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.
"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 Four others had their tenders rescinded, and two of those re-signed with their original franchises.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.
Around the League
*Shape up or ...: Well, you know the rest. To date, at least three players are known to have been shipped out because of poor conditioning/weight problems ostensibly resulting from the lockout and the fact teams weren't baby-sitting and monitoring them per usual in the offseason. Not surprisingly, all three of the players -- Max Starks (Pittsburgh), Bryant McKinnie (Minnesota), and Deuce Lutui (Cincinnati, signed as a free agent from Arizona) -- are offensive linemen. Coming off a neck injury that sidelined him for nine games in 2010, Starks might get a little slack. But Lutui, who returned to the Cardinals after he failed a Bengals physical, checking in at nearly 400 pounds, has experienced weight problems in the past and should have known better. Teams aren't saying much about it publicly, but several coaches and trainers who talked to The Sports Xchange this week conceded that conditioning, particularly in the heat that has enveloped much of the nation, might be just as critical a factor as teaching or re-teaching the playbook. Maybe even more critical in a few cases. "You're going to see more of it, guys falling out or getting cut, because they (slacked) off during the lockout and didn't take care of themselves," said one veteran trainer. "The (voluntary) workouts teams held were just a dog and pony show, believe me. There are more to come."
*Freebies: It's been 14 years since the Oakland Raiders nabbed Kansas offensive lineman Scott Whittaker, who never played a down for the team, and awarded him a signing bonus of $60,000. That's believed to be the biggest signing bonus ever given to an undrafted free agent, at least in recent years. With teams limited by the new collective bargaining agreement to just $75,000 in signing bonuses for their entire undrafted class, no one, of course, has come close to that $60,000. In fact, most agents typically attuned to such matters, haven't heard of any $20,000-$25,000 bonuses, a few of which were paid out the past several years. That doesn't mean there haven't been a few because, the fact of the matter is, most teams in the league didn't exceed the $75,000 mark in free agent bonuses anyway. One way teams have compensated for the new CBA rules, and reacted to allegedly smaller bonuses, is to grant an undrafted player a guarantee of part of his first-year salary. Particularly for players they feel have a legitimate shot of sticking. One agent noted that such guarantees usually assure that a client will at least earn a spot on the practice squad, the realistic goal for a lot of college free agents, especially in a summer when they have not had a chance to gain any attention in minicamps or OTAs.
*Means to an end: There are several defensive linemen who are going from 4-3 fronts to 3-4 schemes this season, or vice versa, and it looked like the Ravens were willing to take a chance on Osi Umenyiora making such a switch when they showed some interest in trading for the Giants' standout early this week. But that might not have been the case. There are suggestions from the Ravens' camp, and some of the players involved have told The Sports Xchange, that several veterans who lobbied general manager Ozzie Newsome to make the deal were prepared to go from the 3-4 in which the Ravens have aligned for years, to a 4-3, to accommodate Umenyiora and his unique skills. In the 4-3 front, Terrence Cody and Haloti Ngata would have been the tackles. Umenyiora would have played left end and Terrell Suggs would have been the right end. The matter became moot when the Ravens, or no one else for that matter, offered up a first-round selection, and the Giants' brass rescinded permission for agent Tony Agnone to seek a trade.
*Whitner mess: During the lockout, even the cockeyed optimists in the media kept warning that a deal isn't done until it's signed. The flip-flop maneuver executed on Thursday by free agent safety Donte Whitner certainly bore that out. After announcing on his Twitter account that he was headed to Cincinnati, Whitner instead signed a three-year, $11.5 million deal with San Francisco. Not bad for a guy who only three or four days ago, The Sports Xchange has confirmed, found the market wanting and had his agent reach out to the safety-needy Bengals to initiate talks and see if they might provide a life-line. Needless to say, Bengals officials are a little miffed about the situation. On a per-year basis, the money in the deal is basically a wash. In fact, the average in Cincy may have been offering was a little better, although the guarantees in San Francisco were thought to be worth more. At any rate, it figures to make for good theater when the 49ers visit Paul Brown Stadium in Week 3 of the schedule, Sept. 25.
