Last year, none of the 42 restricted free agents signed offers sheets with new teams. This year, none of nearly 40 restricted free agents have signed offer sheets with new teams.
At a certain point, the existence of an informal understanding among NFL teams to lay off each other’s restricted free agents becomes the only reasonable conclusion. If that’s the case, it’s a clear case of collusion.
Since the uncapped year of 2010, in which restricted free agency dramatically expanded on a one-time basis to include players with four or five years of service, only one RFA has signed an offer sheet with a new team. That was running back Mike Bell, a restricted free agent with the Saints who signed an offer sheet with the Eagles.
In four years of restricted free agency classes — four years — no other player has signed an offer sheet.
Last year’s 0-fer was explained away by the exorbitant contract that former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace wanted. And, generally, some believe that teams shouldn’t waste their time negotiating a contract that the player’s current team can match.
But with more and more teams having cap trouble and a large cluster of teams having more than $10 million remaining, it’s easier than ever to craft a front-loaded offer sheet that, say, the Giants would have a hard time matching for receiver Victor Cruz (who has a first-round tender), the Ravens would have a hard time matching for tight end Dennis Pitta (who has a second-round tender), and/or the Steelers would have a hard time matching for receiver Emmanuel Sanders (who has a third-round tender).
Coincidentally (or not), the league’s in-house media company reported before the start of free agency that, as to Cruz, “there is already a ton of interest and plenty of teams just waiting for their opening.” Since March 12, Cruz has been doing the salsa to the sound of crickets. Pitta likewise drew “preliminary interest” from several unnamed teams.
Still, only one RFA — Sanders — took a visit, three weeks ago to the Patriots. And it’s hard not to at least wonder whether the normally ultra-secretive Patriots, who routinely insist on full discretion from players in whom they are interested, allowed the Sanders visit to be reported in order to help create the sense that restricted free agency has not gone the way of the dodo bird.
Regardless of any interest — real, imagined, or exaggerated — that teams have in Cruz, Pitta, Sanders, it hasn’t translated into an offer sheet being signed (or, as far as anyone knows, even offered) to a single restricted free agent since Mike Bell in 2010.
With the league recently defending the relative lack of activity in unrestricted free agency by claiming that “[p]layer signings in 2013 have been characterized by robust spending and intense competition,” there has been no spending and no competition for restricted free agents.
If that’s not the result of collusion, then why is it happening?