History changes on restricted free agents

Mike Sherman and Andrew Brandt may each be a few pounds lighter after sweating it out to retain a couple of restricted free agents during the last month. The coach and team negotiator did their homework earlier this year on their restricted free agents and figured they had their bases covered. But Daniel Snyder came along and kicked up some dirt.<p>

When the gun sounded to start free agency, the Washington Redskins' big-spending owner lured backup restricted free agent safety Matt Bowen away from the Packers with a $6 million offer sheet. He then gave up a first-round draft pick this season to the New York Jets as compensation for wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who signed a $35 million offer sheet that included a $13 million bonus. Other teams began to reconsider their off-season plan of attack and included pursuing restricted free agents. Even the Packers, who had never written an offer sheet for a restricted free agent, signed Bengals linebacker Armegis Spearman. Cincinnati matched Green Bay's offer, but the bottom line is restricted free agents are suddenly viewed as a way to help teams in the win-now era of the NFL plug weak areas on rosters instead of with draft picks.

The Packers nearly lost their grip on Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Na'il Diggs, both restricted free agents. Detroit signed Diggs to an offer sheet worth $10.5 million, but Green Bay matched. At the same time, Philadelphia flew in Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and gave him a "legitimate offer," according to his agent, Bruce Tollner. But the Packers negotiated a deal before Gbaja-Biamila signed with the Eagles.

In 2002, out of more than 130 restricted free agents available, only one changed teams. That was a kicker, Kris Brown, who went to the Houston Texans after the Pittsburgh Steelers declined to match the offer sheet on a four-year deal for $4.7 million. Furthermore, no team since 1999 entered this free agency period having submitted an offer sheet to a player with a first-round tender. Until Snyder went after Coles a few weeks ago.

Sherman is thorough. He does his homework on everything. It's one reason why he has enjoyed the success that he has since coming to Green Bay in 2000. While many thought that the Packers might offer Gbaja-Biamila and Diggs higher tenders than what they received, Sherman felt confident that the team would be relatively safe and have more room under the salary cap by making a mid-level tender to Gbaja-Biamila and a minimum tender to Diggs.

Sherman gambled, sweated it out, but won. Better yet, the Packers came away with two long-term deals for solid, young players whose value could have skyrocketed next off-season.

"Literally over the past few weeks, Mike (Sherman) and I have stared at each other for hours on end talking about Kabeer, where he fits, what's the best long-term option," said Andrew Brandt, the team's vice president of player finance. "Kabeer was very insistent about playing this year out and getting a record-breaking, mother of all contracts next year. That's what we were negotiating against as much as any offer sheet or other situation."

But the Packers say they knew Gbaja-Biamila wanted to stay in Green Bay. They also knew he was insistent on playing for the one-year tender of $1.3 million. In the end, it worked out well for both sides. Green Bay gets one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL. Gbaja-Biamila gets a $37.3 million contract and the second highest signing bonus ever received by a Packer next to Brett Favre – $11 million.

Restricted free agents will never be viewed in the same way by teams after this off-season.

"In hindsight, I relied on history in regard to the tender," Sherman explained. "Because people have been more aggressive and going after tendered players and making offer sheets, maybe we need to rethink that. "Part of it has to do with how you feel players like being on your football team. ... We were prepared to deal with what we had to deal with. In any decision you make you roll the dice and you take some risk. We tried to minimize the risk by doing our research and our homework."

If it makes the Sherman feel any better, there's only one restricted free agent left on the Packers' roster – Josh Bidwell. Will another team go after him before the April 18 deadline? Anything is possible.

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