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Reduction of free agency to four years may be harder than it looks

Pittsburgh Steelers Host Super Bowl XLV Pep Rally

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 28: LaMarr Woodley #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers talks to fans during the Super Bowl XLV Pep Rally on January 28, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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Last season, after the threshold for unrestricted free agency had been moved from four years to six years, there was talk that the league didn’t plan to go back to four. We thought it was posturing, aimed only at making the players feel like they’ve secured a significant concession when the league returns to the UFA path that applied from the creation of real (mostly) free agency through 2009. So when Adam Schefter of ESPN reported that the new CBA would roll the limit back to four, it wasn’t much of a surprise.

Now here’s the surprise.

Chris Mortensen of ESPN told 101 ESPN in St. Louis that, once the free-agency frenzy commences, the owners want to have a right of first refusal as to three or four players per team. This would operate essentially as the transition tag, which provides a right to match but no compensation. And, in cases where the current team chooses to match, it means that the team that pursued the player negotiated his new contract with his old team at no charge. (In this regard, it would be wise for the new CBA to deal with the whole Steve Hutchinson “poison pill” thing.)

Also, Howard Balzer of 101 ESPN tells us that teams that didn’t apply the franchise tag to players with four or five years of service want to have the chance to do so.

As to the latter point, we’d say, “Tough crap.” Teams should have known that free agency likely would be reverting to the pre-2010 rules. And teams like the Steelers and the Ravens were smart enough to apply the franchise tag to LaMarr Woodley (pictured) and Haloti Ngata, respectively, even though neither guy has six years of service. Any owners that took a chance on the free agency rules not changing from 2010 to 2011 gambled and, apparently, lost. Thus, if they want to keep their four-year or five-year free agents, they need to pay them market value.

It’s only fair, given the manner in which teams didn’t pursue restricted free agents in 2010.

UPDATE: The prior version of this story accidentally included a picture of Steelers linebacker Larry Foote. The site from which we get our photos had it listed as a photo of Woodley. I still should have realized it wasn’t Woodley.