The rules of engagement in NFL free agency this offseason underwent a dramatic face lift, and it's safe to say the approach many teams took because of the rule changes in an "uncapped season" completely changed many team's approach to roster moves. The top 8 finishers, for starters, couldn't sign any unrestricted free agents unless they lost one. This was, I assume, in an effort to give the weaker teams from the 2009 season a competitive advantage in luring top tier available talent. The only problem with that? Good young top tier talent wasn't available, for the most part, because normally unrestricted free agent 4th and 5th year players became restricted. I'm not going to dig too deeply into the different nuances of the specific rules, because I think most of us have either taken the exorbitant amount of time needed to understand it by now, or just don't care to learn it. So here's the real question: did the Saints benefit from the changes brought about in the uncapped season?Let's start with the losses. The main names that are gone are Scott Fujita, Mike Bell, Jammal Brown (by trade) and most likely Mark Brunell. The Saints also released a slew of players this offseason, but I think it's clear that all those players would be history in a capped year as well. Had this been a capped season, I think it's safe to assume all four players listed above would still be gone also. If anything, Brown and Bell were both closer to staying based on the new rules. The Saints could have kept Bell, but they refused to match an offer made by the Philadelphia Eagles, making it clear they deemed he was expendable. In a capped year they wouldn't have had the right to even match the offer. The Saints got value out of Jammal Brown, because they could, trading him to the Washington Redskins. If Brown was an unrestricted free agent, he would have gone to the highest bidder, and I can promise you that was never going to be the Saints and they'd get no compensation. The Brunell as Brees' backup experiment has run it's course, and he's old enough that he was unrestricted anyway. As for Fujita, it's possible he saw a larger offer than he might have seen on a capped market by the Cleveland Browns, but it's clear the Browns valued what he could bring to them more than the Saints valued his worth to the their team. Based on how fast Fujita signed with the Browns, I think it's pretty clear New Orleans made no real attempt to keep him. I think it's safe to say based on all this that the uncapped season didn't hurt the Saints from a loss standpoint.
From a re-signing of your own players standpoint, the setup is such that teams have an advantage in keeping their own players. Let's face it, if Lance Moore, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans and Pierre Thomas hit the open market unrestricted, the Saints lose at least one of them. Granted the Saints may have gone to bigger lengths to re-sign these guys prior to them hitting the market, but keep in mind unrestricted free agency is a goldmine for most players and they like to test it out. I'm sure they'd make a run at keeping all of them, but sometimes the almighty dollar trumps anything else. Regardless of whether Pierre Thomas asked for Steven Jackson type money or not, you have to figure there's a team out there stupid (or smart) enough to give it to him. The only reason he didn't see that on the open market this year is no team wants to give up that kind of money on top of a 2nd round draft choice. Jahri Evans got the richest deal in NFL history for a guard, so I think he would have stayed regardless, but I still think the Saints benefited from having exclusive rights to him because it gave them more time to iron out the extension and exact terms. With competition from other teams the Saints may have needed to act faster. As for Roman Harper and Lance Moore, both are pretty good players, but you have to figure there's a team out there that would value them more than the Saints do. The Saints view them as solid role players, not superstars. Other teams could view them as SuperBowl champions that could turn around their poor fortunes. Someone would throw Fujita-like stupid money at them. The fact that these four players (Evans, Thomas, Moore and Harper) are all back with the Saints is in large part thanks to the new rules. Under the usual rules of free agency, those four players would have been unrestricted and available for any team to sign at no compensation.
As for the acquisition of unrestricted free agents, there's no question the Saints were at a disadvantage with the top 8 rule. But they still managed to upgrade their pass rushing ends with Jimmy Wilkerson and Alex Brown, which made both Charles Grant and Bobby McCray expendable. They were still able to add Jason McKie as insurance, should Heath Evans take more time than expected to recover from his knee injury. They were still able to add depth on the offensive line by signing Terrence Metcalf. I'd also like to add that the Saints were right up against the cap before the league went uncapped anyway, so there's no way they could have competed with signing expensive coveted unrestricted free agent difference makers anyway based on their previous cap situation.
Finally, I'll also make the argument that the new rules helped bring Darren Sharper back. There's no denying Sharper wanted a 3 year deal, and he wanted someone to commit to him for the last few years of his career. No team would do that, in my opinion, not only was he coming off microfracture knee surgery, but because there's a chance next year will end in a lockout. No team wants to commit to the big signing bonus up front that goes along with a 3 year deal when they might not get to play next season. The injury factor alone was significant, but a long term deal based on an uncertain immediate future for the league wasn't going to happen. So where did that leave Sharper? He either signs for big money with a crappy team for one year that didn't make the playoffs last year (like the Jaguars who showed interest), or he re-signs with the Saints. In a capped season, the Jets could have signed Sharper and they were clearly interest. But Sharper could only sign with a top 8 team if said teams lost an unrestricted free agent player first. The Jets' hands were completely tied, so they couldn't sign Sharper. The Saints were exempt from the top 8 rules with respect to Sharper because he was their own player. Sharper is a winner and he wanted to play for a good team that gave him a shot at winning another SuperBowl. Well, the Saints were the only team under the top 8 rules that made the divisional playoffs last year and could sign him at no penalty. I'd say that's a pretty huge advantage.
All in all, I think a lot of us were worried that teams with more financial means like the Raiders, Cowboys and Redskins would throw all kinds of crazy money at free agents and this uncapped season would be a major disadvantage to a small market team like the Saints. In the end, I think this offseason went much better than it would have otherwise thanks to the rules that were in place when you consider all the items listed above.
I've included a poll to get your thoughts on whether you agree, or if you think otherwise on if the uncapped offseason rules helped the Saints. Looking forward to seeing what you guys think about it.