Whether a new CBA will restore 2009 free agency rules or retain the 2010 restrictions is of particular interest to players drafted in 2006 or later as is speculation that teams might receive some form of right-of-first-refusal option to match outside offers to one or more of their own free agents once the lockout is resolved and the market opens.
It could further cloud what seems to be shaping up as a frenetic free agency period while potentially penalizing players hoping to shop for a new deal.
“If the teams get the three or four (right-of-first-refusal) tags — or if they just get one — that’s a clear and huge hindrance on the players’ ability to change teams in free agency,” says CAA Sports agent Ben Dogra, who along with his partner, Tom Condon, represents more than 100 NFL players.
“Franchise players don’t move, restricted free agents don’t move. … The more tags you give (teams), the worse it is for the players.”
Fourteen teams used their franchise tag — a mechanism designed to allow teams to retain prominent free agents and one likely to be retained in the new CBA — prior to the lockout. Peyton Manning and Michael Vick are among those bearing the tag, which can prevent other teams from negotiating at all with the player or surrender two first-round draft picks as compensation to pry him loose (assuming the original team does not match the offer) depending on whether the original club designates the tag as exclusive or non-exclusive.
Though tagged players can be traded — the New England Patriots franchised Matt Cassel before eventually dealing him to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 — no franchise player has switched teams after signing an offer since 1998.
Being granted right of first refusal essentially awards teams a fallback akin to the transition tag, which allows clubs to match any offer their player(s) might receive or risk losing him without compensation.
It may not sound like such a bad proposition but it could wreak havoc on both sides in what will likely be a condensed post-lockout signing window.
Take Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, who was drafted 27th overall in 2006 and could be the top tailback available, as an example. If the Denver Broncos hypothetically signed him to an offer sheet, and the Panthers matched, Williams might have to return to a team that initially deemed him unworthy of the lucrative franchise tag and might feel like it subsequently had to overpay to keep him. Meanwhile, the Broncos would be left to explain their gambit to incumbent Knowshon Moreno, who might not appreciate the pursuit of a replacement.
“You’ve got hurt feelings on both sides. Denials. ‘No, really, we love you,’ ” says NFL Network analyst Charles Davis of the potential backtracking that could occur.
“This is the human side of this lockout.”
Furthermore, teams could be forced to forgo fallback options in a quickly evolving market landscape while waiting to learn if another club will match a ROFR offer.
“They don’t know if they’re overbidding,” says Dogra of the quandary suitors will face. “And you still have the uncertainty of the original club being able to match.”
Prominent players who could be affected include Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Antonio Cromartie, Ray Edwards, Doug Free, Santonio Holmes, Charles Johnson, Johnathan Joseph, Davin Joseph, Zach Miller, Sidney Rice and Williams.
“You thought you put your time in, and then they change the rules on you. Remember when the big kids did that to the younger ones back on the playground?” says Davis. “In a sense, that’s how they could feel.”
Ultimately, the players in question may be plagued by bad luck and poor timing, victims of a labor timeline that intersects with what would normally be their bargaining apex.
“A deal is a deal,” says Dogra. “Once the two sides come to a deal, it’s unimaginable to me if you have free agency at four years and have right of first refusal for one player let alone four (players).
“Teams had the benefit last year of restricting players at the four-year level and five-year level. The possibility of right of first refusal is effectively another freeze on that player.”
And it could be sending a chill up many of their spines.
“The player still wants the best deal he can get,” says New Orleans Saints all-pro guard Jahri Evans, who has the security of a long-term pact. “That could make it pretty hard.”