Restricted market has attractive options
With the unrestricted market mostly picked over like the annual Filene's Basement bridal dress sale, some teams may now begin to turn to the league's pool of 54 restricted free agents to bolster their rosters.
There is, however, one essential problem: Because of the mechanics involved, with an original team able to match an offer sheet to a player with whom it has retained a right of first refusal, getting restricted free agents to change clubs is a difficult process.
That's why over the first 16 years of the current system, only 60 restricted free agents, about 3.7 per spring, have switched teams. There have been only nine switches the past three years and, in the 13 sessions since 1996, there were more than four changes only one time.
"It's a tricky business for everyone involved," said agent Glenn Schwartzman, who represented then-Pittsburgh kicker Kris Brown when he moved to the Houston Texans as a restricted free agent in 2002. "Everything has to go just right from a lot of different angles. It really has to be well thought-out by everyone."
A primer on restricted free agency: Current teams can gain a right of first refusal by making a one-year tender to restricted free agents, who, by definition, are three-year veterans. The failure to tender a restricted free agent makes the player totally free. A club can also rescind a tender offer, as Houston recently did with defensive end Earl Cochran, making him an unrestricted free agent.
There are four tender levels. A team gains a general right of first refusal by offering a one-year, low-level tender of $1.01 million, which brings compensation in the round in which the player was originally drafted; second-round compensation carries a tender price tag of $1.545 million; for first-round compensation, the figure is $2.198 million; and the highest tender, at $2.792 million, brings first- and third-round picks as compensation.
The original team, if it has made a tender offer, has a right of first refusal on a restricted player. That gives a club seven days to match an offer sheet that a player signs with another team. If the original team matches, it assumes the major terms of the offer sheet. If it opts not to match, the player moves on to his new team, and the original club receives draft pick compensation.
Through Thursday evening, only two players had been signed to offer sheets in this free-agency period. Houston wide receiver David Anderson signed a three-year, $4.5 million offer sheet with Denver, and the Texans quickly matched it. This week, New York Jets defensive back Abram Elam signed a one-year, $1.5 million offer sheet with Cleveland. A decision by Jets officials, on whether to match the offer or not, is still pending.
Two years ago, the NFL implemented the second-round tender level, and that further reduced the number of restricted free agents changing teams. This year, 25 players, many of whom were drafted on the second day, received second-round tenders. There was one first-round tender, and three tenders where the compensation was first- and third-round draft picks. Twenty-five restricted players received the lowest level tender. Most players in the top three levels were "over-tendered," meaning they received an offer higher than the round at which they originally entered the league.
But even with all the complications, there are some attractive restricted free agents, and there are likely to be more offer sheets signed in the coming weeks.
Here are 10 of the restricted players likely to get some attention:
Lance Moore, WR, New Orleans (compensation level: second round)
A former undrafted free agent (Toledo), Moore is quick, dynamic and runs precise pass routes. Think of Wes Welker (New England), with more speed and wiggle. We normally don't recommend a player with second-round compensation, but Moore is more accomplished than any wide receiver a team can draft in the second round. And wide receiver is a position where players don't exactly thrive as rookies. Moore is only 25, and he might be worth sacrificing a No. 2 pick to get. He had 79 catches for 928 yards and 10 touchdowns, playing in all 16 games (six starts), in 2008.
Jarrett Bush, DB, Green Bay (compensation: none)
A one-time waiver claim from Carolina in 2006, Bush has good size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), can play cornerback or safety, and is a special-teams terror. Has started just one game in three seasons, but the former Utah State standout can help a team in a lot of ways, including playing as a nickel back. He has posted double-digit special-teams tackles in each of his three seasons in the league, with 17 in 2008. Has already drawn interest from several teams, and has made some visits.
Victor Adeyanju, DE, St. Louis (compensation: fourth round)
An upfield pass-rusher with some ability to anchor versus the run, the native of Nigeria has size (6-4, 280) and potential. He has started at least seven games in each of his three seasons, and has 25 total starts. The former Indiana University standout is coming off a 2008 season in which he had a career-high 47 tackles and two sacks. He has 110 total tackles in three seasons.
John Kuhn, FB, Green Bay (compensation: none)
Kuhn is a strong lead blocker, a decent receiver and the prototype of what teams want at fullback. The former Shippensburg University star has only 17 "touches" in three seasons, including 10 rushing attempts, and is fairly selfless. He converted all three of his third-and-short rushes last season. Kuhn, 26, has started in just four of 41 appearances, but he has already made some visits to other teams.
Richie Incognito, OL, St. Louis (compensation: third round)
A third-round pick might be a lot to sacrifice for a player with Incognito's lengthy history of injuries and some off-field issues in college. But offensive linemen are usually hard to find. The former Nebraska star can play center or guard, and he is a strong in-line blocker. He's played 35 games in three seasons, and all of them were starts. He started 15 games in 2006, and all 16 games in 2008.
Ruvell Martin, WR, Green Bay (compensation: none)
Terrific size (6-4, 220) makes Martin an effective red-zone target. The 26-year-old has 52 career receptions for 749 yards and six touchdowns, including four scores in 2007. Martin's best season was his 2006 rookie year, when he had 21 catches. The one-time undrafted free agent (Saginaw Valley State) has played in 41 games, with nine starts.
George Wilson, SS, Buffalo (compensation: none)
A former wide receiver converted to safety in 2007, Wilson has 31 appearances in the secondary, including nine starts in 2007. He's not a big hitter, but he has a nose for the ball and is best playing deep in Cover 2 schemes. He's coming off a rib injury that landed him on IR and limited him to three starts in 2008. The former Arkansas star, originally signed by Detroit in 2004, has 64 career tackles, 1½ sacks and four passes defensed.
Shaun Suisham, PK, Washington (compensation: none)
After knocking around the league (Pittsburgh, Dallas and San Francisco) for years, the former Bowling Green standout finally found a home in Washington. He's somewhat inconsistent, but has converted 71 field goals in the past two seasons, and has a career conversion rate of .787. He has a strong leg, as evidenced by nine touchbacks in 2008.
Keith Ellison, LB, Buffalo (compensation: sixth round)
Ellison is not a great weakside linebacker, but he's solid, productive and fairly athletic. The former Oregon State star has 30 starts in three seasons. That includes 14 starts in 2008, when he registered a career-high 73 tackles. For his career, the 25-year-old has 177 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.
Demetrius Williams, WR, Baltimore (compensation: fourth round)
Williams is often injured and finished last season on injured reserve, with ankle and Achilles problems. He's a deep threat with decent size (6-2, 197) and hands, but his injury history makes him a gamble. Still, Williams, 25, has averaged a healthy 15.7 yards on 55 catches. The Oregon product has played in 32 games, and started five, but injuries limited him to seven appearances in 2008.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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