In my August 26th entry titled “Uncapped Leverage” on FootballOutsiders.com I discussed the change in the Accrued Season requirement from four seasons to six seasons in order for players to be eligible for free agency. This change is mandated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement to take effect in the uncapped year, currently slated for 2010. As I discussed in my earlier column, this tremendously hinders free agency from the players’ perspectives by forcing them to wait longer for their much anticipated second pay day. The uncapped year obviously presents the players and clubs with an environment without a salary cap or team salary minimum; this environment has been discussed extensively in the media. However, another aspect of the uncapped year that has received very little coverage in the media is what is called the Final Eight Plan; this change mandated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement completely changes the rules of free agency for clubs.
As it is today with a salary cap, when free agent season begins in March, all 32 clubs have the opportunity to acquire unrestricted free agents (UFA) in an open, competitive market. In an uncapped year of 2010, the Final Eight teams in the 2009 playoffs, meaning those teams participating in the Divisional round in both the AFC & NFC, will be limited in their ability to acquire free agents in the offseason after their post-season run.
For the four clubs that make it to the Conference Championships in the 2010 offseason, they can sign the following three types of UFAs: any UFA who became a free agent by virtue of their contract being terminated before its expiration; any of the club’s own UFAs; and a UFA to replace each UFA lost by the club. Regarding this one-for-one UFA replacement, the contracts signed by the UFA replacement player must fall within the following parameters: the first year salary must not exceed the first year salary contained in the new contract of the UFA lost by the team; salaries in the future years of the replacement UFA’s contract may not increase by more than 30 percent of the first year’s salary; and the contract cannot be renegotiated until one year after the signing date.
For the four clubs that lose in the Divisional round, they can sign the same three types of UFAs as the clubs that advanced to the Conference Championships. However, additionally, these four clubs may also sign one UFA for a first year salary of more than roughly $6 million and any number of UFAs for first year salaries of no more than approximately $4 million. The $6 million and $4 million amounts are approximations because they will be determined by projected Total Revenues in the uncapped year.
So lets say the Arizona Cardinals lose in the Divisional round of the 2009 playoffs, and they subsequently lose their kicker Neil Rackers via free agency to a contract that has a first year value of $3 million. Under this scenario, the Cardinals could sign a replacement UFA to compensate for Rackers’ departure. This replacement UFA does not have to be a kicker and their first year salary cannot exceed $3 million. Moreover, the replacement UFA’s contract cannot provide for annual increases in excess of $900,000 in order to comply with the 30 percent provision. Additionally, in free agency, the Cardinals would be able to sign the other types of UFAs available to Divisional round clubs.
Another rule applied to the Final Eight clubs is a prohibition of the those clubs from trading for UFAs they otherwise would not be eligible to sign as a result of the rules of the Final Eight Plan.
The Final Eight Plan takes the NFL from an even-playing-field version of free agency to an unleveled playing field that is designed to be in the favor of the 24 clubs that do not make it to the Divisional round; the spirit of which is to try to keep some level of competitive parity in an uncapped world. Essentially, the Final Eight Plan, amongst other things, places a salary cap on free agency for the final eight clubs, despite the non-existence of a league-wide salary cap. It’ll be a brave new free agent world in the 2010 uncapped year; should be very intriguing if we get to that point.
Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101