Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Less Restricted

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Will there be a market for restricted free agent QB Mike McMahon? Pat Kirwan says it takes just one team to make it so

(by Pat Kirwan, Special to NFL.com)

The Super Bowl is over and teams are now busy preparing for the 2004 season.

Before last offseason, the last thing on the mind of every head coach and front office executive was restricted free agents. A restricted free agent is a young player who is a year away from true free agency and is going to get a taste of free agency this year. If a team wants to sign another team's restricted free agent, they would owe the "home" team compensation in the form of draft picks. The compensation could range from the draft round the player was originally selected in all the way up to a first- and third-round selection if the home team put the highest possible tender on a player.

For years, teams would rarely make an offer to a player for compensation higher than a third-round pick. That all changed last offseason when the Redskins realized there were some very nice young players who already proved they could play at a high level in the NFL. They concluded that instead of taking a chance on an unknown college player, you could get a guy two to three years older than a rookie and be certain you got the real thing.

Wide receiver Laveranues Coles is the case study for all the teams to examine if they are thinking of playing in the restricted-free-agent game this year. The Redskins wanted a proven young player, gave up a first-round pick to the New York Jets and plugged in a guy who went out and caught 82 passes for 1,204 yards and six touchdowns. Only one rookie beat that performance, second-round pick Anquan Boldin of the Cardinals with 101 receptions, and not one NFL club had that guy figured out going into the draft.

As a result, things are much different this year with the threat of more teams getting into the restricted free agent pool. Clubs that have quality restricted players are working overtime to get their young gems locked up to long-term deals. Just two years ago, team executives would casually call the agents who represent restricted free agents to let them know if they were putting a high or low tender on their clients and say, "We'll get back to you in the late spring to see if we can work out a deal." The leverage was all on the team's side because no one wanted to do business.

Now, the leverage might have switched to the agents, because teams are willing to step up and surrender picks for players, or at least the agents believe the teams will act when free agency opens. That makes getting these players signed much more difficult and it also means there will be more high tenders than in years past if teams have the cap space to offer high tenders. I look for teams with salary-cap space to go after restricted free agents on teams in cap trouble.

When I took a look at the restricted free agent list, I could see why some teams are excited to dive into that pool of players, and I could also see a team like Carolina working overtime to sign its young star receiver Steve Smith. He could very well be the Laveranues Coles of 2004. But there are quality players at other positions, too. Today we'll look at the top offensive players who are restricted free agents. Take a look at these names.

Quarterbacks:

1. A.J. Feeley, Philadelphia Eagles: He came off the bench last year and won four of five starts in 2002. Jake Delhomme won only one game as a starter and the Panthers wanted him in the worst way last offseason. The Eagles have the salary-cap space to re-sign Feeley, but he'll never start in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb on the roster.

2. Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams: He has already won a lot of games and the Rams have a ton of money tied up in Kurt Warner, so this is an interesting dilemma.

3. Mike McMahon, Detroit: Some people love the guy, others are lukewarm. It doesn't matter, because he needs only one team that likes his athletic ability, arm strength, seven starts and nearly 6-yard rushing average -- and he's gone.

4. Sage Rosenfels, Miami Dolphins and Jesse Palmer, New York Giants: Both probably will stay where they are, but they are interesting.

Running Backs:

1. Kevan Barlow, San Francisco 49ers: Big-time back who can run with power and be elusive, and has good hands. Some think he's headed to Dallas.

2. Correll Buckhalter, Philadelphia Eagles: Philadelphia has the cap space to keep him, and it appears it likes him more than Duce Staley, but Staley was impressive in the NFC championship game.

3. Rudi Johnson Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals will let Corey Dillon go and build the run game around Johnson. They are trying to get him signed now. Why would he leave a team on the rise with Marvin Lewis as head coach?

4. Dominic Rhodes, Indianapolis Colts: When Rhodes started as a rookie for an injured Edgerrin James in 2001, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Injuries have been an issue, but he could be another Priest Holmes. He wasn't drafted, so if the tender isn't over $1 million, there is no compensation for him.

5. Rod Smart, Carolina Panthers: He flashed some kick-return skills and there might be some interest.

Wide Receivers

1. Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers: The Panthers are trying to sign him right now and have the cap space to do it. This will not be cheap to do, but his 2003 performance might warrant it. Otherwise, he's this year's Laveranues Coles.

2. Alex Bannister, Seattle Seahawks: An All-Pro special-teams player who is now learning to be a receiver. Don't know if someone would give up a first-rounder, but they will if the tender is low.

3. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati Bengals: There will be interest because of size and flash of ability, though I don't think it will be the high tender.

4. Justin McCareins, Tennessee Titans: He is emerging as a very good No. 2 wide receiver. The Titans have some cap issues and might not be able to defend their position.

Offensive Line

1. Bennie Anderson, Baltimore Ravens: He has emerged as a quality guard on a very good offensive line.

2. Kareem McKenzie, New York Jets: With the Jets' losses in the offensive line over the past few years, he has gained a lot of experience with 32 starts in his 40 games.

3. Mike Gandy, Chicago Bears: He has shown versatility in the past two years and might be a surprise recruit for a few teams.

4. Floyd Womack, Seattle Seahawks: Only 14 starts in the past two years, but he will get some interest.

Finally, teams are scrambling to get guys signed, as the Saints have done with tight end Boo Williams. But more and more agents are telling me they are going to wait and see if there's a Redskins-like deal waiting for them. One club executive said, "We are concentrating on restricted free agents on teams in cap trouble and we like some of what we see." Another AFC personnel man said the Patriots, with four picks in the top 65 of this year's draft, could go get any player they want. Time will tell if the Pats or any team duplicates the Redskins' plan this year.

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