A high-stakes game of chicken

Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin, left, and Texans tight end Owen Daniels are among a sizable group of restricted free agents who have yet to sign their tenders. Getty Images

With the clock ticking toward a June 15 deadline, nearly four dozen restricted free agents are playing a nervy game of chicken with their respective NFL teams.

And no matter who blinks first, the stakes are high, both from a financial and emotional standpoint.

As of Monday evening, 45 restricted free agents have yet to sign their one-year qualifying offers for the 2010 season. Those qualifying offers, which range from $1.01 million to $3.268 million depending on a player's tenure in the league and the level of the tender offer, grant the club a right of first refusal. But with the April 15 deadline for signing offer sheets with another team having passed, the players are precluded from negotiating with outside franchises, and thus, their rights belong exclusively to their current teams.

The level of tender determined the draft choice compensation due the original club if a player signed an offer sheet elsewhere and was allowed to leave.

But with the April 15 deadline having passed, barring a trade, there's nowhere else to go now but back to the incumbent franchise.

"There's no big advantage to signing before June 15," said David Butz, the agent for Houston tight end Owen Daniels, who has yet to sign his tender and waited until the deadline last year to do so. "And there's no disadvantage, either."

But next month the leverage swings even more toward the teams, and here's why: Unless a restricted player signs his one-year tender by June 15, the club has the prerogative of reducing the offer to 110 percent of his 2009 salary at any time after that. In a league that thrives on deadlines, it's one of the more esoteric ones. But that doesn't mean it isn't significant.

For many of the players involved, the potential reduction in a club's qualifying offer could mean a seven-figure loss.

"There's a lot [of money] involved, sure," acknowledged Denver linebacker Elvis Dumervil, the NFL's sack leader in 2009, and a player whose prospective salary for '10 could theoretically be reduced by more than $2.5 million if he remains unsigned by June 15. "But a player has to do what a player has to do … and a team has to do what it feels is the right thing."

In an era when clubs are desperately attempting to cut costs, it's believed there are few teams that would take advantage of the June 15 deadline and reduce the tender offers. But as general manager Tom Heckert of the Cleveland Browns told the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "It's definitely an option we have discussed. But nobody wants to go down that road because it brings bad blood. At the same time, we want the guys in here [for the offseason program]. … We hope it doesn't get to June 15."

The Browns have five restricted free agents who haven't participated in offseason sessions because they haven't signed their one-year tenders or injury waivers that would permit them to take part. So does San Diego. Baltimore has a league-high six such players. Four other teams have at least three players each.

Heckert noted Monday, when the Browns began a round of offseason workouts minus the unsigned five, that the players no longer have any leverage. Because of the uncertainty of the labor situation, some teams have been purposely slow in negotiating long-term contracts with players who can work on one-year tenders.

Dumervil, whose agent is discussing a long-term deal with Denver officials, signed an injury waiver that permitted him to do on-field work with Broncos teammates when the club opened minicamp Monday.

With less than a month until the deadline, the list of restricted free agents who have yet to sign their tenders is unusually high -- approximately double what it has been in each of the past three years -- and includes more than the normal quota of high-profile young veterans.

Among some of the restricted players who have yet to autograph their one-year tenders are wide receivers Miles Austin (Dallas) and Vincent Jackson (San Diego), Daniels (Houston), guard Logan Mankins (New England), tackles Jammal Brown (New Orleans) and Marcus McNeill (San Diego), tailback Ronnie Brown (Miami), defensive end Ray Edwards (Minnesota), linebackers Thomas Davis (Carolina) and Shawne Merriman (Chargers) and safeties Antoine Bethea (Indianapolis) and Roman Harper (Saints).

Twenty-nine of the 45 players started at least eight games in 2009.

There are several reasons for the delays. In the case of New Orleans tailback Pierre Thomas, the player and the Saints have been working on a long-term contract that would render the one-year tender moot. In other instances, players would rather skip offseason workouts; and because a player can't practice without a contract or an injury waiver, the team cannot fine him.

With Daniels, who caught 40 passes in '09 before a knee injury scuttled his career season in the eighth game, there is still some chance of a long-term contract if the club determines he is completely recovered.

But there is also the backlash of the uncapped year in '10, and the simmering dissatisfaction of some players with their restricted status. Remember, there are more than 200 players who otherwise would have been unrestricted free agents -- the threshold for unrestricted free agency has jumped from four to six accrued years in the league -- but who are relegated to restricted free agency because of the stormy negotiations that have resulted in a year without a cap.

Because of the dearth of quality among unrestricted free agents, many pundits believed this would be an active spring in the restricted market, but that hasn't been the case. Only one player, tailback Mike Bell, who went from New Orleans to Philadelphia, changed teams via a restricted free-agent offer sheet.

"We're victims of the situation," said Edwards, one of the game's top left ends who would have commanded a lot of action on the unrestricted market. "I'm not happy about it, and I'm sure I'm not the only one."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.