Why don't teams sign more restricted free agents? The common response is a team must give up a draft choice. However, would you rather spend millions of dollars on an unproven talent or on a proven player?
We often hear owners characterize the NFL as a business. With this is mind, why don't we hear that signing a restricted free agent (RFA) makes financial sense? In the 2009 NFL Draft, the first round salaries ranged from $11 to $72 million, with guarantees ranging from $6 to $41 million, respectively. Is that the kind of money you want to throw at a guy who may or may not even make it in the NFL? Why not invest in a player who has already shown they can perform at this level?
The argument against signing a RFA is the team will have to give up a draft choice according to the player's tender. If you would like to know more about tenders and free agency, go ask the commish. Put simply, the price for a good RFA is usually a team's first-round draft choice, and if the player is reallygood, the price is the team's first and third-round draft choices.
How many first round draft choices go on to be stars in the NFL? Not as many as one would think. In fact, you need to go all the way back to the 2001 draft to find a first round where half of the 32 picks became Pro Bowlers. Looking at drafts over the past ten years, an average of ten first round selections have played in a Pro Bowl. In other words, teams have less than a one-third chance of selecting a Pro Bowler in the first round.
Mike Florio at ProFootballTalk further argues for signing a RFA over drafting a rookie in the first round.
"Why take a chance on a rookie who might never become anything other than a guy who once was a great college football player? If the goal is to use the draft pick to get a good player, it makes more sense to use the draft pick on a player that we already know will be good."
Given how many first round draft choices turn out to be average players or even busts, I tend to agree with Florio's assessment.
There are a number of proven RFAs, on both sides of the ball, who general managers have to be considering this year. Brandon Marshall has already visited with the Seahawks. Other RFAs - Elvis Dumervil, Vincent Jackson, Shawn Merriman, Marcus McNeill, Nick Collins, Darren Sproles - have surely taken note.
Why don't teams sign restricted free agents? Is it pride? Do general managers not want to admit they should have drafted Brandon Marshall (who was picked late in the 4th round at #119) with their first round pick in 2006 rather than John McCargo? Is it worry over poisonous provisions in contracts? Ever since the Steve Hutchinson and Nate Burleson fiasco, the poison pill has rarely reared its ugly head, so I don't think that is the case. Do owners and general managers abide by an unwritten code we are unaware of? Personally, I can't figure out why more RFAs don't get signed to offer sheets.
With the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL as we know it no longer exists. Under normal circumstances, general managers would rarely consider a RFA. However, this year is different. With no CBA and no salary cap, owners and general managers have a lot more freedom. Conversely, fourth and fifth year players have a lot less freedom. This combination should lead to some strange days ahead.