Restricted free agency 101

Based on some of the questions we’ve received and comments we’ve seen, it’s clear that plenty of you don’t fully understand the procedure for pursuing restricted free agents.

And we can’t say we blame you; at times, we’re not sure we understand it either.

But in the land of the blind the cyclops rules, so sit back and prepare hear what this one-eyed man has to say on the matter.

This year, restricted free agents are players with three, four, or five years of experience whose contracts have expired.  Teams with restricted free agents have the option of tendering contracts to any, some, or all of their restricted free agents.

The lowest level secures only a right to match any offer that the player receives from another team, with no compensation.

The next level gives a right to match plus compensation in the amount of the round in which the player was drafted.  (If he was not drafted, there’s no compensation.)

The next level provides a second-round pick; it was added to help teams secure the rights to restricted free agents who weren’t drafted, without having to use the highest tenders.

Next is the level that gives a first-round pick as compensation.  Then comes the highest level, providing compensation in the amount of a first-round pick and a third-round pick.

The difference between restricted and unrestricted free agents is significant.  For the Chargers, five key players are restricted free agents (linebacker Shawne Merriman, left tackle Marcus McNeill, running back Darren Sproles, receiver Vincent Jackson, and receiver Malcom Floyd).  San Diego G.M. A.J. Smith had the ability to retain the rights to each of them — and that’s exactly what he did.  In a capped year, these five players would have been eligible for unrestricted free agency, and the Chargers could have squatted on only one of them with either the franchise tag or the transition tag.

Anyone interested in a restricted free agent has the ability to talk to the player, to negotiate a contract with the player, and ultimately to sign him to an offer sheet.  If he has been tendered at any level, his current team has seven days to decide whether to match.  (If he has not been tendered, he can sign freely with his new team, as Ravens restricted free agent tackle Adam Terry might do with the Colts.)

The process does not last throughout the offseason; the period for signing restricted free agents to offer sheets ends eight days before the draft.  This means that any picks that change hands must be tendered for the current year’s draft.

All draft picks must be the original picks.  If a team no longer has a first-round pick, for example, it cannot sign a player with a first-round tender to an offer sheet.

That said, restricted free agents can be traded for any compensation about which his current team and his prospective team can agree.

If you have specific questions about specific restricted free agents, drop us a line.  I’ll try to provide you with an answer, if I’m not suffering at the time from a flare up of my lethargy addiction.