We are nearing the extinction of a particular category of free agent in the NFL. Restricted free agency is alive -- in theory -- and part of the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement.
However, the reality is it has been in steep decline in recent years, and because of rookie contract requirements of the new CBA (see below), will soon become obsolete.
Restricted free agents -- three-year players with expiring contracts -- can receive offers from other teams, but the incumbent team has a right to match. Should it not match, it is entitled to draft-choice compensation corresponding to the level of tender placed on the player.
Personnel experts usually identify the time between the third and fifth year of a player's career as the "sweet spot" in the player's performance arc, meaning there's sufficient development without excessive wear and tear. And from a front office vantage point, teams would rather pay a discounted price for a restricted free agent than pay "retail" for unrestricted free agents. Yet RFAs have been largely ignored. Let's analyze the recent past:
Between 2003 and 2008, 20 RFAs changed teams via an offer sheet, an average of more than three per year. Then the drought began.
Four RFAs signed offer sheets with other teams; the incumbent team matched all four. This was the first year without any movement since the RFA system began in 1993.
In the unique uncapped year, six years of service was required for UFAs, rather than the customary four years, "restricting" more than 200 players finishing their fourth and fifth years.
Only one RFA received an offer sheet: RB Mike Bell, who moved from the Saints to the Eagles on a modest one-year deal. This was certainly not the activity expected for the talent available. (A later NFLPA grievance filed about such inactivity was settled as part of the overall CBA resolution.)
With a new CBA preserving the RFA system, not a single RFA changed teams in 2011. Part of the inactivity was due to the compressed time frame following the lockout, but the trend from 2009-10 clearly continued.
We are days away from Friday's end of the RFA offer sheet period. Of 42 RFAs, none has received an offer sheet. Two talented players stand out: (1) Baltimore CB Lardarius Webb, who signed a new deal with the Ravens on April 5, and (2) Pittsburgh WR Mike Wallace, still available.
Wallace, a speedy and talented receiver entering his prime, can be had with a creative offer sheet. The Steelers restructured -- mortgaged -- virtually all of their available large contracts to stay under the cap entering 2012. A cap-rich team could take advantage of the Steelers' vulnerability with a front-loaded offer sheet for Wallace. With time running out, none has done so.
Why no activity?
This is hard to pinpoint, though as a front office executive I was hesitant to present RFA offer sheets, thinking I was negotiating the contract for the incumbent team, as it usually matches. However, as noted above, the Wallace situation finds the Steelers susceptible.
Another factor is an increased emphasis on building through the draft. With a reduced financial obligation compared to the past, especially high in the draft, these picks are more valuable than ever. Combine that with the high financial price of prying away an RFA, and teams are shying away.
Beyond these reasons, however, an overriding concern for players is that teams are spending less on players than in recent years, and RFA inactivity is a symptom of a larger malady.
Rookie contracts the end of RFA
And soon there may be no more RFAs of consequence at all.
The new CBA requires all rookie contracts to have a term of four years. Thus, any players of value will now be under contract through their fourth seasons. The only remaining RFAs will be undrafted players or players who washed out before the fourth year. With every drafted player between 2011 and 2020 -- more than 2,500 players -- signing for four years, the NFL and NFLPA have eliminated this entire class of free agent.
With restricted free agency, for practical purposes, already teetering on extinction, its complete disappearance may be near.
From the inbox
Q: I thought there were NFL rules against owning teams in different sports. How can Tom Benson now own the Saints and Hornets?
Derek in Louisiana
A: The NFL does have cross-ownership rules but allowed this scenario. The cross-ownership policy permits the controlling owner of an NFL team -- in this case Benson -- to own a team in the NBA, MLB or NHL in his own NFL market.
Q: How will the Saints' salary cap be accounted if players get suspended?
Dave in Pennsylvania
A: Suspended players' salaries -- whether full or partial -- will be removed from the cap. For instance, if a player is suspended for, say, eight games, 8/17ths of his 2012 salary -- players are paid in 17 weekly installments through the season -- will be removed from the cap, and the Saints can use that money for other purposes. Note that existing proration from previous signing bonuses to these players will remain on the Saints' cap.
Q: What do you think about the comments Joe Flacco is making about being the best quarterback in the league?
Jared in South Carolina
A: With a player entering his contract year, I tend to look at everything through the lens of negotiations. My sense is the Ravens are resisting overtures from Flacco and his agent to reward him at an elite level he is seeking; thus the frustration. This situation bears watching later in the offseason; Flacco is in his walk year.
Q: From your vantage point, what is the acceptance level of advanced analytics?
Bo in Iowa
A: It is not to the level of other sports leagues, but the time is coming. In Green Bay, we had a member of the coaching staff analyzing situational trends of opponents, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. When I consulted with the Eagles, there was a Ph.D. analyzing coaching and scouting trends. Other teams, such as the Patriots and 49ers, are among the early-adopter teams in the NFL with analytics.
The key to using analytical models, of course, is buy-in from the decision-makers. Ultimately, if the head coach or general manager is not invested in statistical analysis, its impact is very limited. Personally, my belief is that it can only add to a team's success; the more metrics a team has to use to its advantage, the better. But, in terms of empowerment from the highest levels, the NFL is lagging behind other major sports such as MLB and the NBA in acceptance. Let's hope that changes.