If you are at all like me, you are already preparing the beer and chips for the 2010 Super Bowl game. If the National Football League (NFL) and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) negotiators fail, however, to get an extension of the collective bargaining agreement this year, 2010 will be a year of uncapped team salaries for the league, the first since 1993. This sad eventuality will make it extremely difficult for those of us who like to handicap the season to begin the process of figuring which two teams will vie for the Super Bowl ring.
Under the current salary cap, players can become unrestricted free agents after four seasons. In 2010, the time would increase to six seasons. This would allow players drafter in 2004 and earlier to enter the free market, which would have an impact on those teams with the best records. The four teams who play in Conference Championship games, for instance, would not be able to sign an unrestricted free agent until they lose one to the free agency.
As the teams gear up for the coming season, predicting the season rankings is a difficult exercise, particularly with the outcome of the ongoing labor negotiations hovering in clouds of uncertainty.
Having said that, I’m nonetheless prepared to take the leap into the murky sea of prognostication and offer my humble opinion on how the teams will stack up in the coming season. Here’s how I rank the top ten teams for 2010.
1. Dallas Cowboys. As a native Texan and a lifelong Cowboy fan (even in those years when they lingered in the basement) I think this will be the ‘Year of the Cowboys.’ Jerry Jones signed halfback Marion Barber and cornerback Terence Newman to long-term contracts, and appears to be trying to hang on to his other star players as a hedge against an uncapped season. The Cowboys starting lineup includes 13 Pro Bowl veterans, making them a force to be reckoned with in 2010.
2. San Diego Chargers. A relatively young team, San Diego has done the best job of locking in starting players. The team has set a two year goal to win a Super Bowl, and is the team that Dallas will have to keep an eye on.
3. Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia has signed 15 of its starters for 2010, and began locking in its best young players several years ago. A clear number three and quite possibly a contender to go against Dallas in the Super Bowl, although there will be a tough slog to beat out San Diego.
4. Cleveland Browns. Cleveland might be able to keep most of its starters in 2010, and is almost a certainty for the playoffs, but will not make the Super Bowl.
5. Indianapolis Colts. I’ve had a grudge against the Colts ever since their midnight move from Baltimore, but if quarterback Peyton Manning stays healthy and keeps his arm and aim, the team will remain in contention.
6. Detroit Lions. With a starting quarterback getting along in years, Detroit could be in for a rough season. None of the league’s star quarterbacks will be on the free market. Detroit will also have problems finding competent starters in 2010.
7. New England Patriots. I apologize to my friends from New England for ranking their team so low; especially as they are likely to have as many as 19 of their 22 starters for the season, but they are in very real danger of losing some of their top talent to free agency.
8. Denver Broncos. Denver has one of the oldest starting units in the league. They will have 11 starting players under contract in 2010, but their inability to find talent to fill out the rest of the lineup, the season will be a struggle.
9. Tampa Buccaneers. Buccaneer quarterback Jeff Garcia is 38, and that’s old in the NFL. Furthermore, there is no heir apparent. The team has only seven starters under contract for 2010 and dim prospects to pick up sufficient fill in the free agency.
10. Washington Redskins. With an average age just below Denver, Washington faces a truly tough 2010. Eleven of their starters are in their 30s, including five on the offensive line. The younger defenses they will face are likely to maul them unmercifully, and they have zero shot at the Super Bowl. Worse, for diehard Washington fans, in their historical rivalry with the Cowboys, I predict it will be a reverse ‘Little Bighorn.’