*Inside straight: Eagles coach Andy Reid has long focused on adding depth to both his line units, notably at the defensive tackle spot, and that could be important in Philadelphia if starter Mike Patterson is forced to undergo brain surgery to address the condition that prompted a seizure at practice earlier this week. The Eagles earlier signed free agent Cullen Jenkins, who will move from 3-4 end in Green Bay to his more natural position of 4-3 tackle. Then they further bolstered the position with the less-sexy additions of free agents Anthony Hargrove (New Orleans) and Derek Landri (Carolina), two solid inside defenders. And they've got young holdovers Antonio Dixon (10 starts in 2010) and Trevor Laws, though both are hobbled at the moment. Even with Patterson's situation up in the air -- and sources close to the tackle tell The Sports Xchange he could miss the 2011 season -- and the trade of former first-rounder Brodrick Bunkley to Denver, the Eagles seem well fortified at tackle. Said Hargrove: "They've always been a team that's loaded up on big guys when they could. The competition is great, and they let the chips fall where they may."
*Re-Routted: When the Raiders signed pending free agent Stanford Routt to a three-year, $31.5 million extension before the lockout began -- an inexplicable deal given the six-year veteran's thin resume -- the feeling was that every cornerback in the free agency class would benefit from Oakland's largesse. They didn't. With the exception of Nnamdi Asomugha, arguably the top overall unrestricted free agent at any position, the other big-name cornerbacks who signed contracts to date have failed to touch Routt's deal. Asomugha got $12 million a year from Philadelphia. Jonathan Joseph (Cincinnati to Houston), will average just under $10 million per season. Antonio Cromartie (New York Jets) and Chris Carr (Baltimore), got $8 million and about $6 million, respectively, to return to their incumbent teams. But the guy who really gave his club a "hometown discount" after adamantly denying he would, was Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor. In light of Routt's deal -- after starting double digit games in only two of six seasons and combining for just nine starts in the other four campaigns -- Taylor and his camp thought the eight-year veteran would net offers in the $10 million per year range. Either Taylor didn't generate that kind of market or he decided that staying with the Steelers was a priority. He ended up re-signing for $7 million per year. He wasn't the only one who tested the market and found staying with the Steelers a more attractive option. Tackle Willie Colon, who re-signed for five years, $29 million, took $3 million less than Chicago offered him. A lot of people in the league felt that, his shaky hands notwithstanding (11 interceptions in eight years), Taylor was the second-best cornerback option in free agency. At least financially, it didn't work out that way for Taylor, who has a very strong relationship with the Rooney family.
*Prime Time in Canton: With Deion Sanders set to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame this weekend, it's worth reiterating a point made here previously, and in our presentation of the Hall presenters five months ago: It may be difficult to separate Sanders the player, the performer, and the personality, but there is no denying the guy set the standard as a cover defender and playmaker. In his first six seasons in the NFL, Sanders averaged five interceptions, despite the fact quarterbacks usually threw to the other side of the field and avoided him. The two premier corners of this era, Asomugha and Derrelle Revis, had zero interceptions combined in 2010. Jets coach Rex Ryan loves to emphasize that teams don't throw at Revis. But no one threw at Sanders, either -- "Even in practice he would embarrass you," said former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, who played both against and with Sanders -- and "Prime Time" still found a way to get the ball in his hands and make plays. "I always felt like, if I could get the ball, I could score," Sanders told The Sports Xchange. "I had to basically invent ways to get (the football), but I did it."
*Hall pass: The retirement this week of Randy Moss, coupled with the possibility that knee surgery could force Terrell Owens to retire (which agent Drew Rosenhaus, aka "A League Source," has denied) as well, has prompted considerable discussion about the Hall of Fame credentials for both wide receivers. Neither player can be nominated before the Class of 2016 is discussed, and that means, perhaps fortunately, that this Hall selector will be retired, and not a part of what could be an interesting debate. Everyone knows the obvious numbers: Assuming neither guy ever plays another snap, Owens currently has the fifth most catches in NFL history (1,078) and the second most receiving yards (15,934). Moss is tied for No. 8 in catches (954) and is fifth in yards (14,858). But both Moss and Owens, tied for second place in touchdown receptions, with 153 each, also knew where the end zone was. And that should not go unnoted. There are a dozen wide receivers with 900 or more catches entering the 2011 season, and seven of them averaged a touchdown every 10 catches or more. By comparison, Moss averaged a touchdown catch every 6.23 grabs and Owens every 7.05 receptions. Among the players with 900-plus receptions, no one has a better quotient than either. The incomparable Jerry Rice, for instance, scored every 7.86 receptions. In fact, of the 21 wide receivers currently in the Hall of Fame, only four -- Paul Warfield (5.02), Bob Hayes (5.23), Tommy McDonald (5.89), and Pete Pihos (6.110) --- have better touchdowns-per-catch averages than Moss. Just seven Hall of Fame wideouts top Owens in the key category.
