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Updated: February 10th, 2011 12:43am
Pelissero: Personnel departments needing answers as labor unrest looms

Pelissero: Personnel departments needing answers as labor unrest looms

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

Labor unrest seems certain to bring football to a halt in three weeks, but that's not slowing down NFL personnel departments. At least not yet.

Around the league, teams are conducting intensive meetings this week in preparation for the scouting combine and free agency -- staying on schedule despite the likelihood of an interruption in business on March 4.

Things keep getting more complicated, though. And beginning on Thursday, when teams can begin applying franchise and transition tags, the uncertainty of 2011 will rise to the forefront and stay there until a new collective-bargaining agreement is finalized.

Hours after owners and union representatives cut short a bargaining session on Wednesday night, one NFL personnel director rattled off the circumstances this way:

• No one knows if free agency will open before or after the NFL draft, which begins on April 28. The latter would be a change to long-established protocol, potentially prompting teams to target need more heavily through its rookie class. "You have to reverse your thinking," the personnel director said. "You're going to be selecting the player you're projecting first and not the player who's had demonstrated professional performance, which is normally what happens. How rosters get populated -- you're flipping the switch on that."

• No one knows if the minimum service required for unrestricted free agency will return to four years with the next CBA, after increasing to six in the uncapped 2010 season. One theory is it'll end up being five years, with restricted free agency eliminated. But that would require givebacks elsewhere for the players, who would be reluctant to give up a prime season of earning power. Either way, the uncertain makeup of the second-contract crop -- in most cases, the top players on the market -- is forcing teams to deal in multiple contingencies.

• No one knows if the franchise and transition tags, as currently constituted, will continue to exist. The union already has disputed the validity of tags applied within the annual two-week window that begins on Thursday, arguing they're meaningless without a CBA covering the 2011 season. However, most around the league assume a mechanism for controlling veteran player movement will exist in one form or another. "If there wasn't, you'd say, 'Oh, I'd like to use it on my specific player,'" the personnel director said. "In the same breath, that opens up Pandora's box of options of very good, talented players, which often get cut off the top of the free-agent market."

• No one knows what the 2011 salary cap will be, because that number is dictated by revenue -- the division of which is the primary point of contention in the labor fight. Players got nearly 60% (minus $1 billion in operating costs) under the old deal, and owners want to carve into that take. No matter where the number falls -- the adjusted cap in 2009 was $128 million -- some teams will have to slash payroll to be in compliance, and paying out another $9.6 million (the average franchise tag for non-specialists last year) or so to one player could prove prohibitive. 

Teams have been operating under unusual constraints since last March, when the onset of a "Final League Year" erased the cap and altered the rules of free agency. The existing rule barring increases of more than 30% in a player's base salary strongly discouraged teams from extending contracts, too, given the reluctance to pay out large bonuses with a work stoppage of the horizon.

It all has added up to a larger-than-usual crop of potential free agents as personnel departments update their league-wide depth charts. The Minnesota Vikings have two seemingly logical candidates for the franchise tag in receiver Sidney Rice and linebacker Chad Greenway, who both might have been extended last summer if circumstances were different.

But with no certainty about when free agency will begin, who will be eligible, who can be barred from leaving and whose salaries can fit under the cap, there will be little choice but to approach personnel questions deliberately in the weeks -- perhaps months -- to come and hope answers will arrive sooner than later.

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
In this story: Chad Greenway, Sidney Rice
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