For all of the free agent decisions that the Arizona Cardinals have to make this season, their list of restricted free agents is very manageable. Before we look at them though, here's a quick refresher course on what a 'restricted free agent' means. A RFA is a player with one to three seasons of accrued service who's contract has expired. To make matters simple, almost every fourth year player selected after the second round of the NFL draft will be a RFA after their third season. Teams generally sign first round picks to longer term deal, as was the case with DRC this season, and second round picks normally receive four year contacts, like Calais Campell did this year.
These players generally receive a "qualify offer" from their current team that has a flat, guaranteed salary this is determined by the NFL's Collective Bargianing Agreement. There are fourth levels of salary that a player can be offered and the different levels determine the compensation that the original club would receive from any other club that signed said player. Once the player has received his qualifying offer, they can negotiate with any other team. If another team offers them a long longer term contract, the original club has the right to match that contract or let the player leave. If they chose to let the player leave though, the original club receives draft pick compensation according to whatever level offer they extended to the player. That's kind of confusing but we'll go into better detail after looking at the levels for this season:
As an example that should clear some of the questions that I'm sure some have after reading that convoluted description, Reggie Wells was a restricted free agent after the 2005 season and the Cardinals signed him to an offer sheet. The Bills stepped in and offered Wells a five year deal worth $17.6 million. The Cardinals had seven days to match the offer or Wells would go to the Bills and the Cardinals would in turn receive a 6th round pick (his original draft round).
The only 'wild-card' in these negotiations is a 'poison pill,' but the league has tried very hard to eliminate these. The most recognizable case of 'poison pill' is when the Vikings and Seahawks both used the strategy on each other in back to back seasons. if you don't remember that saga and want to refresh your memory, here's a link.
On to the Cardinals restricted free agents.....
Gabe Watson: Watson is definitely in the Cardinals' plan for 2009 and beyond. He didn't have a great 2008 but his freak knee injury hampered him until late in the season. Being that he should open camp as the starter at nose tackle and he was originally drafted in the fourth round, I'd highly doubt they'd put the lowest tender on him ($1.01 million). Another team would certainly try to steal him if they only had to give up a fourth rounder and I'd bet the same could be said for a second round tender. That leaves the Cardinals with the two highest level tenders, a first and a first and third. Considering that the difference is only $800k, I'd hope that they go the safe route and put the highest tender on him. If they do put a first round tender on him though and a team steals him, the Cardinals could conceivably find a similar player in the first round.
Leonard Pope: Ah, the interesting one. Pope struggled mightily in his third season and injuries and plain old ineffectiveness limited him to just nine games. No one quite knows how the coaching staff feels about the tight end position, but it's clear that the entire position was a disappointment in 2008. I'm sure there are those are there who would just assume let Pope leave without any compensation. He was originally a third round pick so it might be worth a gamble to put the lowest tender offer on him and hope that another team tries to get him. Then again maybe Whisenhunt hasn't given up hope on Pope and still sees him as part of the future.
Just for the record, clubs have until the 26th to put their 'qualifying offers' on restricted free agents. There it is, what would you do with Watson and Pope? Are there any restricted free agents around the league that you'd like to take a run at.