On February 27, a select group of players around the NFL will become restricted free agents, free to negotiate with any other NFL team. But they are also somewhat limited in switching teams if their current club makes a qualifying offer to them by the close of business on February 26.
Restricted free agents are players whose contracts have expired and who have been credited with three accrued seasons. A player earns an accrued season if he was in a full-pay status for at least six regular seasons games during the year. However, players don't receive game credit for any individual week, regardless of pay status, while on the Exempt Commissioner Permission List, the Physically Unable to Perform list due to a non-football injury, or the team's practice or development squad.
Teams can guarantee themselves the right of first refusal—in other words, the opportunity to match any offer made to one of their restricted free agents—as long as they make a contract tender offer at one of the levels below, or 110 percent of the player's 2008 salary, whichever is greater.
First- and Third-Round Compensation
Any team that makes the unusual move of giving one of their restricted free agents a contract tender offer of $2.792 million this year will likely lock him down for the year. Few teams opposing teams will part with both a first- and third-rounder unless they have an excessive number of draft picks and see the restricted player as a must-have franchise-level player. And even then, it's a costly proposition for any club.
There really isn't a single player in this year's restricted free agent group who is likely to command this level of a contract tender.
A team will have to commit to a $2.198 million offer to ensure themselves of at least a first-round pick as compensation if they decide not to match an offer from another club. Again, this level of commitment usually limits the number of teams who will even consider making an offer since few teams want to surrender a first-round draft pick.
You could see a player such as Houston tight end Owen Daniels receive an offer at this level to make other teams think twice before putting a multi-year deal in front of him.
Ravens safety Dawan Landry
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
In 2009, it'll cost a team $1.545 million to receive a second-round pick as compensation should they decide not to match a qualifying offer from another NFL club. While this level of tender has become salty enough to keep the bidding down to serious contenders, it's not so unreasonable to expect that players tendered at this level could land with another club.
Original Draft Round Compensation
This is the easiest, but also riskiest tender that a club can make. With a contract tender of $1.01 million, a team that decides not to match another club's offer would receive a draft pick equivalent to their restricted free agent's original draft round. If a restricted free agent entered the league as an undrafted free agent, the team only gets the right of first refusal by offering this level of contract tender.
One important deviation from this rule is in the rare case where a team might attempt to place this low tender on a former first- or second-round draft pick. If a team loses a former first-round pick who they tried to retain at this tender level, they would only get a second-round pick as compensation—unless the player's new team made a qualifying offer of at least $2.198 million (first-round level compensation). Likewise, if a former second-rounder is offered at this level, the team only gets a third-round pick unless that player receives a qualifying offer of at least $1.545 million (second-round compensation) from his new club.
Scout.com's Free Agency Rankings
Now that you've got a handle on how this year's restricted free agency will work, take a look at Scout.com's Free Agency Rankings to check out the top available talent in this year's class of unrestricted and restricted free agents. And you can keep up with all the free agency moves and rumors through our daily articles at our NFL home page, our NFL team sites, and our Free Agency Rankings.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.