Restricted free agency has been a boon to NFL teams, keeping players cheaply at the end of their rookie deals, and hasn't done much of anything to enable movement among the youngest players in the game. And, with this new CBA and the more uniform contract lengths, it is being largely phased out.
But it's always fun to see if there will be any surprises in the market, and leave it to the always forward-thinking Patriots to explore the market with Steelers dynamic receiver Emmanuel Sanders visiting them Friday. New England is looking to get younger at this position, with Wes Welker gone and Brandon Lloyd on the way out. Sanders would give them a speedster they badly need. It also makes in sense that Pittsburgh is vulnerable because of its lack of cap space, and it's a chance weaken a team New England has long battled for AFC supremacy, and a Steelers team that already lost receiver Mike Wallace from its roster this week.
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Saying all that, it remains a long-shot that this would work. Pittsburgh tendered Sanders at the lowest rate ($1.3M), which would entitle Pittsburgh to just a third-round pick as compensation if he departed. That's something the Steelers couldn't stomach, and if an offer sheet emerges on Sanders, Pittsburgh would have five days to match. The Steelers have sufficient wiggle room to create more cap space if need be -- though that would muddle an already difficult situation and limit the ability to add in need areas such as outside linebacker or running back.
Still, I'd expect Pittsburgh to do all within reason to match anything Bill Belichick comes up with -- though he could be very creative in front-loading the deal to make it more challenging for the Steelers to respond. This being a copy-cat league, especially when it comes to those trying to mimic Belichick, we just might see more action in the RFA market to come.
Usually, offers don't come for a few more weeks, until teams have exhausted even more money in free agency, leaving them in weaker position to match (again, not that many offers for players of note come at all -- i.e., Wallace a year ago on the first-round tender). And, with the cap staying so flat in recent years, and with this free-agent not that impressive, it heightens the odds someone gives it a shot.
The consensus has been to avoid the market. Plus, the depth of this year's draft at certain positions coupled with the fact that drafted players come so damn cheap in this new CBA works against going into the restricted market. "Why do I want to give up a second-round pick, if I can draft a kid in the same spot in this draft and not have to pay him anything for at least three years," as one GM said. "And why should I do someone else's contract for them?" This alludes to the fact that if matched, you have basically facilitated the long-term future of a good player with an opponent when said player otherwise might be hitting the open market next season without having to give up any compensation for him.
So obviously, the system works both ways in that regard.
With that in mind, here is a look at some players who NFL execs have at least considered internally, with the caveat that the level of compensation put on each in virtually every case will end up leading to no one signing any to an offer sheet:
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants, 1st-round tender ($2.8M): A year ago everyone wondered if Wallace would get action in this spot, and nothing materialized. The Giants don't have an abundance of cap room and even though Cruz may be the best slot guy in the game, New York also has a looming contract situation with fellow receiver Hakeem Nicks. The Patriots mulled this option as well, league sources said, but have clearly focused on Sanders for now. There are enough teams sitting on massive amounts of cap space to consider it (had the Redskins not have been obliterated by cap penalties -- that were brought on at least in part by the Giants -- you can't convince me something like this wouldn't have been right up their alley).
Dennis Pitta, TE, Ravens, 2nd-round tender ($2M): Baltimore is undergoing a roster purge and the cap situation isn't ideal. Pitta has great athleticism and fits the mold of the dynamic downfield playmaker sought around the league with so much emphasis on spread formations. But, ain't no way I see Baltimore letting him go after investing $120M in his best friend, quarterback Joe Flacco. Letting Anquan Boldin go frees up more room for Pitta on those seam routes that were so effective in the playoffs and he's someone the Ravens will want to lock up long-term (fellow tight end Ed Dickson could be an option for another team as well, as he's also an RFA). It's also a deep tight end draft, which works against the likelihood of an offer sheet.
Chris Ivory, RB, Saints, 2nd-round tender: Ivory ran hard and well when finally given a shot to play late last season, and many teams were hoping he would get the lowest tender, in which case the chase for him would have been on. At some point, perhaps the Saints sign him, then trade him, though running backs have not been much of a commodity given their short shelf-life these days. The second-round tender almost certainly will scare anyone away.
Wayne Hunter, RT, Jets, 2nd-round tender: Much was made of the Jets' protection issues heading into last season, but Hunter stabilized things for them on the right side. Had he been given the low tender, undoubtedly the chase would be on, but in the end GMs I spoke to didn't envision anyone willing to give up a pick and then also pay him now.
Danario Alexander , WR, Chargers, low tender (no draft pick compensation): Alexander, who has battled injuries his entire career, was an undrafted player, thus San Diego would not get a team's draft pick if he ended up getting an unmatched offer sheet. He displayed a nose for the end zone last season, and caught 33 balls in only seven games ... but health concerns that will hold teams back. "I'm not sure he could even pass our physical," one GM said. He's an explosive athlete for sure, though, and fits the mold of what people are looking for in the modern passing game. Of all these guys, he perhaps has the greatest chance of leaving, given there would be no draft compensation involved.
Chris Clark, OT, Broncos, low tender (no compensation): Clark is a former undrafted player who is a spare part in Denver, though some evaluators see potential. He was featured more in 2011, when the Broncos were grinding it out -- playing Tebow-ball. He was an extra tackle, but he does have six starts and teams can never have too many tackles. It's a name I've heard at least brought up, although, again, history dictates the RFA market is more about hypothetical moves than actual ones.
Brian Hoyer, QB, Cardinals, 2nd-round tender: Several teams were eying Hoyer in free agency, and it's the second-round level that has scared them off. But with the Cards now paying Drew Stanton decent money in their quarterback mix and them looking at drafting a passer high as well, this could be another situation where -- down the road -- Hoyer is dealt for a late-round pick. Cleveland would be one potential destination. Other teams -- like Jacksonville -- are unsettled at quarterback, too. With teams assuming at some point he hits the market, they won't give up the pick now. Pittsburgh also really likes him from his brief stint there, but with Hoyer hit with the second-round tender, the Steelers signed veteran Bruce Gradkowski.