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Final Eight Plan limitations apply to trades, too

As the first year without a salary cap since the arrival of the salary cap approaches, we’re spending plenty of time picking through the details of the current labor agreement.

And here’s something we found that we hadn’t previously seen anywhere.

Article XXI spells out the terms of the Final Eight Plan, a provision aimed at preserving competitive balance in the uncapped year by preventing the teams that made it to the division round or better from buying up a bunch of unrestricted free agents.

For the final four teams (Saints, Colts, Vikings, Jets), no unrestricted free agents may be signed from other teams until one of their current unrestricted free agents is lost to another team. Complicating matters is that the value of the first year of the replacement free agent’s contract must be no more than the first-year salary paid to the player who was lost, with annual growth of no more than 30 percent.

For the next four teams (Cardinals, Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers), one unrestricted free agent may be signed at a base salary of $5.5 million or more, and an unlimited amount of others at a first-year salary of $3.7 million with a 30-percent limit on growth.

It had been assumed by many that these teams nevertheless could trade for an unlimited amount of players.

Under Section 7 of Article XXI of the CBA, they can’t.

Here’s the key language: “No Club subject to the provisions of this Article may, for one League Year, trade for a player it otherwise would not be permitted to sign as an Unrestricted Free Agent as a result of the provisions of this Article.”

That said, Article XXI, Section 8 expressly permits teams to negotiate with and sign unrestricted free agents limited by the transition or franchise tag. But Section 7 apparently restricts the ability of the final eight teams to work out a trade for a franchise player for something less than two first-round draft picks -- a common approach that multiple teams have used when shipping franchise players to new teams.

Keep in mind that none of this affects the ability of the final eight teams to sign or trade for restricted free agents, since the Final Eight Plan applies only to unrestricted free agents, and unrestricted free agency applies only to players who have six or more years of service.

[UPDATE: We’ve asked the league for an official interpretation of Article XXI, Section 7. For example, it might only prevent the final eight teams from trading for a 2010 unrestricted free agent who has signed a new contract. Absent such a rule, a team like the Buccaneers could act as a straw man, signing Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and then trading him to the Jets. Under a broad interpretation of Article XXI, Section 7, the final eight teams might not be permitted to trade for any player with six or more years of service.]