*Roman empire: There are some unrestricted players whose best career move is to go back to their incumbent teams, and that was certainly the case with five-year veteran strong safety Roman Harper, who last week reached agreement to return to New Orleans, the franchise with which he entered the league, on a four-year deal that is worth a reported $28 million. A starter for the Saints since his 2006 rookie season, Harper arguably had more importance to New Orleans than any other team. The former second-round draft pick is an excellent fit in the New Orleans defense, is highly valued by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and is regarded by team officials as a high character player and an important component in the Saints' locker room. "I'm sure he could have played well anywhere, but we love the guy, he fits what we do, and he was always wanted here," Williams said. Suggested another Saints' coach: "We can cover up (his deficiencies) better than anyone." The two-time Pro Bowl performer is most effective playing close to the line of scrimmage, "in the box," and Williams has defined his role in a way that makes Harper even more productive. The league is moving away from the safeties who make plays "in the box" -- safeties who can't cover at least a little seem to be going the way of The Flying Wedge -- but Harper is a sure tackler and effective inside blitzer, and Williams has played to those strengths and to camouflage some liabilities. As evidenced in last year's season ending wildcard-round playoff loss at Seattle, when the Seahawks exploited Harper's weaknesses, the former Alabama star at times struggles in coverage. But the Saints have generally compensated for that in Williams' scheme design, and they made Harper's return a priority. In 2010, Harper played for the one-year restricted free agent tender of $2.52 million.
*Line dance: Only two teams in 2010, Atlanta and New Orleans, started the same offensive line unit in all 16 games. With the free agency defections of guard Harvey Dahl (Atlanta to San Francisco) and center Jonathan Goodwin (Saints to 49ers), that continuity won't carry over into the 2011 campaign. The Falcons will allow young veterans Mike Johnson and Garrett Reynolds, who have combined for just four games and no starts, to compete for Dahl's right guard spot. Atlanta had three starters as free agents and retained right tackle Tyson Clabo and left guard Justin Blalock, so things could have been a lot worse. "We were prepared for possibly losing all three," said coach Mike Smith. "Even (losing) one hurts, but it certainly wasn't as bad as it could have been." New Orleans installed second-year veteran Matt Tennant (no career starts) in Goodwin's place, but is flirting with 13-year veteran and perennial Pro Bowl snapper Olin Kreutz of Chicago.
*The "other" draft: Now that the CBA has been ratified by the players, it seems there are no hurdles for the supplemental draft, and most observers expect the league to conduct its annual summertime lottery for special-cases players soon. One of the players who announced weeks ago that he would enter the supplemental lottery, former Georgia tailback Caleb King, forwarded his paperwork to the league office on Wednesday, and is awaiting confirmation he has been accepted. It's believed that the higher-profile supplemental hopeful, former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, has applied as well. "We're still operating as if there will be a (supplemental) draft," agent Kevin Conner, who represents King, told The Sports Xchange. "Hopefully, things will be clarified some now that there's a CBA." Unlike Pryor, King has no known entanglements clouding his eligibility for a draft. The former part-time starter for the Bulldogs has kept close ties to some Georgia officials, and is planning to have a "Pro Day'-type workout on campus. With Ohio State basically cutting ties to Pryor for five years, it's a good bet any audition for NFL scouts won't use the university facilities. King could be a bit of a sleeper. In three seasons, before he was declared academically ineligible, King rushed for 1,271 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. At about 5-10 1/2 and 218 pounds, and with a likely 40-yard time in the 4.55 range, there are two teams in particular which have privately expressed some interest in either drafting him or bringing him to camp as a free agent.
*Punts: An under-the-radar but nice move by Minnesota this week in re-signing versatile five-year veteran offensive lineman Ryan Cook. The former second-round draft choice certainly wasn't among the high-profile players who drew interest in the opening days of free agency, but several teams, among them Dallas, kept tabs on Cook as a possible second-wave guy and touched base with his representatives on the opening day of permissible free agent contact. Cook, who will make $1 million in 2011, provides the Vikings a reliable insurance policy. He has started 40 games -- with starts at right tackle (33), right guard (six), and center (one) -- in his career.
*** There was some talk that the new CBA would raise the practice squad limit to more than its current eight players, but that is not the case.
*** At least for public consumption Miami and Denver have closed the door on a trade of Broncos starting quarterback Kyle Orton to the Dolphins. That may well be the case. But word from South Florida is that incumbent starter Chad Henne has looked so uneven in early workouts that the Dolphins are keeping their collective ears to the ground on any quarterback deals. Problem is, there just aren't many options right now. Of the veteran quarterbacks released over the last two weeks, Jake Delhomme is about the only one unsigned. Brodie Croyle, who has never won a regular-season game, is arguably the best of the unrestricted free agent remnant.
