A slow market for restricted free agents

There are four weeks left in the 2010 restricted free agent (RFA) offer sheet period. To date, only Mike Bell of the Saints has received an offer sheet, that from the Eagles for $1.7-million (a simple decision whether the Saints believe their third running back is worth $1.7 million; they don’t).

At the start of free agency, I heard some who predicted an active RFA market. They suggested that by "only" putting tenders of first-round pick compensation, or even second-round pick compensation, teams would expose themselves to losing some of their best players to restricted free agency.

I never bought into that. My sense from the beginning has been that there will be little to no activity in the RFA market. Yes, I know, the RFA market -- with this "limbo" group of players that would have been unrestricted in any other year -- is more talented than the UFA group, many of whom have some age on them. And yes, teams that have little chance to improve through the UFA market can look to the RFA group to upgrade the quality of their roster. Still, there will be little to no action. Here are a few reasons:

(1) There was an almost unanimous feeling among scouting staffs after the combine that the draft is high quality and deep. Two general managers told me this is the most densely packed group of talent they’ve seen in a decade. As a result, draft picks in 2010 are worth more than draft picks in previous years. Teams will be less willing to part with them for that reason.

(2) Also related to the depth and quality of the draft is that draft picks have special value this year. With an uncertain labor situation, teams can negotiate four- and five-year deals for relatively low money on draft picks rather than create expensive offer sheets that sap them of huge guarantees and high total values of contracts. While there are a handful of top picks who make stupid money, most are relatively cheap labor.

(3) RFA negotiations are tricky. An agent and player may seek out an offer from another team for reasons that aren't the right ones. They may just want to show some spite to their team that has not been willing to negotiate a long-term deal. Or they may want to jump-start negotiations that have stalled. Many times, the player really doesn’t want to leave; he simply wants a new contract. Players need to be careful what they wish for.

(4) The "poison pill" method of writing an offer sheet -- including terms in the offer that the original team can’t match without tremendous hardship on their payroll and/or other players' contracts -- may be a relic of the past. This certainly happened in 2005 with the Vikings, who "poison-pilled" Steve Hutchinson away from the Seahawks but have been dormant since.

It almost occurred again in 2007 when the Patriots were poised to do something dramatic to obtain RFA Wes Welker from the Dolphins. That attempt, however, was forestalled when the teams’ owners -- Robert Kraft and Wayne Huizenga -- mutually agreed to trade Welker rather than have him pilfered through an unconventional offer. More owners feel that kind of tactic is outside their comfort zone, and although there are no restrictions against it, the league has been advising against such moves for years (it seethed at the Vikings for that tactic with Hutchinson).

Maybe there will be more offer sheets, but I think the majority of them will be for lesser players like Bell, not the ones tendered at the higher levels. That group – with talented players such as Brandon Marshall, Miles Austin, Vincent Jackson, Kyle Orton, Shawne Merriman, Darren Sproles and Elvis Dumervil – will continue to watch and wait, victims of bad timing and casualties of the uncapped year.

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