Burleson among restricted bargains

WR Nate Burleson is one of 10 available restricted free agents who could be considered attractive bargains, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Updated: March 20, 2006, 5:01 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In his first three seasons in the league, offensive lineman Reggie Wells started 26 games for Arizona, and the Cardinals averaged just 89.9 rushing yards and 3.4 yards per attempt in those contests.

Not exactly scintillating statistics, right?

OK, then try these slightly more impressive numbers: $17.6 million over five years, a signing bonus of $3 million and a $2 million roster bonus. Not bad, huh, for a former sixth-round draft choice from that vaunted football program at tiny Clarion (Pa.) University?

Those numbers are the ones on the offer sheet that Wells signed with the Buffalo Bills last week as teams around the league made an unusually early dive into the restricted free agent pool. Obviously, based on the size of the offer, the Buffalo personnel department believes that Wells is individually superior to the sum results of the moribund Arizona rushing attack of the past three seasons.

Typically, teams don't look to the restricted free agent market until a month or so into the signing period. But there has been a flurry of activity already, with two restricted players changing teams in the first 10 days of free agency, and two more signing offer sheets that will pay them significantly more than they were scheduled to earn.

"There's definitely more early interest than I've ever seen before, no doubt about it," said the agent for one of the more highly regarded restricted free agents, who has a few potential suitors despite carrying a first-round compensation price tag. "I think it's a combination of a lot of factors, including the fact the unrestricted [talent pool] isn't that good this year. Plus, there are always going to be a few [gutsy] teams that think they can steal a good, young player out of the restricted market."

That may be true. But every year it seems there are predictions that the restricted market is going to blow wide open, with increased action, and that has rarely occurred. Since the current system was implemented in 1993, only 51 restricted free agents, slightly less than four per year, have switched teams. Over the last four years, only 10 restricted free agents have changed franchises, and that total was fueled by the 2003 restricted spree undertaken by the Washington Redskins.

Washington acquired four young veterans -- wide receiver Laveranues Coles, safety Matt Bowen, return specialist Chad Morton and defensive tackle Jermaine Haley -- as restricted free agents that year. The unusual tactic cost the Redskins four draft choices, including their first-round pick, in 2003. And three years later, the results of that grand experiment? None of the four players is on the Redskins' roster.

Signing a restricted free agent is, indeed, a tricky proposition. First, a team has only three seasons' worth of empirical data on a player. Second, it must fashion a contract the player's original team won't match.

By definition, a restricted free agent is a veteran with three years accrued toward the NFL pension plan. Incumbent teams can retain a right of first refusal, which allows them to match an offer sheet from another club, by making a qualifying offer to the player. If a player signs with another club, the incumbent team has seven days to match the offer. And if the original team opts not to match, it is rewarded with draft choice compensation for allowing the restricted free agent to move to a new franchise.

The level of compensation is established by the size of the qualifying offer. For the lowest-level offer, of $712,000, a team is compensated with a pick commensurate to the round in which the player originally was selected. The middle-level qualifying offer, of $1.552 million, brings first-round compensation. And the highest qualifying offer, $2.069 million, attaches first- and third-round selections as compensation.

Wells, 25, received the lowest qualifying offer. Now it will cost the Cardinals, who likely will match the Bills' offer sheet, considerably more to retain a young veteran the coaches regard as a key player to the much-needed improvement on their offensive line.

The Bills have been especially active in the restricted free agent market. In addition to Wells, they signed promising Chicago defensive lineman Israel Idonije to a four-year, $7.6 million offer sheet that includes a $1.6 million signing bonus. In three seasons, Idonije, who possesses great natural size (6-foot-7, 290 pounds) and strength and can play end or tackle, has 34 tackles and two sacks in 26 games. But new Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, the secondary coach in Chicago last season, feels Idonije, who played college football at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, can be a force. And since Idonije entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, the Bears have the right to match the Buffalo offer sheet, but would receive no compensation if they choose not to.

On Saturday, the Cincinnati Bengals declined to match the four-year offer sheet inked between the Houston Texans and wide receiver Kevin Walter, and instead accepted a seventh-round pick as compensation. In the opening week of free agency, San Francisco traded restricted free agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to the Redskins for a third-round pick in this year's draft and a fourth-round choice in 2007. Lloyd received a $1.552 million qualifying offer from San Francisco, meaning he would have brought a first-round choice as compensation had another team signed him to an offer sheet, but the 49ers chose to deal him away for less.

