Commentary

Tip Sheet: Restricted market still down

Widely predicted restricted free-agent frenzy never happened, and time's running out

Originally Published: April 9, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

With more than 200 young players gutted from the rolls of unrestricted free agents because of the provisions governing an uncapped season, it was widely suggested that this spring could feature a run on the typically untapped restricted class.

But with time running out, it hasn't happened.

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"Who said there would be a [restricted] market?' said agent Tom Condon, who represents a legion of restricted free agents -- including San Diego linebacker Shawne Merriman -- who would have been eligible for unrestricted status in a normal year. "I mean, there wasn't really a market last year, right? Maybe with all the changes, and with the final eight and final four teams being limited as to what they can do signing unrestricted free agents … people saw more of a market for the restricted guys. Yet it hasn't happened."

And with most franchises now having settled into their draft bunkers, and overall free-agent signings having slowed to a trickle as teams' priorities change, it probably won't.

Through Thursday evening, only one player, tailback Mike Bell (New Orleans to Philadelphia), had changed teams via a restricted free-agent offer sheet. The deadline for clubs to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets -- which the original team then has seven days to match -- is April 15. After the deadline, restricted free agents are precluded from negotiating with teams other than their own.

There have been four trades involving restricted free agents this spring, but a dearth of the more conventional offer sheets.

The drought follows a 2009 offseason in which four restricted players signed offer sheets. All were matched by their incumbent teams, so no one changed addresses. Last year was the first since the current system was implemented in 1993 that not a single restricted player moved as the result of an offer sheet.

The current season hasn't been much better, and there are no pending offer sheets.

"We've evaluated [the restricted free agents], but, really, not much more than in past years," said Carolina general manager Marty Hurney at the recent NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla. "I don't see too much [of a market] developing at this point."

Even with last year's goose egg, the league has averaged 2.8 restricted free-agent moves over the past five signing periods. The NFL might never again experience the 7.0 restricted moves it averaged over the first three seasons of the system (1993-95), but even outside those years, it had at least two moves in all but three of 17 springs. But there is a chance that Bell's deal with the Eagles, with New Orleans declining to match a one-year, $1.7 million offer sheet the four-year veteran signed in Philadelphia, could be the lone move by the Tax Day deadline.

One reason could be that teams are reluctant to include "poison pill" clauses -- esoteric stipulations that make it difficult for the original team to fully match a contract -- in their offer sheets to a restricted free agent. Another could be the ill will that often transpires when a team signs a restricted free agent away from another club.

The more presumptive factor, however, is the unusually strong depth of the 2010 draft pool and the likelihood that many teams simply don't want to part with the selections that are set as compensation for pirating away a restricted player.

"The league just isn't set up for there to be a really robust restricted market," said agent Jimmy Sexton. "We haven't had many [inquiries] about our restricted guys. The closer you get to the draft, the better those picks suddenly look to teams, and clubs tend to get locked in and focus on [the choices]."

Although it might be hyperbole, several general managers and personnel directors cite the drafts of 1999 and 2003 when comparing the depth of this year's lottery to recent draft classes. Because of the depth at certain positions, teams are loath to even part with middle-round choices.

"Picks are always at a premium, but especially this year, and it seems that no one wants to give them up," acknowledged Houston general manager Rick Smith.

Even for a veteran player with a three- to five-year track record.

Said Condon: "First off, you've got the picks involved as compensation [for signing restricted players]. And then you've got an often-inflated contract, because it's going to take something extraordinary to keep the original team from matching an offer sheet. It becomes a pretty steep price … and some teams aren't going to pay it even when they know what they're getting versus an unknown draft pick. They'd just rather gamble on a cheaper [pick] than someone with an actual NFL résumé."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.