NEW YORK – The NFL has swallowed the poison pill.

When the league and the players association reached a new collective bargaining agreement in 2006, a clause called for eliminating the salary cap in 2010. Both sides assumed an uncapped season would be so distasteful that a new contract would be finalized long before the cap disappeared.

Even when the owners opted out of the CBA in 2008, little thought was given to an actual removal of the salary cap that generally has been beneficial for both owners and players.

But pro football’s salary cap has died. Free agency began today under a whole new set of rules, and no one is sure where it will lead — perhaps even to a work stoppage in 2011.

Yes, the most profitable and popular sport in America is entering territory even more uncharted than the end zone was for the St. Louis Rams last season.

“The situation we’re walking into is certainly unknown for everyone,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik says. “So no one can really look at the crystal ball and say here’s what people are going to spend and here’s what people aren’t going to spend. It’s all pure speculation.”

Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consulting company Sports Corp. Ltd., thinks teams will be tightfisted.

“That’s one of the possibilities in the uncapped season, will some teams be spending far below the current floor, especially teams that perform poorly on the field?” says Ganis. “Teams will have the option of spending the amount on their team that they think it is worth. A 4-12 team does not have the caliber players a consistently 12-4 team has.

“I expect the small and midsize market clubs are going to start to pay in this uncapped year based on what they can afford.”

But sports agent Joe Linta, who represents Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco among others, is optimistic the pocketbooks will remain open. His thoughts echo those by many of his colleagues:

“The owners are all wealthy,” Linta says, “and as much as they need and want to make money, the need to win is greater than the need to make money — they already have plenty. Their insatiable desire to win will override their greed to save and make money. So, yeah, they’ll spend.”

 

CHARGERS: San Diego placed the maximum first- and third-round tender on speedy running back Darren Sproles, one of two surprise moves in the hours before free agency began.

The Chargers also released tackle Jamal Williams, a 12-year veteran who has been the run-stuffing anchor of the defensive line. Williams sustained an arm injury in the 2009 season opener and missed the rest of the year. He’ll turn 34 next month and has a history of knee injuries.

Sproles was offered a contract for $7,283,000. If the five-year veteran signs an offer sheet with another team, San Diego would have the right to match the offer or receive first- and third-round draft picks as compensation for losing him.

 

JETS: New York reached an agreement in principle with the San Diego Chargers to acquire cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

The Jets confirmed the deal but didn’t release specifics, although it is believed to be for a draft pick in 2011.

Cromartie, an All-Pro in 2007, will team with Darrelle Revis in the Jets’ secondary, forming possibly the best cornerback tandem in the NFL. Cromartie replaces Lito Sheppard, who was released earlier in the day after one disappointing season.

The Jets also placed a first- and-third round tender on wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tendered seven other restricted free agents, including running back-kick returner Leon Washington and receiver Brad Smith.

 

PATRIOTS: New England released tight end Chris Baker, an eight-year veteran who had 14 receptions and two touchdowns in his only season with the Patriots.

 

CHIEFS: Kansas City signed a contract extension with veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel.

Vrabel, a 13-year veteran, started 14 games for the Chiefs in 2009, with 65 tackles and two sacks. He was acquired in 2009 from the New England Patriots.

 

PANTHERS: Carolina cut quarterback Jake Delhomme, just over a year after giving him a lucrative contract extension, only to watch him have his worst season as a pro.

 

 

CARDINALS: Arizona released starting safety Antrel Rolle, who was due to receive a $4 million roster bonus and an $8 million salary.