Released five times before he ever earned a spot on an active roster, and tendered at the lowest-level qualifying offer by the perennially salary cap-challenged Broncos two weeks ago, Herndon suddenly is the hottest commodity in the restricted free-agent pool.
The restricted pool, comprised of players who have accrued three seasons of seniority toward the NFL pension plan and who have received qualifying offers from their current franchises, is often overlooked in the early stages of the free-agency period. But Herndon, who started all 16 games for Denver in 2004 and has 27 starts in the last two seasons, already has received a contract proposal from the Baltimore Ravens as the team is seeking a corner to replace Gary Baxter, who defected to the Cleveland Browns last Friday. There is a Tuesday stop scheduled in Atlanta, where part of the visit includes dinner at one of the city's premier steakhouses with Falcons owner Arthur Blank, a persuasive bargainer who closes more deals than an aluminum siding salesman. At least three other teams indicated they would like to meet with Herndon if he is still on the market at week's end.
Suddenly, a guy who is in the league only because of his considerable perseverance has gone from afterthought to widely sought.
"It's flattering, especially when you look at the caliber of teams that have called me, the kind of defense those teams play," said Herndon, a former University of Toledo standout who was originally signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 1999 but didn't latch on an active roster spot until midway though the 2001 season. "I just want to get to a place where I can play and we can win."
Given his long quest to forge an NFL livelihood -- he was waived twice each by San Francisco and the New York Giants, and once by Denver, before being signed to the Broncos' practice squad in 2001 -- Herndon is 28, a little older than most restricted free agents. But he has a live body, certainly doesn't have much mileage on him and has played well at a premium position.
Plus, teams in the market for cornerback help know they won't have to invest quite as much in Herndon as in some of the premier cover defenders in the unrestricted pool, like Samari Rolle, Ty Law, Fred Smoot or Andre Dyson. And with a well-crafted offer sheet to Herndon, there is a good chance the Broncos, tight against the spending limit, won't be able to match the deal.
The Broncos tendered Herndon the low-level qualifying offer of $656,000. That means Denver has a right of first refusal on the cornerback. If another team signs Herndon to an offer sheet, the Broncos would have seven days to match the offer. If they matched, they would assume all of the principle conditions of the offer sheet. If they chose not to match, Herndon would move on to the team that signed him to the offer sheet. Because Herndon originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, Denver would not receive any compensation in terms of draft choices.
Ironically, the Broncos made their other restricted free-agent cornerback, Lenny Walls, the middle-level qualifying offer, of $1.43 million. That means any franchise that signed Walls to an offer sheet would owe Denver a first-round choice as compensation, if the Broncos chose not to match. There are 21 restricted free agents who were tendered the middle-level qualifying offer.
That the Broncos' brass opted to place the higher qualifying offer on Walls is ironic in that Herndon was the more productive player in 2004. Walls was projected as the player who was to start opposite Champ Bailey at cornerback in the Denver secondary. But a series of shoulder injuries, which eventually required surgery, limited him to one start. Taking advantage of his opportunity for playing time, Herndon, who teamed with Walls in the starting lineup in 2003, recorded 69 tackles, two interceptions and 23 passes defensed.
In addition to his age, his size (5-feet-10 and 180 pounds) is a concern for some teams, but Herndon remains a feisty and aggressive defender, one who competes on every snap. While restricted free agents don't often change teams in the NFL, it appears Herndon is destined to compete hard for someone other than the Broncos in 2005.
"Definitely, it seems like the opportunities are there, like I'll maybe have some options," Herndon said.
Since 1993, when the current system was implemented, only 48 restricted free agents, an average of four per year, have switched teams. Over the past three springs, however, just seven restricted free agents moved to new teams, just one each in 2002 and 2004. The five restricted free agents who moved in 2003 represented the most since 1995, but that number was skewed a bit, since the Washington Redskins signed four of them.
