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Restricted Free Agency in the NFL: A Vehicle for Collusion?

March 19, 2013

While this year’s NFL Free Agency period has led to lots of signings and excitement, one thing has been missing – not a single offer has been made to a restricted free agent by a team other than his own.

The difference between a restricted free agent and an unrestricted free agent is simply time served. Both have expiring contracts, where restricted free agents have played three years or fewer in the league; unrestricted free agents have played four years or more. If a team (say, the Cleveland Browns) designates a player as a restricted free agent (along with designating a round for draft pick compensation), that player becomes free to negotiate with other teams. There are three tender levels for the 2013 restricted free agent period: 1st round ($2.879 million), 2nd round ($2.023 million) and original round status $1.323 million. Should a different team (the Buffalo Bills) sign that player to a contract, the Browns can elect to match the contract, and the player stays on their team, or let the player go to the Bills and accept the draft pick (based on the tender level) for the upcoming draft.

Before the league’s new CBA in 2011, it was commonplace for players to change teams through restricted free agency. However, since the new agreement has been in place, activity in the restricted free agent market has plummeted. The first year under the new agreement there was no salary cap in place and two teams, the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, front loaded several of the contracts for their players (notably Albert Haynesworth of the Redskins and Miles Austin of the Cowboys) to take major cap hits during the uncapped year. As a result of these actions, the league fined the Cowboys and Redskins $18 million in cap space for last year and the upcoming year. Why were the Cowboys and Redskins fined for taking advantage of an opportunity that was available to all of the other 30 teams? I believe they were fined for violating an agreement amongst the owners and the NFL colluding to control players costs, as they were the only teams to take advantage of the uncapped season.

Mike Wallace, last year as a restricted free agent he did not receive an offer sheet. This year, he signed a $60 million contract with the Dolphins.

Mike Wallace, last year as a restricted free agent he did not receive an offer sheet. This year, he signed a $60 million contract with the Dolphins.

Last year’s free agency brought about the first season of restricted free agency with a salary cap in place. Restricted free agent contract generally range from $1-$5 million, typically on the lower-end. With cheap, young players (remember, three years or less in the league) and the first year of a new salary cap in place, wouldn’t restricted free agency be a great avenue to return great value on money spent? The owners disagreed with my premise, as only one 2012 restricted free agent was tendered a contract by anyone other than his own team. The two biggest restricted free agents from this class were Mike Wallace and Lardarius Webb. While 31 teams passed on the chance to sign Wallace and Webb to offer sheets, Wallace and Webb have cashed out for a combined $130 million in the last two offseasons (Webb re-signing with the Ravens last year, Wallace signing with the Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent this year).

Was 2012 a one year anomaly? At this point of free agency, no, 2012 was the beginning of a trend that has continued. This year, no restricted free agents have been offered a contract by a new team. Restricted free agency typically extends until a week before the draft starts, so there is still time, but the window is closing. While players like Mike Wallace, Paul Kruger, Joe Flacco and others have cashed in this offseason, restricted free agents Victor Cruz, Danario Alexander, Dennis Pitta, Emmanuel Sanders and Arthur Jones, among others, have not been offered a contract by anyone yet. Emmanuel Sanders did visit the Patriots, and several outlets reported that a contract would be offered, but no offer has come yet. Could a team like the Minnesota Vikings, who recently traded away Percy Harvin, sacrifice their 1st round pick (they would still have the Seahawks’ first round pick this year from the Harvin trade) for Victor Cruz? I absolutely would.

Victor Cruz has risen from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl champion, but nobody has made him an offer as a restricted free agent.

Victor Cruz has risen from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl champion, but nobody has made him an offer as a restricted free agent.

While signing high-profile restricted free agents may be wrong for teams with lots of problems and high draft picks (for example, I would hate for my Cleveland Browns to give up the #6 pick for Victor Cruz), when used correctly, restricted free agency has delivered results in the past (Steve Hutchinson went to the Vikings as a restricted free agent and Wes Welker was a restricted free agent when he was traded to the Patriots). However, I believe the owners are colluding to control player costs (typically, to sign away a restricted free agent, you need to offer them a substantial raise so the original team does not match). I hope that I am wrong, and that there is some action in the restricted free agency market before it closes; but if there is none I will believe that I am right and that the owners, and NFL as a whole, view restricted free agency as means to control player costs, nothing else.

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6 Comments
  1. Taylor M. permalink

    I think collusion is rampant in the NFL at many levels. The owners accomplish a lot of deals among each other with a simple handshake. You touched upon the penalty levied on the Cowboys and the Redskins for front-loading contracts in a non-capped year.

    What I found interesting about that particular case was that the NFLPA supported the 29 other teams against the appeal of the Cowboys and Redskins. I haven’t been able to find a good explanation for why the NFLPA would support this collusion. If anything, the NFLPA should have been demanding a closer look as to why no other teams chose to front-load contracts in an uncapped year. Don’t tell me Belichick didn’t see the potential for savings in future years! The entire reasoning behind the uncapped year in the previous CBA was to create an incentive for owners to come to the table to negotiate with the looming threat of an uncapped year (and the corresponding increased spending on contracts) hanging over them. Seems like the NFLPA wasn’t looking out for its own best interests.

    • Taylor, I agree, collusion has become a part of the league as a whole. I agree, it seems odd that the NFLPA has not only been a spectator, but a willing party in allowing some of these colluded acts to continue. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  2. Scott S permalink

    Agreed it’s fishy and I wouldn’t trust an NFL owner as far as I could throw him, but I think there’s some merit to the argument that teams don’t want to tie themselves up, especially early in free agency.

    If the Vikes offered Cruz a big deal a week ago, couldn’t the Giants just sit on it for a while, tying up the Vikes’ money, and limiting their ability to make other moves? Then if the Giants ultimately match, the Vikes lose out completely. (I’m not sure how much time the Giants would be given before they’d have to make a decision, so that could be a variable I’m missing).

    But to your point, this shouldn’t affect the Vikes’ decision making late in the free agency period, assuming they’ve already made their other moves and have enough room left to make a significant offer. Will be interesting to see if it happens.

    • Scott, teams have a week to match the offer sheet and keep the player, or decline to match and let the player go to a new team. So yes, the cap space is tied up for potentially as long as a week, it’s not as drastic as you portray above. The Vikings/Cruz example is just one possible way restricted free agency could be a factor for the rest of the free agent window.

      A far more likely scenario would be the Patriots signing Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet, which some believe still might happen, and could result in the Steelers acquiring a new 3rd round pick. While the Steelers might be inclined to sit on the offer, they need all the cap space they can get right now and I imagine they’d act quickly, regardless of the choice they made.

      Thanks for reading!

    • Sweens, I did see that come through this morning and immediately felt vindicated. When the NFL media is talking about an RFA signing, you know it’s a big deal, even if it’s for a player most casual fans have never heard of, thanks for linking!

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