*** Speaking of Croyle, he got bumped out of the Buffalo plans when the Bills signed free agent wide receiver Brad Smith. How so? Well, even after the Bills added Tyler Thigpen as a free agent, they were still pursuing Croyle. But coach Chan Gailey decided that the versatile Smith might be able to serve as a No. 3 quarterback, and perhaps get more snaps in that role than he did as a "Wildcat" novelty with the New York Jets, and the Bills backed off Croyle.
*** The Sports Xchange has learned that Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt, who has been in his share of legal hot water a lot in his young career, is at least mulling the idea of changing agents.
*** Bunkley and Cincinnati offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth have changed agents and are now represented by SportsTrustAdvisors.
*** Despite conjecture to the contrary, and although quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has worn Starks' No. 78 jersey to at least one practice, Pittsburgh has no plans to re-sign the veteran left tackle and onetime "franchise" player. The Steelers conceivably could re-sign Flozell Adams, released last week, although that remains a longshot, but the veteran would remain at right tackle, the position at which he started all 16 games in 2010, after playing on the left side in Dallas for 12 years. In that unlikely scenario, Colon would move inside to right guard, long a problem area on the line. Jonathan Scott looks to be the starter at left tackle.
*** On the subject of the Steelers, we opined here a couple weeks ago that LaMarr Woodley was becoming a bigger priority for the team than James Harrison, and that appeared to be the case when the club extended the outside linebacker's one-year "franchise" tender on Thursday night, with a six-year, $61.5 million deal. Harrison remains big in the Steelers' plans for now. But at age 33, with the team likely facing a continuing cap crunch, and the Pittsburgh history of drafting and developing young 3-4 'backers (Jason Worilds and Chris Carter) to eventually step into the lineup, he might not be a year from now.
*** The Jets quietly restructured the contract of linebacker Calvin Pace.
*** With the additions of the aforementioned Whitner and Madieu Williams earlier in the week (ironically, a former underachieving Cincinnati starter), San Francisco continues to rebuild its secondary. The team won't re-sign Dashon Goldson, a player some people felt was the 49ers' best safety, and is trying to trade Taylor Mays. Others contend the best safety on the team is Reggie Smith, and the Niners will keep him around, but it's clear first-year coach Jim Harbaugh is remaking the secondary. The 49ers cut Nate Clements and signed Carlos Rogers as a free agent, and the only 2010 starter who might keep his job is corner Shawntae Spencer.
*** The Colts hope that the third time is a charm in acquiring high profile veteran defensive tackles the past few years. Indianapolis this week added former Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris, released by Chicago earlier in the spring. The team is hoping Harris works out better than Corey Simon (signed in 2005) and Anthony McFarland (acquired in a 2006 trade) did for it.
*** Let's see, the NFLPA vowed it would never recertify as a union, and it did. Players were angry that commissioner Roger Goodell held such one-man way on discipline matters, and he retained that clout. Guys chafed over potential HGH testing, and it's a key part of the new CBA. Yeah, the players got a lot in the new deal, but not certainly some of the key elements over which they went to war.
*** Expect New England to add at least one more veteran defender, probably a front-seven player, in the next week or so.
*** Word is that Harbaugh consulted unofficially with brother John Harbaugh, the Baltimore coach and former Eagles' special team mentor, before signing free agent kicker David Akers last week. The longtime Philly kicker became a free agent when the Eagles rescinded the transition they applied to him earlier in the spring.
*** Earlier on in this space, the Eagles were lauded for fortifying the defensive tackle position. But there are some other, lesser-hyped moves, like the additions of offensive tackle Ryan Harris and former first-round tailback Ronnie Brown, that were key as well to Philly enjoying an outstanding offseason.
*** While we're doling out kudos, congrats as well to St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney for finally landing a guy -- actually two guys -- who can relieve tailback Steven Jackson of some of his workload. This week, the Rams started off by adding free agent Jerious Norwood of Atlanta. But that move, given Norwood's injury history -- he has only once played all 16 games in five seasons, appeared in only 12 outings the past two seasons, and owns but six career starts -- wasn't enough. Devaney also went out and got Cadillac Williams, who will serve as Jackson's primary backup. Norwood, who twice in his career had more than 25 receptions, will be the third-down back, a role that will possibly allow him to maximize his snaps and perhaps keep him healthy for a change. Williams was the Buccaneers' third-down back last season.
The last word: "He's like Elvis now. People just won't let go." -- agent Bus Cook, on reports that the Miami Dolphins might have some interest in luring client Brett Favre out of retirement