Already this year, one restricted free agent, tight end Jeb Putzier of the Broncos, has signed an offer sheet. Putzier signed a five-year, $12.5 million deal with the New York Jets last week. Denver has until Friday to match the offer or accept a sixth-round draft choice as compensation.
Here is a look at a dozen other three-year veterans, all with compensation levels below the third round, who could generate interest before the restricted free-agent signing period ends on April 15:
• RB Najeh Davenport, Green Bay (compensation level: fourth round): A big (251 pounds) and powerful tailback who will run over people in the secondary, Davenport has averaged 5.1 yards per carry in three seasons. He has never started a game but appears capable of being a workhorse-type back.
• LB Scott Fujita, Kansas City (compensation: fifth round): Surprising that the Chiefs made him the low-level tender because he is a quality defender, quick and active, and has started the past 2½ seasons. A player with compelling length (6-feet-5 and 250 pounds) and good movement skills. Over the last two seasons, in which he started every game, Fujita has 204 tackles, 8½ sacks and six passes defensed.
• DE Carlos Hall, Tennessee (compensation: seventh round): Long, lean outside pass rusher who started 13 games as a rookie in 2002, filling in for the injured Jevon Kearse. Posted eight sacks that year and has 13½ sacks and 120 tackles in 45 career appearances. At 261 pounds, might not hold up against the run over the long haul, but at worst would be an intriguing "nickel" player.
• DT Rocky Bernard, Seattle (compensation: fifth round): Only three starts in 42 regular-season appearances, but just 25 years old and a very active inside player. Has 9½ career sacks and, while not a masher, can get through the gaps and occasionally attack the pocket. Visited with Houston officials last Friday and the Jets are said to be interested as well.
• RB Chester Taylor, Baltimore (compensation: sixth round): The caddie for Ravens star Jamal Lewis for three seasons and very productive as a third-down back or spot starter. Has seven career starts, four of them in 2004, and he averaged 93.3 yards in those four starts last season, including a 139-yard outing. Also had a career-best 30 receptions for 184 yards in '04.
• OG/OT Kyle Kosier, San Francisco (compensation: seventh round): Tough, versatile blocker who has 29 starts in three seasons. Started nine games at left tackle for the 49ers in 2004 and gave a good accounting. His best position, however, is guard. His progress has probably been stymied a bit by the fact San Francisco has moved him around so much to fill holes on its blocking unit.
• DE Aaron Kampman, Green Bay (compensation: fifth round): Neither big nor quick but gives an honest effort every snap and is deceptively productive. Has started 26 games and collected seven sacks. Started all 16 games at left end in 2004 and registered 68 tackles and 4½ sacks. Might be even more effective if his snaps were reduced a bit.
• OG Eric Heitmann, San Francisco (compensation: seventh round): Not quite as versatile as teammate Kosier, but hard to overlook a solid young player whose résumé has 36 starts. Bounced back from a severe ankle injury that he suffered in 2003 to start all 16 games last season.
• FS Brian Russell, Minnesota (compensation: none): Led league with nine interceptions in 2003 but had only one pick last season. Vikings coaches didn't think he was tough enough and that he tackled poorly in space. But as a two-year starter, and a defender who gets around the football, he certainly is worth a look.
• RB Verron Haynes, Pittsburgh (compensation: fifth round): Has never started a game and is probably a player destined to be a career backup, but a very good one. Can do a lot of things for a team, including playing on special teams, maybe returning kickoffs. Was the Steelers' third-down back for much of 2004, and is an accomplished receiver, but also averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
• CB Kevin Thomas, Buffalo (compensation: sixth round): Used as a "nickel" corner by the Bills and that is probably where his future lies. Has just one career interception, but his size (6-0, 182), speed and overall football awareness will earn some interest.
• QB J.T. O'Sullivan, Green Bay (compensation: sixth round): How does a quarterback who has appeared in just one game in three seasons, and has yet to register his first pass attempt, merit consideration? Because O'Sullivan, acquired by the Packers from New Orleans in a trade last season, has good physical tools, pocket presence, a good enough arm and an excellent grasp of the West Coast offense.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.