Wednesday, June 16, 2010

RFA Tendering Process a Necessary Evil

As we are finally reaching the end of the tendering season, I spent a little time thinking about how restrictive RFA tendering really is for many players.  In particular, I think about how frustrating it is for Tramon Williams, who apparently signed his tender just before the deadline is scheduled to make $3.1M this year as a result, about six times what he made last year.

In reality, getting tendered after four years in the league has to be a bit scary for these young kids.  Sure, the tender amount is usually more than what their previous salary was, but it comes with strings attached.  Most of these guys are entering their fifth season, meaning they are in or approaching their mid-20's and their prime playing years.  But, they've gotten past that first rookie paycheck and many of them are maturing:  they've likely bought their first car(s), their first house(s), have gotten married and may even have kids on the way.

The shock of seeing that first contract run out and not being sure of what that income level is going to be next year is probably rather sobering for many of those RFA's.  And, the team holds most of the cards:  they control the tender level (and thus, their salary), the deadline, and the rights to the player as long as the tender is on the table.  But, even more disconcerting for the player is that it is a one-year deal with no guaranteed money, and the team can choose to cut that player at any time without any penalty.

So, that brings us to Tramon.  Frankly, he's been a very talented corner who, in my opinion, is as good as any other nickel back in the NFL.  If  you don't buy that, try this:  I'd be willing to bet you that Williams would be a starter on at least half the other teams in the NFL right now.  If you don't believe me, go through the depth charts of all the teams and let me know if I'm right.

And there's the rub:  Williams is the heir apparent to the two Pro Bowl cornerbacks we have right now, and will likely have several starts again this season due to injury, as Harris (35) and Woodson (33) are both aging gracefully, but still aging.  Harris, of course, is still a question mark as he recovers from injury.

And, simply put, the drop-off after Williams is steep.  There's plenty of projects and no groomed corners ready to take over in the event of emergency.  Williams, in many ways, is what Al Harris was when the Packers traded for him in 2003...a strong nickel playing behind two veteran All-Pros.

Williams is an RFA, though, and when the Packers placed a first- and third-round tender on him, they took away any chance of another team considering him.  So, despite being a solid player, a key part of the defensive secondary, and the heir apparent that may be called on sooner rather than later, his choices were limited.  $3.1M, take it or leave it.  The Packers even threatened to lower it after the June 15 deadline to 110% of his salary last year, a little less than $600,000.

The arbitrariness of extensions has to be weighing in on his mind, too.  Nick Collins, an RFA, signed his first- and third-round tender, but it was clear there was discussion about an extension before that....and he got it (3yrs, $23M, $14M in 2010).  In fact, plenty of money has been thrown the way of Collins, Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher, and Ryan Pickett this doubt Williams has been waiting for his turn.

Instead, Williams signs the tender in lieu of the Packers' threat to fractionalize it, and now is in a position to have to prove his worth this season in order to garner that extension.  One torn ACL, and extension talks are put off for another year.

So, RFA seems like an evil thing, but it is also a necessary evil.  The Packers, as a team, don't have an infinite amount of money to throw at players, despite the uncapped year.  And after re-signing many of the UFAs (Pickett, Tauscher, Clifton), the Packers have to be hesitant before throwing money at every RFA they have. 

Thinking about that list of RFA's this year, each of them tells their own story of unreached potential or being stuck in that plane between serviceable and solid starter.

Tramon: the CB of the future, but not yet
Colledge:  inconsistent starter, constantly jumping all along the line
Blackmon:  injury plagued returner, trying to find his spot in the secondary
Kuhn: stalwart FB, but one of many
Jolly: rotational lineman plagued by off-the-field issues
Bigby:  oft-injured defacto starter at safety
Spitz: groomed to be new center, lost job and will compete with Colledge for G spot.

Collins was a RFA, but only by a technicality that stretched his RFA status an extra year under the terms of the expiring CBA, and the Packers obviously saw that he had reached his potential.  And there's the rub:  that fifth year of experience let the Packers know exactly where they were standing with Collins.  Remember, it was only last offseason many of us were still questioning whether he was as good as he played in 2008, especially when he was skipping OTAs. That fifth year is critical for maturity and evaluation.  Remember, Javon Walker was traded at the end of his fourth season...and a good thing, too. 

The point is:  are any of these RFA's worth spending Pickett/Collins/Clifton money on?  No, and that is what RFA is all about.  It takes those players that are on the cusp and allows teams to keep them without having to invest a large amount of long-term coin, strapping them with a contract they can't jettison.

For every Williams that the setup seems unfair with, there's a Johnny Jolly that makes it necessary.  Jolly has the potential to grow into a starter, a productive one at that.  But, he also has the potential to crash and burn, both on and off the field.  If he were an UFA right now, there's no doubt some team would be willing to throw a moderately priced contract offer at him (heck, look at what the Browns paid Corey Williams) that would force Ted Thompson to make a choice on whether he thinks he's worth the risk or not. 

It's too bad that it puts so much power in the hands of the team, but the alternative would be even worse.  In many ways, as these players enter their fifth season and UFA (assuming the CBA is renegotiated by then), they are put in the position to prove it or lose it...and cash in if they meet that potential, either here or with another team.

Look for a group of players who have signed their tenders to prove themselves this year.  For one, I think Williams will get his reward this year, while the loser of the Spitz/Colledge battle may not.

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