Commentary

Next up: Salary cap scramble

Teams will be trying to master 2011 rules as free agents hit the market

Originally Published: July 18, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Now that the NFL is on the verge of ending the lockout and getting a new collective bargaining agreement, it's funny watching the scramble.

The NFL temporarily gave up the salary cap to gain leverage and try to get concessions from the players. They saved plenty of money last year, particularly $320 million in benefits they weren't required to pay. They also saved on salaries because so many top free agents were restricted.

Now everyone in the league is angling to work within the salary cap. There were talks of moving the $163 million of remaining cap room from 2009 to this year, but those ideas fell apart.

The big move Friday was the owners backing down on having three first rights of refusal. That frees Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and others to hit the market without restriction, figuring that free agency may start as early as July 25.

The salary cap is going to be at $120 million with a $3 million exemption. Here is how the exemption works: A team such as the Cowboys, who are $18 million over the cap, can designate one player this season and discount $3 million of his salary from the salary cap.

In 2012, teams will have three exemptions worth $1.5 million on three players.

In the meantime, teams are scrambling to find what the new rules are for the 2011 cap. It should be fun.

From the inbox

Q: With all this talk about how good the Lions' front four will be, I find it strange that no one has mentioned that both Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are three-technique tackles. Fairley doesn't seem to fit the mold to play the nose, and while Suh has the build and strength to play the position, it would be a waste of his pass-rushing skills.

Andrew in Boston

A: I remember some people saying that Suh should have gone below Gerald McCoy because McCoy was the better pass-rusher and that Suh was more of a nose tackle. Suh had one of the most dominant defensive tackle debuts since Cortez Kennedy and Warren Sapp. Suh had 10 sacks. Don't forget, there are plenty of ways to play a 4-3 defense. You can play the nose in a two-gap mode and let him draw two blockers and get minimal penetration. You can basically have two three-techniques and have them shoot the gap. The Seahawks in the 1990s had Kennedy and Sam Adams, who were both three-technique tackles. The Lions will know what to do with both defensive tackles.

Q: If the Patriots had won the Super Bowl in 2007-08 season and gone undefeated, would Tom Brady be considered the best QB of all time?

Asham in Buffalo

A: One game doesn't change things in this case. Tom Brady is going to go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he still has to top Joe Montana for Super Bowls and Johnny Unitas before defining the modern era of quarterbacks. Bob Griese made the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his body of work, but it helped that he and the Dolphins had a perfect season. Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he still has years to catch Montana. Stay tuned.

Q: What are your thoughts on the Chiefs' offensive line? I really disliked the move of Branden Albert to left tackle. Will Kansas City make a move in free agency for a lineman and move Albert back to his natural guard slot, or will the Chiefs continue to reshuffle this current combination?

Noah in Lincoln, Neb.

A: I think Branden Albert is OK at left tackle, but I can see that they might move him to the right side at some point. I think they could use some help in free agency. Moving Albert to guard would be a waste of talent. He's good enough to play against defensive ends. Sure, he did give up close to eight sacks last season, but Matt Cassel isn't exactly the most elusive quarterback. Until they find a tackle better than Albert, I say keep him on the left side.

Q: Any truth to the rumblings that Osi Umenyiora is unhappy in New York? If so, what type of compensation do you believe it would take to land him?

Matthew in Vermilion, Ohio

A: Great timing on this question. He is unhappy because the organization talked to him about a contract extension but nothing has happened. Also, remember that he's a plaintiff in the Tom Brady case. He spent two hours at the bargaining talks Thursday. Owner John Mara told him to meet with team management. He will. If he's not satisfied, maybe there will be a trade. Don't be surprised if Seattle gets involved. It's also not out of the question for him to get a contract extension. This could be one of the most interesting stories at the start of free agency.

[+] EnlargeUmenyiora
Geoff Burke/US PresswireOsi Umenyiora, who is unhappy with the Giants, could be one of the most interesting stories once the NFL reopens for business.
Q: The 8th Circuit Court recently ruled that the NFL cannot lock out the rookies because they are not signed. Doesn't this mean they can go to a rookies-only minicamp with the coaches? Since they are not locked out this seems like a good way to get them playbooks and some time with coaches and a regimented workout schedule.

Steven in Providence, R.I.

A: The 8th Circuit ruled an injunction could be filed on behalf of the draft choices. Players didn't do that because they wanted to get a deal with owners. With the deal almost done, rookies can go in as early as next week and all is fine. That decision helped get a deal because it gave a little leverage to owners and a little to players.

Q: Matthew Stafford was said to be the answer to Detroit's problems at QB. But he has been injured for most of his short career. I understand that we must give him time, but could this very well be a make-or-break season for Stafford? And if this is his last shot there, does Detroit give the job to Drew Stanton, who played well in his starts last season, or do they look into free agency or the draft next year?

Aaron in Mount Clemens, Mich.

A: Phil Simms had injuries early in his career and took the New York Giants to two Super Bowls. Stanton has yet to prove that he's a good backup at this stage of his career. Give Stafford time. This is only Year Three. He has the arm. He has the leadership skills. He's got plenty of offensive talent. The Lions gave Joey Harrington the time, but he lacked the leadership to be the answer and the Lions didn't have good talent around him. With the Lions getting a good buzz for the way they are building a team, the last thing they need is a search for a new quarterback.

Q: Isn't the Dan Marino/Peyton Manning comparison a poor one especially when using it in the Manning versus Brady argument? Manning won much more than Marino, never missed a game, and is going to wind up as a better passer. Marino won 10 games just six times, Manning has 11 times (every season but two). The case can be made Marino also had a more accomplished coach, something that can also be said about Brady.

Garren in Clifton Park, N.Y.

A: The debate isn't Marino versus Manning. The debates of the decades were Marino-Joe Montana and Manning-Tom Brady because they played against each other during the primes of their careers. Marino was the classic thrower with the stats. Montana had the Super Bowl rings. Brady has three Super Bowl rings to Manning's one, but Manning means everything to the Indianapolis Colts. The league may not have been as quarterback-driven when Marino and Montana were playing and might have been more coach-driven back then. All four were great. Manning is playing the Marino role if you are looking at the Marino-Montana debate, but he still has time to get more rings.

Q: One thing I love about the NFL is how players, especially quarterbacks, always have a second or third chance to prove themselves (example: Jeff Garcia, Drew Brees). With this in mind, do you think Matt Leinart can prove himself with a new team? Do you think he should find a veteran to sit behind (Peyton Manning or Mike Vick) or do you think he should go to a team with an unproven quarterback and compete for the job right away (49ers, Redskins)?

Luke C in Rocky Mount, Va.

A: Leinart can't be picky. Even though he's young, his career is at a crossroads. Too many quarterbacks find themselves in these situations. For a first-round choice who fails, it's hard to find the right situation to regain status and get a starting job. He has to go to a team and win a job as a backup and then have a great run filling in as a starter. I can see him going to Seattle as a No. 2 or a No. 3. Brees was chosen to be the Saints' starter and received $10 million a year. Garcia bounced around after leaving the 49ers and eventually found success in Tampa Bay.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer