It's always an interesting situation with restricted free agents in the NFL. Though they carry the "free agent" name, they traditionally haven't had anywhere near the freedom that unrestricted free agents enjoy. Under the past Collective Bargaining Agreement, if a team wanted to lure a restricted free agent away, they would have to give up the hefty price of a first and third round pick as compensation. Needless to say, not many teams went that route and opted to roll the dice as a way to fill their roster.
With the heated battle between the NFL Owners and players last spring and summer, this was a point of contention. Players that fell into restricted status felt as if they were trapped and were constantly being forced into a situation like the Chargers' Vincent Jackson was in 2010. Owners felt that the compensation to a team for restricted free agent was way too steep and this caveat needed to be changed in the new CBA.
Though it may have been lost in the shuffle with all of the new CBA changes, this issue was ultimately altered in the new agreement, and it could have an effect on the Bengals and the free agency market as a whole this offseason.
Under the new CBA, if a team wants to pursue a restricted free agent, they would only have to give up a first round pick as compensation for a player. The process of signing a restricted free agent will remain the same, it's just the amount with which a team must give up to be able to sign that restricted player to a contract. Because of this change in compensation, teams may have to be more liberal with the use of the franchise tag, otherwise they could see their prized player leave. Mike Florio of Profootballtalk.com notes that the Steelers could be hit particularly hard by this change in the CBA over the next two offseasons.
Some notable restricted free agents this offseason include: Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace (pictured), Texans running back Arian Foster, as well as the Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. With the change in compensation for a restricted free agent, the Bengals having an extra first round pick to play with this offseason, and the third-most salary cap room, might they make a play for one of these marquee players?
Really, the only players listed above that would be worth such a price is Foster and/or Wallace. Both are positions of high need for Cincinnati and the team has the means to go after one of these players. Basically, the Bengals would have to be willing to part with one of their first round picks, as well as dish out a mega-contract to one of these stars. For Wallace or Foster, this steep price (which is lessened this year) could be worth it. If the Bengals were planning to use a first round pick on one of these positions, why not use one on a proven, Pro Bowl player who has the majority of their career in front of them? The flip side of that argument is that these types of players could potentially be found anywhere in the draft; after all, Foster was an undrafted college free agent and Wallace was a third-round pick.
Again, this could be a moot point with these players, as their respective teams may opt to franchise tag them in order to retain them. But, teams are also reluctant to use the tag because of the guaranteed money associated and the often-occurring unhappiness of the franchised player that comes with it. Whichever avenue that these teams choose to take with these players, the new changes from the CBA will be felt.
Given the history of ownerand the way this team operates during free agency, it's highly unlikely that the team would look to go this route. But, with the state that the Bengals are in financially and in draft stock, this year is as good as any to land one of these big fish, if they so choose. These players would fill major holes and bring major legitimacy to another Bengals playoff run in 2012. Really, it's just one option of many for the Bengals' wide-open 2012 free agency possibilities.