NFL: 49ers take a cap approach; Raiders not giving any hints
By Jerry McDonald
The Oakland Tribune
San Francisco 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan isn’t losing any sleep over what will likely be a dramatically different NFL financial landscape.
With management and the NFL Players Association showing no signs of reaching a collective bargaining agreement, the league will enter its first season since 1994 without a salary cap, beginning on Thursday at 9 p.m. (Pacific time).
Teams with older stadiums and smaller revenue streams, such as the Raiders and 49ers, could in theory be outspent by teams with deeper pockets.
McCloughan can barely stifle a yawn.
“We’re going to go forward as if there is a cap,” McCloughan told reporters at the recently concluded NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “We’re not considered to be a big free agency team, anyway. It’s not going to change our spending one way or the other.”
The Raiders, meanwhile, are silent on the matter, but they are operating much the same as they did last year when a $128 million cap was in place.
They locked up their two most significant unrestricted free agents, using the exclusive franchise tag on defensive lineman Richard Seymour at a cost of $12.38 million and signing kicker Sebastian Janikowski to a four-year, $16 million contract with $9 million guaranteed.
A year ago, they spent big to retain cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (three years, $45.3 million) and punter Shane Lechler (a contract nearly identical to that of Janikowski).
Going with known commodities came a year after an ill-fated spending spree that included the signings of Gibril Wilson and Javon Walker and a trade for DeAngelo Hall.
Neither Bay Area team is expected to make a serious run at the big-ticket items in unrestricted free agency, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers and Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby.
The talent pool thinned considerably because of changes in free agency resulting from the uncapped year. Instead of players being eligible for unrestricted free agency after four seasons, they now need six.
That meant 212 players who were hoping to be unrestricted free agents as of 9 p.m. Thursday are now restricted free agents, giving their clubs the right of first refusal and draft pick compensation depending on the level of contract offered.
Denver, for instance, issued a first- and third-round tender to linebacker Elvis Dumervil, who led the NFL in sacks with 17. A four-year veteran, Dumervil would have been an unrestricted free agent in previous years, going to the highest bidder with no strings attached.
But in this uncapped year, Dumervil can solicit offers from other teams to bring back to Denver. The Broncos can either match the offer or accept first- and third-round draft picks in return.
The 49ers retained linebacker Ahmad Brooks with a second-round tender and kept David Baas, a guard and center, with an original-round tender, which means the second-round pick in 2005 would bring a second-rounder in return if the 49ers don’t match the offer sheet.
While restricted free agents have rarely moved in past years, the dearth of unrestricted free agents could bring some offer sheets if teams target a specific player they think is worth more than the draft pick they’ll lose to get him.
Expect most teams to be conservative as they survey the new landscape.
“You always see some teams jump out there and make some moves, but with the uncertainty of what’s going on, the unrest, I think people will be cautious,” New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said.
Other issues relating to free agency in an uncapped year:
—The final eight teams remaining in the postseason probably will be watching from the sidelines.
New Orleans, Minnesota, Indianapolis and the New York Jets can’t sign an unrestricted free agent unless they lose one of their own to another team. Cutting a player and having him sign elsewhere does not count. It has to be an expired contract.
If one of their free agents does leave, they can’t give a new unrestricted free agent a contract bigger in the first year than the one the departing player received.
San Diego, Baltimore, Arizona and Dallas also must lose a free agent to sign one, but they are allowed to pay one unrestricted free agent a salary of $5.5 million or more in the first year of the deal.
—While there is no salary cap, there is also no floor. Teams can spend as little as they want on salaries.
—Teams may be reluctant to pay the kind of huge upfront money given in years past because of the threat of a lockout by ownership that threatens the 2011 season.
Once a signing bonus is paid, it’s gone. Teams could employ a strategy of making a scheduled bonus payment during a potential work stoppage, at which point they wouldn’t have to pay.
—It’s a good time to dump bad contracts.
No cap, no more bonus accelerations. In past years, signing bonus money was spread out over the length of the contract even though it was paid immediately. Remaining years were counted against the cap if a player was cut before the end of the deal.
New England director player of personnel Nick Caserio conceded no one is sure how an uncapped year will play out.
“Once we get to March 5, we know what we’re dealing with,” Caserio said.