Wednesday, March 5, 2003
Updated: March 6, 5:40 PM ET
Bowen, Freeman among top restricted FAs
By Len Pasquarelli
Every year at this time, the men who are in charge of personnel departments predict that the attention in the ever-dwindling free-agent market will turn to restricted players, and every year those prognostications are unmatched.
Over the past three seasons, for instance, an average of just three restricted players have changed teams. Last spring kicker Kris Brown, who went from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Houston Texans, was the lone restricted player to find a new address.
But this year ...
Well, maybe, just maybe, some franchises in need of bolstering their rosters will finally tap into the restricted free-agent mother lode. The Washington Redskins have signed one restricted free agent, Green Bay free safety Matt Bowen, to an offer sheet and they might soon do the same with New York Jets return specialist Chad Morton.
Chances are good that, with the way the Redskins structured the offer sheet and included a $1.6 million signing bonus for a player who has started just eight games in three seasons, the Packers won't match the deal.
It is, of course, just that angle -- the possibility that the incumbent team will match the offer sheet and retain the player -- that keeps the restricted market from ever really opening for serious business. The other element: If the team that possesses the player's rights does not match, the franchise that signed him to the offer sheet must dole out draft choices as compensation.
"What you have to do," said Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato, "is get the right player, at the right price contractually, and also at a good price in terms of compensating the other club involved. If the other club swallows hard and doesn't match, you don't want to be sending them a high pick."
In the case of Bowen, who would certainly be an upgrade in the Washington secondary, the Redskins will owe Green Bay a sixth-round choice in the '03 draft, provided the Packers don't match the four-year, $6 million deal. The degree of draft choice compensation is established by the level of qualifying offer made by the incumbent team.
If a team makes the lowest qualifying offer to a restricted free agent, a one-year "tender" of $605,000, the compensatory draft choice is commensurate to the round in which that player was originally selected. Bowen was a sixth-round choice (of the Rams) and, thus, he would cost the Packers a corresponding selection.
The middle qualifying offer, of $1.318 million, carried a first-round price tag. The highest qualifying offer, $1.758 million, establishes compensation of first- and third-round draft choices.
Some teams, wary of perhaps losing a player in the restricted market, will use the middle or high qualifying offer to scare off potential suitors. The Atlanta Falcons, for instance, signed quarterback Doug Johnson in 2000 as an undrafted college free agent. But they made him the middle qualifying offer, so any team that signed Johnson to an offer sheet would owe Atlanta a first-round choice, provided the Falcons didn't match the deal.
"It is," said the general manager of one AFC team contemplating a move on a restricted free agent, "a very dicey business. That's why teams don't get in the (restricted) market very much. The feeling is that the (incumbent) team is going to match the offer anyway, so why do their contract work for them, by negotiating the deal? But there are some interesting players every year in the restricted market and you can't ignore them."
Here are 10 restricted free agents, beyond Bowen and Morton, all of whom have compensatory price tags of a fourth-round choice or lower, who are generating interest and might sign offer sheets by the April 15 deadline:
SS Arturo Freeman, Miami (compensation: 5): Arguably the best of the restricted free-agent class. Started all 16 games in 2002 after playing mostly on special teams and in "nickel" situations for two years. Had 72 tackles and four passes defensed in 2002. Just 26 years old and, while he played strong safety in '02, might have enough range to move to free safety.
|Chad Morton's timely returns last year has made him an offseason target of the Redskins.|
LB Na'il Diggs, Green Bay (compensation: 4): Definitely the team's best linebacker in 2002, the former Ohio State star is a three-year starter, and has averaged nearly 70 tackles. A big, rangy guy with some pass rush skills, will miss assignments at times, but no doubting his physical tools.
LB Clark Haggans, Pittsburgh (compensation: 5): The Texans stole kicker Kris Brown from the Steelers last spring and might have some designs now on pirating Haggans away. The linebacker met with Houston officials earlier this week and the Texans are a good fit, since they play the same 3-4 front the Steelers employ. Sort of a poor man's Joey Porter, with great quickness off the edge, and an explosive first step. Had 6 ½ sacks in 2002. Started just one game in three seasons, but ready to step up.
DT Jermaine Haley, Miami (compensation: 7): The kind of 310-pound run stuffer most teams covet. A little overaged, at 30, because he played a year in the CFL. Has just nine starts, but has logged plenty of snaps in the Miami rotation. Not a big sack threat, but does have the potential to compress the pocket from the inside.
C/OG Shaun O'Hara, Cleveland (compensation: none): Just a tough, blue-collar interior blocker who can play guard or center. A solid in-line player with a nasty streak. Started all 16 games in 2002. Because he entered the league as an undrafted free agent, he carries zero compensation.
LB Peter Sirmon, Tennessee (compensation: 4): Not spectacular, but a guy who gets around the football from his weak-side spot, and had 93 tackles in 12 starts last season. Has been mostly used to drop and cover, and not as a blitzer, and had three interceptions in 2002. Just 26 years old.
RB Michael Wiley, Dallas (compensation: 5): Anyone who witnessed his explosive 58-yard touchdown run in the '02 season-opener at Houston must know about his speed. Has averaged a gaudy 6.3 yards per carry in spot duty for the Cowboys and, at age 25, doesn't have many miles on him yet. Just 80 carries in three years, so he's relatively un-nicked, and he catches the ball well and is a more than adequate blocker.
LB Dhani Jones, N.Y. Giants (compensation: 6): Fluid athlete, moves well to the ball, has to learn to use his hands better and to keep people off of his body. The successor to Jessie Armstead and, given his enthusiasm and speed, the Giants really didn't miss their former starter much last season. A real physical specimen who, at age 25, hasn't yet tapped his potential. Started 14 games in 2002 and posted 82 tackles.
LB/DE Adalius Thomas, Baltimore (compensation: 6): Probably far better suited for a 3-4 team, where he can play the hybrid end-linebacker spot. A big outside player, at about 270 pounds, and plays best moving forward. Has pass rush skills and, if used regularly, would likely boost his total of 6 ½ sacks the past two years.
DT Josh Williams, Indianapolis (compensation: 4): Coming off an injury that limited him to seven games in '02. Might be a little undersized (285) to line up at tackle for some teams but, with everyone wanting to move to a Tampa Bay-style front, he is worth a look. Started 25 games in his three seasons in Indianapolis. A big-motor type of player.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.