- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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A part of free agency rapidly falling apart is restricted free agency.
Restricted free agency is a way for teams to prevent players with three years of experience from leaving without a fight. For teams in need of players, restricted free agency provides another market to bid on a young player and sign him at the cost of maybe one draft choice.
In recent years, though, the process has dried up. This year might be the worst year of restricted free agency.
Currently, only 67 players qualify, but only 15 of them participated in more than 30 percent of a team's plays. What's even more amazing is that there are only six offensive players in that small group of players with 30 percent playing time.
In other words, don't expect much -- if any -- restricted free agent activity. Don't be surprised if three-quarters of the entire list don't get restricted tender offers.
Last year, only 37 players received restricted tender offers. With the cost of those tenders going up 5 percent per year, it's almost better to let the restricted player walk.
The lowest tender for a restricted free agent in 2014 is $1.389 million. The minimum salary for most of the restricted free agents is $645,000, so for a player who is clearly a backup or special-teams player, it's almost better not to tender the player and then try to sign him for something close to the minimum.
The best players of the restricted class are Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, Green Bay Packers safety M.D. Jennings, Jacksonville Jaguars tackle Cameron Bradfield, Carolina Panthers tackle Byron Bell and Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. Harris is coming off ACL surgery.
Teams will probably give them the second-round tender at $2.124 million or a first-round tender at around $3 million. A bidding team has to wait seven days to see whether a signed offer is matched by the team that had the player. The higher the tender, the better chance that team has of not losing him.
NFL owners won't give up on restricted free agency because it is a way to keep a young player who has been around for three accrued seasons, but you can understand why the list keeps shrinking. Non-first-round draft choices sign four-year deals. If they have any potential, they will be on their rookie contracts until their fifth seasons.
Restricted free agency is more for the teams that may hit on an undrafted player or a released draft choice who resurrects his career with the new team. For the New York Giants, for example, restricted free agency bought time for them to sign Victor Cruz to a long-term deal.
But for teams looking for players, it's not much help anymore
From the inbox
Q: I know some sort of salary cap is needed in the NFL, but over the last couple of years the cap has not increased very much. Teams like Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona have drafted extremely well but will have to let go of some of the homegrown talent due to the cap. IMO, teams should be rewarded for drafting well and developing talent. I would like to see some sort of exception. Do you agree?
Keegan in California
A: While it would be great for the fans or great for the players, it's not what the owners had in mind. The owners negotiated a flat cap, and to get to $126.3 million this year, the union might have to borrow more revenue from future years. That's been the case the past few years. With the players getting a lower percentage, the first-year cap would have been $113 million based on the previous year's revenues. Football is a sport, but it also is a business. It would be nice to get an exception, but unless the union would agree to something that would dramatically change the game -- like going to an 18-game schedule -- don't expect such a change.
Q: I am curious as to where the NFL and players union stand right now on the contentious topic of random HGH testing. Do you think they will have a testing protocol in place by the beginning of the 2014 season? Or do you see it dragging on another year? The players union had their population study done last year during training camp, so how many more excuses can they come up with to stall this? The playing field needs to be equal and level for all players.
David in New York
A: At the Super Bowl, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said the agreement is at 98 percent. It's the final 2 percent that is holding everything up. The NFLPA wanted a population study, which it was granted. The union wants independent arbiters, not the commissioner's office, judging results. I think the agreement is close enough that something can be done by training camp. I agree. The league needs to catch up with the cheaters. I think the time is coming. Let's hope so.
Q: As a long time frustrated Bills fan, what do you see them doing in the offseason and the draft? After watching them let go of Pro Bowl-caliber players year after year (Marshawn Lynch, Jason Peters, Donte Whitner, etc.), it is getting hard to watch them be mediocre every year. What positions do you see them improving in the draft, especially if they let Jairus Byrd walk also?
Joe in Armonk, N.Y.
A: I get the feeling that the Bills' days of letting very good players go may be over. I say that with no guarantee Buffalo will keep Byrd. If the Bills let Byrd, Eric Wood and others get out of town, then my read on the team is wrong. For years, it seemed as though the organization preferred to trade away potential high-priced players toward the end of their rookie contracts instead of simply paying them. You saw the results -- disaster. I believe the current organization is trying to build something. You can't build if you trade away some of the best players. This current management teams needs to win credibility. Keeping top players is the best way to do that. The Bills made good strides in signing Mario Williams. Now there seems to be a plan.
Q: I know that the Steelers hardly trade back in the draft, but wouldn't this be a good year to do that? Recently, the Steelers have had problems with early picks developing into starters. With Big Ben and the offense playing on a high level, this seems like a great chance for the Steelers to trade down and look for lots of young defensive talent. (It seems the Steelers have lots of holes on defense, and I would hate to see another bust from the early picks.)
Tyler in Reno, Nev.
A: The Steelers need quality, not quantity. Trading down moves them away from quality. The Steelers know they have to get three starters out of their first three picks. If they lose Emmanuel Sanders, they need a receiver. This is a good receiver draft. Trading down might bring them a receiver with less talent. I thought the Steelers made progress last year with the selections of Jarvis Jones and Le'Veon Bell. They have to stay healthy to see if they have the right players along the offensive line. You are right that defensive help is needed. The Steelers have good scouts and a good system of drafting. I'd stay in the spots and take players.
Q: This past NFL season most teams had a rash of injuries that resulted in numerous players landing on IR. However, the Eagles, led by Chip Kelly, only had three players land on IR. With the NFL looking at ways to reduce injuries, wouldn't the number suggest they look at Kelly's "unconventional" methods?
Gurinder in Mission, British Columbia
A: You are definitely on to something. The Eagles had three major ACL injuries early in camp or OTAs, but that is a byproduct of the offseason, when players don't get instructed. Kelly has a very detailed program that appears to be working. I don't know if he would share some of his secrets with other teams because a healthy team gives him a competitive advantage. Kelly was on to something in his first season. He's not only bright with his offensive plays, but he's smart in how he handles players. Teams need to study what Kelly is doing.
Q: I have a question about the salary cap. Not knowing enough about it, you see a lot of people restructuring deals (Tom Brady and Larry Fitzgerald) with more guaranteed money and/or larger signing bonuses, etc., to get more cap room and therefore other players. Couldn't a team, say the Seahawks, with a billionaire owner simply give out more guaranteed money to players who they would lose otherwise? Would that money still affect the cap? Do signing bonuses affect the cap?
Evan in Spokane, Wash.
A: It's hard to trick the salary cap. Giving more guaranteed money or signing bonuses still counts against the cap. What those tactics do is lower the cap hit in the short term by spreading it across the life of the contract. But that can also be a problem. What if the player with the extra guaranteed money gets hurt early in his career and can't play. The Seahawks would lose money they could use for other players if they have to pay a player who can't play. The Seahawks gave $25.5 million in guarantees to wide receiver Percy Harvin, who was on the field for only three games this season. If his career were cut short because of injuries, then the Seahawks would have problems with the cap. The salary cap was created to help owners make money and keep things competitive. Just because Paul Allen has more money than any other owner doesn't give him a great edge. The Seahawks need to do smart contracts. It's the mistakes that cause cap problems for teams. Getting back to Harvin, though, I'm not hinting he was a mistake. He sure looked good in the Super Bowl.
Mailbag: Restricted free agency isn't much of a market, writes John Clayton.