As one college scouting director said to me last night, "probably seven tackles will go in the first round and another four in the second round, plus a few of the defensive end candidates at the combine will move inside when they get to the pros." So where else are the pro personnel people looking for talent?
The one area left is the restricted free agent pool of talent. A restricted free agent is a guy who just finished his third season in the league and his contract is about to expire. There is rarely a lot of movement in this group from one team to another for three reasons:
1) Teams usually put a 'high tender' on their good restricted free agents and that means a team that tries to sign them owe the home club a first-round pick or more.
2) If a team puts a low tender on a restricted player, the team pursuing him still has to give up a draft pick from the round the player was originally drafted.
3) An agent can only bring one team's offer to the home club for a restricted player and if the deal is weak and the home club matches the deal, then the player is stuck with a poor contract.
Those are the hurdles that curtail this personnel endeavor. Pro personnel people have to dig deeper in case they can find a gem.
But what if a home team was cap strapped and couldn't put a high tender on a restricted free agent? The cap hit for a high tender is $1.3 million. What if a team had more than one restricted free agent to protect and for cap reasons could only afford one high tender and the other players got the low tender $650,000.
What if a player's original draft round was the third round or lower so the compensation wasn't that bad? Imagine only giving up a fifth-round pick for a 25-year-old 16-game starter with production -- not many 2003 fifth-round picks are going to step into the lineup and produce week in and week out.
So, along with the two pro personnel people, we used the formula of the twelve teams in the worst cap shape. These teams may have a difficult time using a high tender with restricted free agents drafted no higher than the third round whom had excellent production in 2002. Thirteen players surfaced with that equation who are worth keeping a close eye on next week.
I've already gotten some feedback that a few of them will be tagged with the high number, but for those who do not, a club looking for a young proven player may look at this list. An offering team with a lot of cap space could write a contract a team up against the cap would have trouble matching. Also, don't forget the Texans still have two picks in every round and $15 million in space. Last year they went after Pittsburgh's restricted free agent kicker Kris Brown and were glad to give up a seventh-round pick for him.
In years past there wasn't much movement in the restricted free-agent market and that may still be true. With the talent pool in the unrestricted free-agent market already depleted with contract extensions, new deals, franchise and transition tags, it's only a matter of time before this market opens up.
Finally, when the list was completed I realized Green Bay's Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila should get a tender that would require a team to give the Packers two first-round picks. Kansas City's Greg Wesley and Miami's Arturo Freeman should get high tenders but there's a chance more than one of these players will be available and may be worth the draft compensation. Right now Tampa Bay's Aaron Stecker and San Fancisco's Ronnie Heard would require no compensation since they weren't drafted.
Pat Kirwan's Top 13 Restricted Free Agents
1. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (GB) 5th, DE (02 stats: 12 sacks, 46 tackles)
2. Na'il Diggs(GB) 4th, LB (02 stats: 84 tackles, 3 sacks, 1FF
3. Josh Bidwell(GB) 4th, P (02 stats: 41.7 avg, 35.7 net)
- Arturo Freeman (MIA) 5th, S (02 stats: 16 starts, 1.5 sacks)
- Clark Haggans (PIT) 5th, LB (02 stats: 7 sacks, 26 tackles)
- David Terrell (WAS) 7th, S (02 stats: 63 tackles, 2 INTs)
- Aaron Stecker (TB) FA, RB/KR (02 stats: 6.2 avg/carry, 25.2 avg/return)
- Greg Wesley (KC) 3rd, S (02 stats: 64 tackles, 6 INTs, 1 sack)
- Ronnie Heard (SF) FA, S (02 stats: 42 tackles, 4 INTs)
- Tim Rattay (SF) 7th, QB (02 stats: 26-43 232 YDS, 2 TDs)
- Erron Kinney (TEN) 3rd, TE (02 stats: 13 receptions)
- Peter Sirmon (TEN) 4th, LB (02 stats: 93 tackles, 3 INTs)
- Shane Lechler (OAK) 5th, P (02 stats: 42.5 avg., 37.3 net)