Restricted FAs bear brunt of labor pact
A quirk in the CBA costs a few players potential millions
Get ready for some collective groaning throughout the NFL when the unrestricted free-agency period opens on Friday morning.That will be the sound of more than 200 players who thought they would be cashing in on the open market this year. They're the unfortunate ones who now find themselves boxed in and bitter. They're the guys who went from being unrestricted free agents to restricted free agents thanks to a horrible glitch in the system. For those who don't follow this stuff that closely, here's the short version: The league's owners and players haven't agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, so the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap. Since they couldn't reach an agreement -- technically, they have until Friday, but a deal is highly unlikely -- they have triggered a rule that affects free agency. Normally, veterans with four or five seasons of experience become unrestricted free agents. This year, those same players will need six years for such a qualification, which means a good number of them have been designated as restricted free agents instead.
So when the free-agency period begins at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, many veterans will be trying to control their anger. That group includes recent Pro Bowlers like Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin, Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins and Denver Broncos defensive end Elvis Dumervil."I'm not watching or listening to anything on that day and I don't care about who ends up where," said Houston Texans strong safety Bernard Pollard, who just finished his fourth season. "All I can do is sign the tender I get offered. As for the guys who've been around long enough, they can go out and see what their value is." Veterans like Pollard are upset for one major reason: They've played by the rules of the game since they came into the league and now the rules have changed. They've watched friends enter free agency in previous years and reap huge financial benefits. They've dreamed of what it would be like to finally discover their real value to potential suitors. All were looking forward to deciding where they would play next. Now they face serious limitations on their earning power. Restricted free agents can receive one-year tenders that pay them nowhere near what they could reap as unrestricted free agents. For example, the highest tender for a player with four years of experience -- a designation that would require an opposing team to give up a first- and third-round pick to sign him if his current team doesn't match the offer -- is $3.168 million. That number increases to $3.268 million for a player with five years of experience. In contrast, a talented player on the open market last season could have commanded at least five times that amount in guaranteed money. To put this into perspective for the people who aren't sympathizing with highly paid athletes, how would you feel after learning that an expected huge bonus was going to be postponed another year? How hurt would you be if your employer said you needed one more year of work to receive a pension after already putting in the necessary time on the job? This is the kind of frustration these restricted free agents feel. They've paid their dues. Now they're being the told to wait another season for the long-term deals they covet. "What people don't understand is that [restricted free agents] don't have any guarantees," Pollard said. "We don't get any money up front in these deals and we'll be asked to do all the things we've done before. So if I tear up my ACL in the offseason, I have no security. And I also have to play another year to get back to this same position. Yes, we do love playing this game, but it's also hard work." Agents Harold Lewis and Kevin Omell have clients who understand what Pollard is feeling. One such player is San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Tim Dobbins. He's a backup linebacker who had shown enough potential to earn a shot at starting elsewhere. Instead, he'll sign a tender right along with an assortment of other teammates. In fact, the Chargers have so many talented players who lost their first shot at unrestricted free agency -- including wide receiver Vincent Jackson, left tackle Marcus McNeill and outside linebacker Shawne Merriman -- that San Diego is easily the biggest beneficiary of this rule. In a typical year, the team would've had to make hard choices about how it could afford to keep such Pro Bowl-caliber players. Now San Diego only has to worry about committing roughly $10 million to hold on to that trio. "If you add up all the potential signing bonuses that would've been paid in free agency this year, you're probably talking about $30 million to $40 million that each team is saving," Lewis said. "That's about $1 billion that is going right into the owners' pockets. So when people talk about why the owners aren't coming to the table [in the CBA negotiations], I say, 'Why would they right now?' They're getting a great deal. And the [restricted free agents] are taking a big hit for their team." Lewis added that it has to be even more painful for those free agents who were good enough to receive substantial contract extension offers prior to this year, but passed instead. "I guarantee you that a lot of agents were talking to their clients and asking them if it was worth hitting a double a year or two ago when they had a chance at a triple or a home run later [on the open market]," Lewis said. "And those players ended up losing their rights because of a mistake in the CBA." That's the reality that the affected players have to stomach for the next year. A select few will be fortunate enough to land long-term deals in the coming months. Others will keep their stock high enough to warrant big paydays in the future, while some might see their play suffer or sustain an injury. And if they're like Pollard, they're all probably wondering how this issue became as complicated as it now appears. One thing they all have to agree on is that they're the first real collateral damage in the battle between the owners and players. "I'm not a poker player, but if I was, I'd be folding by now," said Pollard, who will be commiserating with at least two other fellow restricted free-agent teammates -- linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen Daniels. "The owners hold all the cards right now. And we don't have any rights." As free agency prepares to begin, you can bet that will be a common sentiment felt in most parts of the NFL.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.