In 2006, retired guard Steve Hutchinson became the last high-profile player to change teams under the transition tag. Slapped with the device that gives the current team only a right to match an offer sheet signed by another team, Hutchinson ultimately left the Seahawks for the Vikings.
The move occurred thanks to a so-called “poison pill,” which would have made Hutchinson’s seven-year, $49 million contract fully guaranteed if at any time during the life of the contract he wasn’t the highest paid offensive lineman on the team. At the time the offer sheet was signed, the Seahawks were paying more to left tackle Walter Jones.
Thus, the deal would have become instantly guaranteed in Seattle. For the Vikings, only $18.5 million was guaranteed on signing.
The Seahawks challenged the move, the Vikings won, and then the Seahawks retaliated by signing receiver Nate Burleson, who was a restricted free agent at the time, to an offer sheet that would have guaranteed the full amount if he had played five or more games in Minnesota in any year of the deal, or if Burleson had been paid more on average per year than all of the team’s tailbacks.
The tit-for-tat worked for Seattle, but both teams were reportedly dressed down at the subsequent league meetings. Efforts to remove the “poison pill” tactic from the labor deal, which was brand new at the time, went nowhere when the NFL and the NFLPA couldn’t agree on the corresponding concession to the players for removing the tactic.
So the teams simply quit using it, and the union never alleged collusion.
In 2011, when the next labor deal was negotiated, the league secured an agreement to remove poison pills from offer sheets. Article 9, Section 3(e) defines the “Principal Terms” of an offer sheet that much be matched for transition-tagged players and restricted free agents. Subsection (iii) explains that “no Offer Sheet may contain a Principal Term that would create rights or obligations for the Old Club that differ in any way (including but not limited to the amount of compensation that would be paid, the circumstances in which compensation would be guaranteed, or the circumstances in which other contractual rights would or would not vest) from the rights or obligations that such Principal Term would create for the Club extending the Offer Sheet (i.e., no ‘poison pills’).”
In English, the 2011 CBA eliminated the ability to include terms that would operate differently for the current team than the new team.
Per a source with knowledge of the negotiations, the players received in return an elimination of the highest restricted-free agency tender, which required compensation in the amount of a first-round and third-round draft pick. Also, the players obtained a new formula for calculating the franchise tender, which ties the amount of the tender to the growth of the salary cap.
As a result, the Browns and Steelers need to assess only whether they want to (or can) match the salary, the bonus money, and most importantly (especially for the Steelers) the cap numbers created by the offer sheet.The same analysis applies to any of the teams who tender restricted free agents, a class of players that will be smaller than in the past, now that all draft picks must sign four-year deals. Restricted free agency applies only to players who have three years of service.