The 2010 NFL season will be uncapped due to the expiration of the leagues collective bargaining agreement. At first the idea of an uncapped season sounds like each team can go out and spend as much as they want and it will mean an explosion in free agent salaries, but that is not the case. Free agency is affected, but not positively across the board and there are new rules and limitations on certain teams. In an attempt to make sense of how the uncapped year affects the Ravens, here is a summary of what I have gathered so far. Feel free to add your thoughts on how the changes might affect the Ravens efforts to improve the team.

1. What are the rule changes in the uncapped year?
The main rule change is that there is no salary cap, but there is also no salary floor. While some teams will look at this as an opportunity to spend, spend, spend, some will see it as the chance to reduce payroll in a tight economy and make more money in 2010. The uncapped year also affect free agency status. Players with expiring contracts and less than 6 year experience will become restricted free agents rather than un-restricted. Players like Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams would have been unrestricted FA’s under the previous CBA. The uncapped year also relieves teams from having to contribute to certain player benefit programs.

2. What is the Final Eight Plan?(I got this word for word from the NFL’s release on the expiring CBA)
During the Final League Year, the eight clubs that make the Divisional Playoffs in the previous season have additional restrictions that limit their ability to sign unrestricted free agents from other clubs. In general, the four clubs participating in the championship games are limited in the number of free agents that they may sign; the limit is determined by the number of their own free agents signing with other clubs. They cannot sign any UFAs unless one of theirs is signed by another team.

For the four clubs that lost in the Divisional Playoffs, in addition to having the ability to sign free agents based on the number of their own free agents signing with other clubs, they may also sign players based on specific financial parameters. Those four only will be permitted to sign one unrestricted free agent for $5.5 million (estimated) or more in year one of the contract, plus the number of their UFAs who sign with another team. They also can sign any unrestricted free agents for less than $3.7 (estimated) million in year one of the contract with limitations on the per year increases.

3. How does this affect the Ravens in the FA market?
Since the Ravens advanced to the Divisional Round of the play-offs they will be limited in their pursuit of free agents by the “Final Eight Plan.”  The Ravens will not be able to sign an unrestricted FA unless they lose an unrestricted FA of their own, or they use their $5.5 million or $3.7 million exemptions.  The plan does not count retiring players as losing unrestricted FA’s and this will likely limit the Ravens pursuit of FA’s this off season.

4. Will the rule changes make it more likely that the Ravens remain intact, or will there be a lot of shake-up?
Early indications are that the Ravens will remain largely intact. Because of the uncapped year and their limited ability to sign FA’s from other teams, the Ravens will be in a position where they will need to retain many of their own FA’s, especially the restricted FA’s(Mark Clayton, Fabian Washington) and the players who would have been cut because of a high cap number(Trevor Pryce, Willis McGahee).  The Ravens are likely to acquire some FA’s this off-season, but they are more likely to be able to re-sign and keep their own players.

5. What potential free agents could the Ravens pursue?
This is a tough question because it is hard to speculate on how many FA’s the Ravens will lose and how the market shapes up in light of the uncapped year and the current economy. The Ravens need to upgrade the WR position. The Sun’s Mike Preston wrote that the Ravens should pursue restricted FA Malcolm Floyd of the San Diego Chargers. Floyd would be an upgrade, but would cost the Raven a draft pick. At this point there are few other receivers who make sense for the Ravens in free agency. The Ravens could also look to add some depth on the defensive line,but that would require losing a free agent or getting a player to agree to sign at one off the Ravens exemption levels. This could be possible if the FA market does not explode like some anticipate.

The Ravens have needs that could be met in free agency this year, but they are limited by not only the “Final Eight Plan,” but also by their budget.  Because the club will have to retain more of it’s high salaried players it leaves less financial flexibility to go out and sign FA’s.  Despite their being no salary cap, the Ravens ownership is not likely to break the bank like other teams will.  They will want to stick close to their budget and the salary cap could be right back in effect in 2011.  The Ravens best shot at improving their weaknesses will come through the draft, but it remains to be seen whether or not they can fill all their holes that way.