There is only one restricted free agent this year, Indianapolis defensive end Robert Mathis, who received the highest-level qualifying offer, and carries first- and third-round compensation. Thirteen other players, including Lloyd, received the middle-level qualifying offer, and a first-round compensatory price tag. That group features Pro Bowl linebacker Cato June of Indianapolis, speedy St. Louis wide receiver Kevin Curtis and Pittsburgh cornerback and emerging star Ike Taylor.

There are rumblings that some teams might pursue Taylor and Curtis, but nothing has happened yet with those players.

In fact, it is more typically the bargain players in restricted free agency -- young veterans who perhaps have outplayed their draft status but still received just the low-level qualifying offer -- who are most attractive. Here's a look at 10 players with compensation in the third round or lower who might garner interest:

• WR Nate Burleson, Minnesota (compensation: third round): Has started 33 games in three seasons and posted 68 catches for 1,006 yards and nine touchdowns in 2004. Injuries limited his playing time and his production in 2005, but it's still hard to believe the Vikings, with all the cap room they possessed, didn't make him a higher qualifying offer. Could be a terrific No. 2 receiver if he stays healthy. Visited with Seattle officials last week but did not sign an offer sheet.

• CB Ricky Manning, Carolina (compensation: third round): Former starter who moved into nickel role after the Panthers signed Ken Lucas in free agency last spring. Undersized, but a feisty defender who plays a physical style and gets around the football. Lots of playing time on his résumé. Nine career interceptions during the regular season and had three pickoffs as a rookie in the 2003 NFC Championship Game.

• OG Vincent Manuwai, Jacksonville (compensation: third round): Has struggled at times, and seems to have fallen out of favor a bit with the Jaguars staff, but still a tough in-line blocker. At 312 pounds, can be a real load, and he has started 46 games in three seasons.

• PK Josh Brown, Seattle (compensation: seventh round): A few teams are said to be considering making him an offer, but fear the Seahawks would match, no matter the terms. Has converted 63 of 80 field-goal tries and all but one of his 145 extra-point attempts. Is 23-for-37 from 40 yards or more and has connected on 7 of 12 field-goal attempts of 50 yards or more. At age 26, could have 10 or more productive years left in him.

• OG Montrae Holland, New Orleans (compensation: fourth round): Like Manuwai, is a tough drive blocker, and has started 30 games, including 23 contests the past two seasons. Has had past problems with his knees, and that will always be a concern, along with weight issues. But can play both guard spots and is a nasty mauler when he's on his game.

• LB Hunter Hillenmeyer, Chicago (compensation: fifth round): Not a very flashy defender, but a solid strong-side backer who makes the play he is supposed to make, and is rarely out of position. Became a full-time starter in 2004 and has averaged 80.5 tackles the last two seasons. Only has 3½ sacks, but he can control the tight end and gets pretty good drops in the passing game.

• WR Shaun McDonald, St. Louis (compensation: fourth round): Has been overshadowed by Curtis, who was also chosen in the 2002 draft. Started just three games in three seasons, but has 93 catches for 1,079 yards, and is quick enough to add yards after the catch. Coming off a 2005 campaign in which he posted a career-best 46 receptions. Can also return punts.

• DT Kindal Moorehead, Carolina (compensation: fifth round): Doesn't have great size, so likely wouldn't be an every-down tackle, but should be a solid No. 3 guy in most teams' rotations, and can provide some inside push on third down. Has seven sacks for his career, so there's some pass-rush ability here. Résumé includes a dozen career starts.

• LB Matt Wilhelm, San Diego (compensation: fourth round): Has appeared in just 25 games in three years, but when he's on the field, he makes things happen. Terrific size (6-2, 254 pounds) and might be able to play inside or on the strong side. Has 45 career tackles and one sack, and is an excellent special teams player.

• CB Frank Walker, New York Giants (compensation: sixth round): Has had problems staying healthy and has appeared in only 20 games. But he's got the skills to develop into a decent nickel cornerback if he can stay on the field, and is a very good special teams player.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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