RFA Market has Never Materialized as Expected

TSX looks at the non-existent market for restricted free agents, which once projected to become a booming secondary outlet for teams to add solid veterans to their rosters.

There was a somewhat plausible notion not all that long ago, that the restricted free agent market might actually become a relatively robust activity area, particularly once the unrestricted free agents were pretty much picked over.

It hasn't happened. It certainly won't happen this year, and there's no reason to believe it ever will.

With the mid-week agreement of Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes on his one-year tender of $2.61 million, the restricted free agent market has essentially closed down for business in 2011. Not a single restricted free agent changed teams, at least by the conventional method. There weren't even any offer sheets from other clubs signed by restricted free agents this year.

A onetime undrafted college free agent who some feel outplayed the higher-profile Dunta Robinson last season and who made the Pro Bowl, Grimes, probably in line for a long-term commitment from the usually proactive Falcons, was the last of the restricted free agent class to come to terms. And there was never a hint that Grimes, who carried first-round compensation by virtue of the tender offer made to him by the Falcons in the spring, ever attracted offer-sheet interest.

CB Brent Grimes
Kirby Lee/US Presswire

"Some people might say that (the restricted market) has dried up," said prominent agent Tom Condon, whose firm represents Grimes. "But I'm not sure it was ever there to begin with. I know a few years ago, there was a feeling from some people that the restricted market would get stronger. But it never really has."

In 2006 and 2007, four restricted free agents changed teams each year via offer sheets that were not matched by their incumbent clubs. In the four free agency periods since, a total of four restricted free agents switched clubs. There was just one restricted free agent who switched clubs via an offer sheet last spring, tailback Mike Bell (New Orleans to Philadelphia), and he was subsequently traded during the season. But the Bell deal was one more than was consummated this year.

Fifty-seven restricted free agents re-signed with their own teams, all of them re-upping for the one-year tender offers. Four others had their tenders rescinded, and two of those re-signed with their original franchises.

Said one agent: "You couldn't even get a team to nibble on a restricted guy."

Teams have done a better job in recent seasons of identifying young, talented players and signing them to contract extensions even before they reach the three-year threshold for restricted free agency. In 2010, of course, the restricted class included more high profile -- and thus un-signable -- players because of the uncapped year and the fact that fourth- and fifth-year veterans were subjected to restricted free agency. The inclusion of a second-round tender a few years ago allowed clubs to upgrade one-year offers and retain more players.

Add to that the fact that teams are increasingly reluctant to surrender draft picks, which have become valued currency in the league, and that signing a restricted player to an offer sheet that is unmatched requires draft choice compensation. The highest tender, first- and third-round compensation, wasn't used to protect any of the restricted free agents this year. But there were five tenders at the first-round level, like Grimes, and 15 more at the second-round price tag. Only 29 restricted players carried tenders at the levels below a third-rounder.

In addition to Grimes, the first-round tenders went to Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril, Kansas City cornerback Brandon Carr, New Orleans guard Carl Nicks, and Oakland tailback Michael Bush. All of them, perhaps with the oft-injured but solid backup Bush bringing up the rear, are established players. None got an offer sheet.

There might come a time in the future when the restricted free agent offer sheet becomes an option again. For now, though, it's disappeared.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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