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Updated: May 5th, 2011 11:46am
Examining the impact of legal developments on Vikings' 19 unsigned

Examining the impact of legal developments on Vikings' 19 unsigned

by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com
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For all the interest surrounding the latest turning point in the NFL's labor situation, one point seems to be getting overlooked:

A court-ordered start to the 2011 league year wouldn't help the players with the most to gain on the open market -- and the most to lose without a new labor agreement.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on extending the NFL's temporary stay of a federal court ruling that lifted the lockout last week. If the full stay is granted, players would remain locked out while the league's appeal is heard, with the trial scheduled to begin on June 3 in St. Louis and resolution unlikely until July.

However, if forced to open its doors and commence the new league year before or after appeal, the NFL almost surely would revert to the "Final League Year" rules of 2010, which required six accrued seasons (rather than four) for players to qualify for unrestricted free agency. And that would gut the negotiating power of the "second contract" group that makes up the cream of the NFL's free-agent crop.

Many of those players -- including Minnesota Vikings end Ray Edwards, who recently told the Star Tribune he would refuse to play under the first-round restricted tender for a second consecutive season -- also were affected last year. The negative impact on players such as San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson formed key points in U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson's ruling that lifted the lockout and is now being appealed.

The Vikings have expressed interest in re-signing receiver Sidney Rice to a multiyear contract, and other teams surely would explore doing the same with their top players. But what about Edwards, whose best chance to cash in would come on the open market?

Like many others around the league, he'd remain handcuffed to a team that has no interest in locking him up long-term, especially at a time no one knows where the dust will settle on free-agency eligibility and the salary cap.

Nineteen unsigned

A list of potential free agents released on Wednesday by NFL.com caused some confusion, since the likes of Edwards and receiver Sidney Rice weren't listed. In the interest of clarity, here's a breakdown of where things stand with the Vikings roster.

The Vikings made two moves to hold onto key defensive contributors before the lockout began on March 11, designating linebacker Chad Greenway their franchise player -- he signed his tender offer a week later -- and giving defensive lineman Brian Robison a three-year, $14.1 million contract extension that included a $6.5 million signing bonus.

Those moves put 51 players under contract for the 2011 season. The remaining 19 unsigned players who finished last season on the Vikings' 53-man roster or injured reserve fall into four categories.

Players with six or more accrued seasons: quarterback Brett Favre (20), place-kicker Ryan Longwell (14), nose tackle Pat Williams (14) cornerback Lito Sheppard (nine), linebacker Ben Leber (nine), cornerback Frank Walker (eight), quarterback Patrick Ramsey (eight) and receiver Greg Lewis (eight). These players will be eligible for unrestricted free agency regardless of the labor situation.

Tendered players with four or five accrued seasons: Edwards (five), offensive lineman Ryan Cook (five), safety Eric Frampton (four) and Rice (four). If a failed appeal forces the NFL to reopen for business without a new collective-bargaining agreement, the league likely would operate under 2010 rules and these players would be restricted free agents, limiting their negotiating rights. If a new labor agreement reestablishes rules that existed prior in 2009, these players would be unrestricted and free to sign with any team.

Tendered players with three accrued seasons: safety Husain Abdullah and linebacker Erin Henderson. These players would be restricted whether the NFL operates under 2009 or 2010 rules. Talk of eliminating restricted free agency altogether in the next labor agreement seems to have dissipated.

Non-tendered players with fewer than six accrued seasons: receiver Hank Baskett (five), defensive tackle Fred Evans (five), quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (five), fullback Naufahu Tahi (five) and halfback Albert Young (two). By not tendering qualifying contract offers, the Vikings have relinquished their bargaining rights, making these players free to sign with any team.

The decertified NFL Players' Association has challenged the validity of franchise tags and restricted tenders, given that there is no labor agreement in place for the 2011 season. However, it seems unlikely those designations would be overturned unless the players win their antitrust lawsuit, which may not be resolved for months.

The best scenario players such as Edwards and Rice can hope for is a new collective-bargaining agreement that would restore the old free-agency rules in time for them to get paid before the 2011 season begins.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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