One of the “lesser” issues of the CBA negotiations is restricted free agency. It’s “lesser” because it hasn’t gotten a lot of press relative to the yawning chasms between the players and owners on the revenue split and the 18-game schedule. However, the way the NFL and NFLPA agree to handle free agency going forward could radically change players’ careers—and teams’ rosters.
Under the old rules, when a player’s contract expired, if he had four or more accrued seasons he was an unrestricted free agent, able to sign with anyone at any price. Free agents with three years of service, though, were restricted. Their current team could choose to tender them a qualifying offer, after which they could still negotiate and sign an offer sheet with another team. But their original team would have the right to match—or let them walk, and receive draft picks from the new team. The higher the tender offer, the higher/more draft picks the original team would receive.
When the salary cap went away, the requirements changed. Suddenly, a player needed six years of service to become an unrestricted free agent—and scads of four- and five-year veterans thinking they’d hit an uncapped open market had to stick around for another year.
Right now, the NFL is in limbo. normally, we’d have the end of the League Year, then free agency would begin. Instead, we have the end of the CBA, and then nothingness. So, just to be safe, teams are operating under the old rules: tendering offers to the three-, four-, and five-year veterans they want to keep around. Who they tender—and at what level—will give a very strong indicator of who team values.
Yesterday, we found out the Lions tendered Cliff Avril at the highest level, requiring a first- and third-round draft pick from any team signing him to an offer sheet the Lions won’t match. Further, Mayhew said at the combine the Lions plan to tender Drew Stanton an offer, saying “We plan on having Drew on our team next season.”
I'm not sure there were two Lions who had more to prove in 2010 than Cliff Avril and Drew Stanton. Avril, a gifted pass rusher whom most projected as a 3-4 OLB coming out of college, had shown flashes in his first two seasons. But, with only street free agent Jason Hunter to compete with, he couldn’t lock down the starting job in 2009. At this time last year, trade rumors began to surface: the Lions, it was rumbled, were going to spin Avril off to a 3-4 team and draft a more prototypical 4-3 DE in the first few rounds.
With a few quick phone calls, and a timely article, Tom Kowalksi killed that rumor, proclaiming the Lions “thrilled” with Avril’s intensity. Avril, he said, had added ten pounds of muscle and a mean streak . . . we might have been skeptical at the time, but Avril locked his job down, and played out of his mind, in 2011. By Pro Football Focus’ player grades, Avril was the 11th-best DE in 2010 (better than players like Mario Williams and Jared Allen). Avril has proven he’s a key component of the Lions’ defense; with luck he’ll be here for years to come.
I've spilled an awful lot of e-ink on Drew Stanton. I’ve long been one of his most vocal proponents. I’ve told anyone who would listen that with proper care and feeding, Stanton can be at least what Charlie Batch has become, a quality long-term backup who can win games as a starter . . . and maybe more. Further, I’ve pounded the table, insisting that what the Lions did to him was the worst-case scenario for his development. But, with two full years under stable coaching and leadership, we’ve seen him blossom.
Last year, at this time, it was possible, even probable, that these two players would off the team by now. They’d just be two more Millen Draft Picks lost to the ether, two more promising and talented players chewed up and spit out by the Failure Demon that Armchair Linebacker’s Neil says torments this franchise. Instead, they’re going to be important pieces of the roster next year—and, after the CBA is hammered out, they may even be signed to long-term deals, cementing their place as players we can cheer for for years to come. I know a couple little Lions fans who are going to be thrilled.