RFA market nearly irrelevant

Don't bet on disgruntled Steelers WR Mike Wallace changing addresses via restricted free agency. It's a reminder of how agents have very little regard for the restricted free agent market.

Unless there is a major alteration to the collective bargaining agreement, restricted type free agents will be a component of the NFL free agent landscape through 2020, the term of the landmark 10-year labor extension negotiated last summer.

But if the last few years are any indication, with little or no action in the restricted market since 2008, Article 9, Section 2 might as well not even exist.

Only a week remains until the April 20 deadline at 11:59 p.m. by which teams can sign restricted free agents to offer sheets, thus triggering a seven-day period during which the original club can match the principle terms of the offer, and the market has been dead since it opened on March 13.

As of Friday morning, Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas was the only RFA to visit another team (Tennessee), but there's been no indication that any player has even come close to a deal.

There were breathless reports that St. Louis wide receiver Danny Amendola made a trip to New England the middle of last month, conjuring up comparisons to when the Pats signed then-Miami slot receiver Wes Welker to an offer sheet in 2007, and eventually acquired him via trade. But the extended visit to the Boston area by the Rams' player was on a return home from having attended the funeral of his aunt in Maine.

Even Amendola, tagged with a tender that would have required second-round compensation, laughed off the reports.

And that's frankly what restricted free agency has been the previous three years.


"Whoever (predicted) a few years ago that the restricted market would develop ... well, that was a pretty bad joke," prominent agent Tom Condon told The Sports Xchange. "It hasn't happened and it never might."

In 2008, three restricted free agents changed clubs via the conventional offer sheet mechanism, and since then only one has switched addresses. That was tailback Mike Bell, who went from New Orleans to Philadelphia in 2010 on a one-year, $1.7 million deal.

The spring of 2009 was the first time since the current free agency system was enacted in 1993 that there was no restricted free agent movement at all. But barring an unexpected transaction in the coming week, this will be the third time in four years that restricted players will have been shut out.

There were four offer sheets signed by restricted free agents in 2009, but all were matched by the players' incumbent clubs. In '10, there were four trades involving restricted players, but only the Bell move came via an offer sheet. In 2011 and this year: Nothing.

In the first 16 years of free agency, there were just four signing periods in which fewer than three restricted players changed teams via offer sheets. The last four springs, though, have brought a restricted free agent drought.

The restricted designation and the tacit threat of potential movement was supposed to be a bargaining chip of sorts for players and agents -- albeit not as significant as unrestricted free agency -- but it's gone bust of late. If no players switch teams this year via conventional restricted movement, it will mean one player transfer total in four years.

A few restricted players and their representatives have even questioned to The Sports Xchange in recent weeks if the restricted system, and the perceived threat allegedly inherent to it, is still a viably practical element of the CBA. Of course, the comments of those players and agents were made not for attribution, for fear of appearing in conflict with the NFLPA. But the reality of the restricted system is that it simply hasn't been a factor at all in player movement the past few seasons.

"(The restricted system) has basically become non-existent," one agent said.

Perhaps in terms of leverage, real or fabricated, it might seem a threat. After all, three-year Baltimore veteran cornerback Ladarius Webb signed a six-year, $50 million extension a week ago, and the suggestion was that his status as a restricted free agent was a contributing factor to the deal. But the more prominent incentive was that Webb, a third-round steal in '09, could have become an unrestricted free agent next spring if he had simply agreed to the one-year, $2.74 million restricted tender made to him. He could theoretically have departed, and the Ravens would have gotten nothing in return.

Essentially, the Ravens retained Webb through 2017 by constructing an extension that actually costs the team less in 2012 salary cap money than it was being charged with the one-year tender. And team officials acknowledged to the Sports Xchange that the ability to secure Webb for the long-term at a somewhat palatable price was a much stronger impetus than the prospect of losing him as a restricted free agent.

There was some sentiment that with a new CBA that eliminated the formerly highest-level tender, a prohibitive first- and third-round combo as compensation, the restricted market might be revived. But that hasn't occurred. The new highest tender requires only first-round compensation, but that had hardly resuscitated a market that remarkably, in hindsight, totaled 25 player moves its initial four years.

Only four players -- Webb, Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace, Tampa Bay defensive end Michael Bennett and New York Jets linebacker Aaron Maybin -- got first-round tenders. Besides Webb's long-term extension, Bennett signed the one-year offer for $2.74 million. Maybin remains unsigned, as does Wallace, who was portrayed, thanks to a vigorous public relations campaign by his agent, as a player who might tempt another club to sign him to an offer sheet.

There might still be a team lying in the weeds on Wallace -- the strategy often used by teams dangling an offer sheet is to wait until the final days of the eligibility period to strike -- but that doesn't appear to be the case. If the deadline passes without an offer sheet being signed, Wallace's rights and Maybin's revert exclusively to their current franchises. Those two players, as with the remaining restricted players, will be precluded from negotiating with teams other than their own.

"The league just isn't set up for there to be a really robust restricted market," agent Jimmy Sexton said. "The closer you get to the draft, especially, the better those picks (a club would have to surrender as compensation) look to teams, and they kind of get locked in on the draft, and lose any kind of focus on the restricted guys."

In addition to the four players granted first-round tenders this year, 11 other guys got tenders commensurate to second-round compensation (1.927 million). Sixteen restricted free agents had signed deals as of Friday morning. Of the original 42 restricted players, 19 received tenders that required compensation higher than the round at which they entered the league. The result: There were few bargains in the restricted pool.

And there were a few surprises as well. Arizona special teams ace LaRod Stephens-Howling and Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe entered the league as a No. 7 choice and an undrafted free agent, respectively, but both received second-round tenders. Jacksonville linebacker Russell Allen, who has started 15 games in three seasons, came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent, but got a second-round tender. Had the Jaguars tagged him at the lowest level, he might have generated interest. "

But at the second-round level (of compensation), he wasn't so much a bargain for another team anymore," agent Steve Caric said. "And the Jaguars really raised their offer in the last few days (before free agency). It was just better to stay put."

Allen signed a three-year contract that removed him from a market that, given his level of compensation, probably would have been soft anyway.

Said Condon: "First-off, you've got the pick involved as compensation. And then you've got an inflated contract, because it's going to take something extraordinary to keep the original team from matching. A lot of teams felt like they were just (negotiating) the contract for the original team. It becomes a pretty steep price, and the odds of getting the player weren't great. So teams won't get involved."

The element of draft pick compensation is huge, with picks, even those in the middle rounds, becoming valued currency.

"Picks are always at a premium," Houston general manager Rick Smith said.

Add it all up, and the "RFA" status, in the 20th year of free agency, has pretty much been rendered R.I.P.

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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