Restricted players can cash in

After the Redskins raided the Jets for restricted free agents Laveranues Coles and Chad Morton last year, it was going to be interesting to see how NFL teams protected their own restricted free agents this signing season.

Teams have several options to protect their players against raids during the restricted free agency period, which opens Wednesday and lasts until mid-April.

The most effective protection is simply to re-sign the player to a long-term deal before free agency even starts. Teams can also make it more costly to sign a restricted free agent by tendering him a contract that increases the compensation another team must pay to sign the player.

If a team tenders a restricted free agent a first-round offer of $1.368 million, any team that signs that player would have to give up its first-round pick. The highest tender offer is $1.824 million, which triggers compensation of a first- and third-rounder.

This year more teams appear to be willing to let their players solicit offers because about 90 percent of the restricted free agents are receiving the lowest tenders at $628,000. Teams signing those players must give up a draft choice in the round in which the player was selected. If he was undrafted there is no compensation.

Regardless, the team facing the loss of the restricted free agent has seven days to match the offer or accept the compensation.

Why are more teams willing to let other teams do their negotiating?

"Right now there is so much cap room available for teams that you can match a lot of deals that can be made," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "All you are then doing is letting the other team do the negotiating for you."

The biggest difference from a year ago, though, is most of the teams targeted their top restricted free agents and got them under long-term deals. The 49ers were willing to put the first-and-third round tenders on halfback Kevan Barlow, but they reached a five-year, $20 million deal last week.

Barlow isn't the only restricted free agent to be re-signed. The Panthers kept restricted free agent receiver Steve Smith off the market Monday by signing him to a six-year, $26.5 million deal that had $9 million in signing and option bonuses. The Bills re-signed guard Ross Tucker, while Patriots guard Russ Hochstein and Titans wide receiver Drew Bennett each got three-year contracts to re-sign. The Jaguars signed punter Chris Hanson to a five-year, $6.5 million deal Monday.

Players also received their restricted tenders Tuesday. Ed Hartwell (Ravens LB), Justin McCareins (Titans WR), Kareem McKenzie (Jets OT), Adrian Wilson (Cardinals S), Mike Gandy (Bears OL), Ryan Diem (Colts OL), Nick Harper (Colts CB), Rick Demulling (Colts OL), Kynan Forney (Falcons OG), Mike McMahon (Lions QB), Will Peterson (Giants CB), Reggie Hayward (Broncos DE), Ben Hamilton (Broncos OG) and Floyd Womack (Seahawks OL) all received first-round tenders.

The highest tenders -- first-and-third rounders -- went to Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, Dolphins defensive end Adewale Ogunleye and Bengals halfback Rudi Johnson.

Ogunleye has a chance to be this year's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who as a restricted free agent last offseason used an offer from the Eagles to get a big contract to re-sign with the Packers. Ogunleye is a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rushing end who will draw the interest of the Eagles, Seahawks and other teams willing to give up first- and third-round choices to acquire him.

Still, the first-and-third round tenders usually scare off suitors. That's a heavy price to pay for a player, giving up two potential starters. Players taken in the first day of a draft usually have a good chance to start.

But there are players out there with a lot of starting experience that don't come with a huge price tag, which should create an interesting market.

Among the more interesting low tenders are Falcons linebacker Matt Stewart (available for a fourth-round choice), Ravens guard Bennie Anderson (no compensation), Cardinals cornerback Renaldo Hill (seventh-round choice), Ravens defensive tackle Marques Douglas (no compensation), Broncos guard-center Ben Hamilton (fourth round), Packers linebacker Torrance Marshall (third-rounder), Texans defensive tackle Jerry DeLoach (no compensation), Giants tight end Marcellus Rivers (no compensation), 49ers tight end Eric Johnson (seventh-rounder) and Redskins fullback Bryan Johnson (no compensation).

"The restricted market is about the same as it has been the past several years," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "There is usually some movement, but there is usually not a lot."

Since the start of free agency in 1993, only 47 players have moved to new teams after their contracts weren't matched. There were 21 moves during the first three years, and after that, things settled down.

The Redskins' attack on the restricted market last offseason sparked new interest. Five moved last season, four going to the Redskins. Their aggressive tactics caused more teams to reflect on how they handle this market.

The answer was trying to get those third-year players signed to long-term deals before they hit the restricted free agent market. Restricted free agents for this year come mainly from the 2001 draft and are third-rounders and below. First-round draft choices are signed to five-to-seven-year deals. Second-rounders usually get four-year contracts.

The restricted free agents are usually the sleepers, and if they hit it right, they can make big money. Just ask Coles, a former Jets second-day draft choice who parlayed a career year into a seven-year, $35 million contract that included $13 million to sign.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.