Have We Seen The NFL’s Last Restricted Free Agent?

Mike Gillislee represents a category of NFL players that is on the brink of extinction. This offseason, he became a rare restricted free agent (RFA)—and he actually received an offer sheet from another team, which made his situation even more rare.

The Patriots saw an inefficiency in the market and snatched the backup running back from the Bills. Buffalo, which tendered him only at the low draft-round rate (fifth), could have protected against this happening by offering Gillislee a higher rate (a second-round tender certainly would have scared off the Patriots). But the Bills gambled and tried to save money, leaving them susceptible to a raid by their division rival. Gillislee will now receive a contract worth $6.4 million over the next two years, with $4 million this year. The Bills had a chance to match the offer and keep him, but passed on the opportunity.

Prior to the 2011 CBA there were dozens of RFAs every offseason; they were players with three years of NFL service whose contracts had expired. Such players were able to talk to teams in free agency, but their incumbent teams had the right to match any offer or receive compensation in return, depending on the level of tender given. Now, however, RFAs are a dying breed. The current CBA mandates that all drafted player sign four-year contracts, virtually eliminating the RFA category of three-year players with expiring contracts.

The only RFAs these days are undrafted players, who only have to sign three-year contracts, and drafted players such as Gillislee who end up with shorter contracts after multiple transactions (Gillislie was drafted by the Dolphins, released, signed to the Cardinals’ practice squad, released, signed to the Bills’ practice squad, released, then signed to the Bills’ active roster).

We may look back at Gillislie as one of (if not the last) RFA offer sheets in NFL history.

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Many have asked if there could be a lasting impact on NFL personnel evaluation from the tragic saga of Aaron Hernandez. Well, as I have learned firsthand, football locker rooms are impressionable environments. Good or bad, character is infectious and spreads quickly, especially among position groups.

As I’ve written in this space before, teams will do what they do in player acquisition regardless of league policies and combine rules. The Patriots felt they got great value drafting Hernandez, a first-round talent, in the fourth round. The Cowboys felt they got great value signing Greg Hardy, a premiere pass rusher, to a performance-laden contract after he brutally assaulted a former girlfriend. Teams often pat themselves on the back when they draft players with red flags lower than they “should have” been picked.

Yes, I know one of my mantras about the NFL has been: greater talent equals greater tolerance. However, team decision-makers are like all of us, influenced to some degree by what is swirling in the news at the moment. My sense is that the words “Aaron Hernandez” will be spoken in a few war rooms this week when debating certain players. I suspect some teams won’t be playing the rationalization game this year, to some measure, due to the Hernandez tragedy being fresh in their minds. Perhaps there will be less rationalizing when considering players with character issues or maybe even shying away altogether. Maybe we will hear less of this when teams take players with character issue, “We got a second-round talent in the fifth round!”

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As I recount every year at this time, the drafting of Aaron Rodgers in 2005 was the ultimate “Trust the Board” moment.

We had approximately 20 players rated above the first-round line that year and watched as the players we had targeted—DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears, both picked by the Cowboys, were among them—fell off the board. When we arrived at our pick (No. 24) there was only name left above that line: Rodgers. But we didn’t have a need at the position. We had the most durable player in NFL history, Brett Favre, manning that position. (I used to say that we only needed to carry one quarterback on our team, because Brett never missed a snap.)

As we stared at Rodgers’ name, there were murmurs from the coaching side of the room, realizing we may well use our first-round pick on a player who would probably not help us that year (or perhaps the next, or even the year after that … or possibly never be a starter in a Packers uniform). On the management side of the room, however, we were in “Trust the Board” mode.

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As we started on the clock, GM Ted Thompson asked me to call Rodgers’ agent, Mike Sullivan (who is now team negotiator for the Broncos) and just keep him on the line. I called the number I had and got a terse, “Hello…”

“Mike?”

“No, this is Aaron.”

I felt so bad for him. He’d been sitting there for five hours, and now I had to keep him waiting even longer.

“Hey Aaron, it’s Andrew Brandt, with the Green Bay Packers.”

Then I cringed while asking, “Can I talk to Mike?”

It was surreal as I watched Mike on television trying to get me to say we were taking Aaron. I could not commit, as Ted wanted to see what offers might come in (it was 15 minutes per pick then). The room and phone lines were eerily silent, save for the coaching staff incredulous that we would use a first-round pick on a quarterback that we didn’t need. Finally, after 10 minutes that seemed like 10 hours, Ted gave me the go-ahead to tell Mike: We were taking Aaron.

As commissioner Paul Tagliabue made the announcement, we heard boos from the draft party going on below us; the pick did not go over well with our owners (the Cheeseheads). Of course, Aaron turned out to be OK (sarcasm alert), but to this day I sometimes think about how the NFL balance of power could be different if that phone had rang with an enticing trade offer during those excruciating 10 minutes on the clock.

Speaking of war rooms . . .

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1) Roger Goodell will receive the obligatory boos this year in Philadelphia, as he does every year. He is the face of the league; it is part of his job to take the hits so owners don’t have to. Would an owner of a team be booed if he announced the picks? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t be as heartfelt.

2) The tens of millions people tuning in to hear picks announced and watch draftees say, “I’m excited to join (fill in team)!” is always astounding to me. It’s the power of the NFL.

3) “Stock rising” or “stock falling” are largely creations of media and agents. Teams spend months painstakingly assembling their boards and adhere to their work. The combine, pro days, workouts and visits may provide subtle shifts, but mostly serve to confirm what the team already knows.

4) The best decision-makers are calm through the weekend. The work has been done; it’s time to “Trust The Board.” And nothing is more deflating to a scouting staff than when a decision-maker—general manager, head coach or owner—has a “hunch” and changes course at the point of reckoning.

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5) With plenty of talented scouting staff in Green Bay (I worked with several guys who are now general managers), I stayed out of the scouting lane but tried to be the voice of reason. I would ask the long-term questions, such as, “If we draft these positions in the top of the draft—guys who are definitely making the team—who does that push off our roster?” I tried to have everyone see the bigger picture.

6) As a former agent, I always feel for agents this weekend. They have been supporting, financially and emotionally, these players for months, and rarely are players happy with their draft position, often pointing the finger at the agent for not being drafted higher. Ego and insecurity are very much on display during draft weekend.

7) The post-draft frenzy of signing of free agents still continues in a swirl of activity resembling the floor of a stock market. I proposed a system similar to medical residents being matched with hospitals: players submit their top five desired teams; teams submit their top five undrafted free agents; a computer could match them up like a dating app. It would work better than the current Wild West system we have now.

8) As for a couple stories about signing undrafted free agents, I tell them every year, but they are timeless and priceless. Once I talked directly to a player—he did not have an agent—and agreed to terms. Later I noticed his name on the list of signed players for two other teams. I called the player, who naively said, “I thought I could sign with all of you and then pick the one I liked most.” I told him he had to pick a team. (He picked the Cardinals and lasted a week.)

9) In the 2003 post-draft chaos, one of our scouts yelled out, “Anyone want to sign this quarterback Romo? He’s from Wisconsin.” Crickets.

10) And my favorite undrafted story of all time: I told a player we would sign him for a $500 bonus. His answer: “Sorry, I only have $100 right now but I can get you the rest in about a week.” . . . “No,” I answered, “We pay you.”

Enjoy the draft, even if you only have $100 right now.

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