Right of first refusal could limit DE pool

Atlanta Falcons fans, your top two free-agent defensive ends might not be on the market.

Although there had been early reports that any players with four accrued seasons and not under contract for 2011 could become unrestricted free agents under a new labor agreement, that might not be the case. Reports are now surfacing that NFL owners are now pushing for a right-of-first-refusal clause for 2011 in a new agreement. They want the clause to apply to three fourth- or fifth-year players per team.

If that happens, the Falcons could be out of luck in pursuing Carolina’s Charles Johnson or Minnesota’s Ray Edwards. The Panthers and Vikings simply could match any offers and keep their players.

If only players with six or more accrued seasons truly can be unrestricted free agents, the pool at defensive end thins out considerably. Tennessee’s Jason Babin would probably be the top defensive end in that scenario and he is coming off a season in which he recorded 12.5 sacks. But Babin is 31, only two years younger than Atlanta’s top defensive end, John Abraham.

If owners get their way, some current NFC South players could be limited in their potential to move because they have either four or five seasons. Among those players, are Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and James Anderson, Tampa Bay’s Davin Joseph, Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, Justin Blalock and Stephen Nicholas, and New Orleans’ Roman Harper.