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Uncapped Year: Bears make an Early Splash, but Much Ado About Nothing?

You guys may not remember this, but my very first contribution to this wonderful site was this guy, "What could an uncapped 2010 season mean for the Bears?"

In it, we took a look at some of the various implications an uncapped year had on rookies, free agents, teams, and the Bears. It finished up with this:

This part is completely open to debate. In a time like this, it could be the time the Bears step to the forefront and try to fix some problems. It could be the time they try to improve the bottom line. I'd put more hypotheses here, but honestly, every time I think I know what this franchise does, it does something that either confuses me to the point of anger, or puts some kind of false hope in me.

Three months later, Free Agency has started and the Bears did some stuff, but the big spending some predicted isn't there, leading us to wonder...was it much ado about nothing?

So the Bears did indeed make a big splash with their signings of Peppers, Taylor, and Manumaleuna. (Spell check will never forgive that one.) It begs the question, though, Why aren't we seeing the big spending many expected in an uncapped year?

Barry Wilner of the Associated Press wrote a great article about this very subject yesterday. He mentions how, while a few teams made big moves early, overall the league is still sort of working like it always has. Even injured veterans are still getting big deals. (See: Kampman, Aaron)

He also spoke with some player-agents, and what they're saying is that teams are still acting largely as if there's still a cap:

"I see contracts being done as if there is a cap," says player agent Peter Schaffer.

"I see two things at work here. Instead of signing bonuses, teams are giving a roster bonus and when they kick in those bonuses under a salary cap, there will be no proration and their cap number won't be threatened. And I see teams preparing for a cap in the next CBA."

So teams are acting as if there's a cap, either for their own financial interests, their interests in the future, or because that's just sort of the way that they've operated for a while. Schaffer then goes on to make another valid point, one that hints at the PR motivations of Free Agency in addition to the on-the field benefit.

"Free agency gives a team a chance to go to their fans and say, `We stockpiled players and we're doing all we can to put a winning team on the field. Come support us, we might go to the playoffs.' Every team can legitimately say that," Schaffer said. "But the reality in terms of the cap and contract negotiations is teams are spending to a budget whether there's a cap or not."

So that's it, right? Teams are just sort of working off of a budget, regardless of whether they can spend what ever they want. No, not really, there is another factor, one that I wrote about last December. My words:

Otherwise, free agents will be restricted, allowing teams right of first refusal for many players. This still causes the lingering problem--teams can offer the restricted free agent whatever they want, and if a team wants to retain it's top talent, it may have to pay to match, which isn't something a lot of teams will want to do.

And that is largely what's keeping this Free Agency from being as big. Many players who would be available right now, and would be pretty attractive candidates for a lot of teams, have tender offers requiring compensation that teams just don't want to match. Specifically:

That left 212 players who would require compensation if they signed with another team, a market that has been virtually untapped so far.

212. That's four full rosters worth of guys. Now, this market may get tapped into a little bit more here in the next few weeks. With the draft coming up, teams will start to more heavily weigh the costs and benefits of acquiring these guys. Do you give up a second round pick to get an average to above average talent, or do you roll the dice in April and bring in someone out of an exceptionally deep draft class? It's these decisions that will make mock drafts even more fun than normal this year, as a zero hour compensation pick may go to a team that upsets the entire system. Or not.

As it stands, it doesn't look like there will be a ton of movement in Free Agency. Does that mean that the teams who are making some strides have the best chance to improve in 2010?  Let's hope so. We know the other moves we'd like to see the Bears make...let's hope they don't think they're ship-shape.