Among the free agents available Friday will be (left to right) quarterback Chad Pennington, linebacker Karlos Dansby and defensive end Julius Peppers.
Free agency will be different in the NFL this offseason.
It's just that no one is exactly sure how different.
"Uncharted waters," 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said.
The lack of a new collective bargaining agreement delivers its first tangible blow to league business at the same time free agency begins – 10 p.m. Arizona time Thursday night – because it coincides with the start of the new league year. Barring a miraculous change in stance from either the owners or the NFL Players Association, a new CBA will not be reached and the NFL will embark on its first year without a salary cap since 1993.
On the surface, it could have been seen as a bonanza for free agents, now that teams didn't have financial restrictions. But circumstances such as the lagging economy and a possible work stoppage have changed things, as has the rule that players must have six years of service before becoming unrestricted.
"Usually the aggressive spending and the quick deals were the ones that happened for the players that were in their fifth year or in their sixth year," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Those guys are now restricted so that pool of guys that has been so enticing in past years isn't there.
"Does that mean the activity in free agency is going to be diminished a little bit? There is always movement with guys seven years, eight years in to the league, but those are three weeks, four weeks into free agency … the ones that don't get that first-day interest. It'll be interesting how (free agency) progresses."
There will be some attractive names. Defensive end Julius Peppers will draw immediate and heavy interest. So too will linebacker Karlos Dansby, who is unlikely to return to Arizona given the possible suitors expected to money-whip him once he becomes available.
Even Cards' safety Antrel Rolle, who is expected to be released to the open market because he and the team can't agree to a restructured extension, will get early attention.
But more than 200 players who were supposed to be unrestricted won't be. Teams will be putting tender offers on the suddenly restricted free agents, meaning teams that sign those players to offer sheets will have to consider giving up valuable draft picks – and risk having the original team match the offer in the first place.
There will be enough talent in the RFA market that more restricted players should get offers, but as usual, there are reasons teams don't often chase restricted guys.
"I believe there is going to be that much more contemplation to see who actually pulls the trigger," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.
More importantly, the money itself – given the place the league and owners are in – might not flow as much as usual. The NFLPA has decried such a concept, saying the uncapped year should make it easier for teams to spend. Reality seems to point elsewhere.
Cowboys vice president Steven Jones came out and said his team spent their big money the previous offseason on extensions for a pair of Pro Bowlers, linebacker DeMarcus Ware and quarterback Tony Romo, and weren't going to go on a spending spree just because there was no cap.
Teams like the Steelers have said they will go into free agency as if there were a cap. All teams are wary of the fact any new CBA could include, if not a cap some sort of cost control mechanism, meaning any exorbitant deals handed out now could hurt that franchise in the future.
The Cardinals, Graves said, will conduct their offseason business as usual, which hasn't meant chasing big-name players. If Rolle is released as expected, he becomes the Cards' top free-agent target. The Cards will mostly seek veterans who are willing to take sensible deals – think Clark Haggans in 2008.
The Redskins, with an owner like Daniel Snyder, may again take the lead in free agency by spending. But few organizations want to dole out money when they might not get anything back for it if there is no football in 2011.
"Teams are concerned of things like the economy and the uncertain labor agreement, and teams are looking to prepare for that," Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. "I don't think there's going to be wide-spread spending."
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