- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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NFL owners and players completed a 10-year collective bargaining agreement on Monday, so let the free-agent games begin.
The deal is worth between $12 billion and $16 billion a year.
After four months of lawyer-speak and rhetoric, which turned ugly at times, we can focus on football.
Here is what we learned:
1. Familiar free agency is back: Free agency returns to the way it was done from 1993 through 2009. A player needs four years of experience to become an unrestricted free agent. In the uncapped year of 2010, players needed six years of experience to hit the open market. That puts 448 players on the market, starting July 28. Owners tried and failed to slow the potentially hot market by asking for
right-of-first-refusals on three players, but players vetoed that notion, complaining that 236 budding unrestricted free agents in 2010 were relegated to restricted free-agent status. Restricted free agency is limited to players with three years of experience.
2. Cap stands at $120.375 million: The salary cap is $120.375 million, but each team has the option of using a $3 million exemption this year on a signed player to free up some room. Next year, teams will have the option of designating three player exemptions at $1.5 million each. These are used to transition into a salary cap that decreased from $128 million in 2009. There is also a mandatory cash minimum payroll for each team at 89 percent of the cap, which translates into $107.1 million per team.
3. Rookie wage scale 2.0: In 1993, owners thought they had a hard, unbreakable rookie wage system, but agents broke it by negotiating option bonuses, escalator clauses and one-time bonuses. The new rookie wage scale is supposed to cut top rookie contracts by more than 50 percent. First-round picks get four-year deals in which the club holds a fifth-year option. There are slotted four-year deals from Rounds 2 through 7. Here's the discount. Cam Newton, the first pick in this year's draft, would be eligible for a four-year, $22.03 million contract. If the Panthers keep him for a fifth year, his salary would be at the average of the top 10 salaries of other quarterbacks. One unique part about the new system is it should prevent long holdouts. At some point in August, unsigned draft choices lose their leverage if they aren't signed. There is another clause that prevents draft picks from holding out after they sign. If he holds out during the deal, he is prohibited from renegotiating his contract. There is a limit to the amount of money given to rookies. The max total in 2011 is $874 million.
4. Minimum salaries going up: One of the selling points for the players is an increase in the minimum salaries. Owners have agreed to a 10-12 percent increase in the minimum salary structure. Rookies, for example, would go from $330,000 to $375,000. The increases go to $450,000 for second-year players, $525,000 for third-year players, $600,000 for fourth-year players, $685,000 for players with five-to-seven years of experience, $810,000 for players with eight-to-10 years of experience and
$910,000 for players with more than 10 years of experience.
5. Franchise tags: Although this was one of the last big issues being contested by the players, there will be no change in a team's ability to annually place a franchise or transition tag on a top player to retain his rights. Players were pushing for a system in which players could be franchised only once. That would free up Drew Brees of the Saints for free agency next year and stop the Colts from franchising Peyton Manning next year. Owners voted to move ahead with the deal without that change.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.