It used to be that by the time free agency rolled around, the Eagles had done all their work.
They had evaluated all the eligible players and pretty much figured out which unrestricted guys they would pursue and which restricted guys they would be willing to give up draft picks to get.
But those days, barring some kind of Meadowlands-like miracle, are over.
If a new collective-bargaining agreement is not signed by 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, the league will have no salary cap in 2010. There are a multitude of consequences, but the most pressing is that players with four or five years of experience will go from being unrestricted free agents in the old system to being restricted under the new rules.
There are 212 of these players, and they're not likely to be happy. Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver, for instance, was an unrestricted free agent last season. But since he has only five years under his belt, Weaver will become restricted, which means the Eagles have the right to match any offer for the fullback.
For teams, an uncapped year changes free-agency rules and a way of doing things that has been in place for 17 years.
"You've got to circle back, which we haven't done in the past," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said recently. "Usually at this point, we're done with free agency, we have a plan in place, and we kind of know what we're going to do."
With no deal, there will be about 300 restricted free agents. This is a much more attractive group than the unrestricted one for an obvious reason: the players are younger and in the prime of their careers. The list includes top talents like Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil, Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin, and New Orleans guard Jahri Evans (a former Frankford High School star).
Today is the deadline for teams to make offers to their restricted free agents. Teams hoping to sign a restricted free agent would have to forfeit draft picks depending on the size of the offer. In a new, uncapped world, teams might make higher offers than they had in the past.
"It may be a case where a guy you thought was a pretty good player and maybe you'd give up a mid-draft pick," Roseman said. "Well, now a team has tendered him a first- or second-[round pick], and that's kind of off the table."
The Eagles are slated to have 10 restricted free agents. Wide receiver Jason Avant, linebacker Akeem Jordan, guard-center Nick Cole, and Weaver are expected to warrant offers higher than those of cornerback Ellis Hobbs, guard Max Jean-Gilles, linebackers Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither, punter Sav Rocca, and tight end Alex Smith. Some of the players from the latter group may simply receive no offer, making them free to sign with any team.
Weaver and the Eagles have had ongoing contract negotiations and were hoping to reach a deal, according to a league source.
The Eagles are not likely to re-sign any of their four unrestricted free agents - linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, safety Sean Jones, defensive end Jason Babin, and linebacker Tracy White. Trotter's agent, Jordan Woy, said yesterday that Trotter would begin talking to other teams as soon as the free-agency period opens.
The field of unrestricted free agents has been diluted by the new system, but there are a few headline names the Eagles may pursue. Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers is the marquee name and has the Eagles as one of the teams on his short list, according to a league source.
The Eagles also may be interested in Arizona safety Antrel Rolle, Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson, Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett, and Minnesota running back Chester Taylor.
"I'm not sure how the market will be," Roseman said. "It's usually the same every year. People try to read into the market, and usually a couple guys get signed right out of the gate and then a couple more guys in the next few days. And then there's a lull. And then there's this kind of middle market that reemerges in the middle of March when people reevaluate."
Because most of the unrestricted free agents are 29 years or older, the market for players other than Peppers and a few others should be relatively tame.
"You can get mileage out of a 29-year-old or a 30-year-old as long as you have a very specific role in mind for him and he fits your scheme, because you're not going to have a whole lot of start-up time with him," Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "You're not going to have a whole lot of time to say, 'Well, it took him a year to figure out our defense.' "
Of course, without the cap, teams like the Washington Redskins or Dallas Cowboys may spend like poets on payday.
"You always see some teams jump out there and make some moves," New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "But with the uncertainty of everything going on, the unrest of everything going on, I think people will be cautious."
And with draft-pick compensation, there isn't going to be much movement in restricted free agency. The Eagles have usually hoarded their draft picks. They have eight in April's draft, with six coming in the first four rounds. Most NFL people are calling this year's draft, especially on defense, one of the deepest in years.
"No one wants to give up draft picks," former Eagles and current Cleveland Browns general manager Tom Heckert said. "That's just the way the NFL works. You're so excited about the draft guys coming out that you're saying, instead of giving up a second-, third- or fourth-round pick, you think you can get a better guy in the draft. And obviously, there's a financial difference in what you're paying second- or third-round guys."