel from around the league all in Indianapolis this week for the NFL Scouting Combine, there will be plenty of reaction to different facets of the labor issues. Agents hold their meeting with union officials on Friday, but general managers and coaches were giving their perspective already on Thursday, especially as it pertains to the upcoming free agency.

"There's just a lot more urgency with the unrestricted class," Schwartz said. "You need to make sure you make good decisions, make sure players fit in the role that you have in mind for them, and then I think that you'll be OK."

Even if the negotiating process between the league and union isn't.

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