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Understanding restricted free agency and the Broncos' impending RFA decisions

Zac Stevens Avatar
February 27, 2018

DENVER — John Elway has his hands full this offseason.

Coming off the worst season in his tenure leading the organization, the former quarterback will be tasked with finding a franchise quarterback, rebuilding the offensive line and keeping the defense great, to name a few.

But before he can do any of that, he’s got to make three important decisions first regarding his own players.

A few unrestricted free agents, such as Todd Davis, will garner Elway’s attention once free agency starts, but the three restricted free agents—Matt Paradis, Shaquil Barrett and Bennie Fowler—will be where the bulk of the organization’s focus will be when talking about the team’s own pending free agents.

Unlike an unrestricted free agent (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA) are, well, more restricted on the open market by the team they played for the previous season. For a player to be a RFA, he needs to have three years of accrued service time in the league as defined by being on the team for six or more games.

Before free agency begins on Mar. 14, the Denver Broncos must designate each of their three RFAs with one of the four tender options: First round, second round, original round or right of first refusal.

In all four of these tenders, the Broncos will have the opportunity to match any contract that another team gives to any of their RFAs during free agency. Of course, Denver could choose not to designate a player, but then that player would become an unrestricted free agent.

However, with the first and second-round tenders, if Denver chooses not to match a deal that another team gives to one of their RFAs, then the Broncos would receive that teams first or second round pick—depending on which tender Denver designated on that player before free agency started.

With the original-round tender, the Broncos would receive the draft pick of whatever round the player being discussed was drafted. If that player was undrafted, then the Broncos would not receive anything in return as is the case with the right of first refusal.

While the price of each tender has not been set for 2018 yet, it is expected to be a little more than what it was last season where a first-round tender cost $3.91 million, a second-round at $2.75 million and the original-round and right of first refusal at $1.79 million.

If a team really wants to keep a player, they will of course place a first-round tender on them because it’s not likely another team is going to be willing to give up a first-round pick in order to sign that player away. The downside to placing a higher tender on a player is it costs more.

On the inverse, if a team places a lower tender on a player it will cost them less, but there is a higher chance other teams will try and sign that player since it won’t cost them much, if anything at all, in terms of resources they will need to give up to acquire that player.

Two years ago, the Broncos found this out the hard way with C.J. Anderson. After rushing for over 1,500 yards in 2014 and 2015 combined, the Broncos placed the right-of-first-refusal tender on him during the 2016 offseason.

Since other teams didn’t have to give up anything to get Anderson, the Miami Dolphins offered him a four-year, $18 million contract. In the last minute, Denver decided to match this offer, keeping Anderson in Denver but costing them much more than if they had placed a first or second-round tender on him.

Now, Elway will be faced with difficult choices with all three of Denver’s RFAs. Here’s how it breaks down for each player.

Matt Paradis

After being on the practice squad his rookie season in 2014, Paradis has not only started every single game for the Broncos at center since the start of the 2015 season, he remarkably hasn’t missed a single snap in that time period—the only player on the team to accomplish this feat despite having double-hip surgery last offseason.

In all three of those seasons, his play on the field has been as reliable as his availability. Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked Paradis as the eighth-best center in the league.

It’s expected that the Broncos will at least place a second-round tender on Paradis and that likely will keep him in Orange & Blue for at least one more season as the center position isn’t a highly-valued position.

If the Broncos have no confidence with Paradis’ backup, Connor McGovern, they could place a first-round tender on the fifth-year vet, but all indications point they are comfortable with McGovern if they were to lose Paradis.

Estimated tender: Second round — $2.75 million

Shaquil Barrett

Barrett has done nothing but impress since joining the Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2014, but this will show exactly how much Denver values him.

The Colorado State product will at least get a second-round tender and potentially a first. Over the years, Elway hasn’t been shy in saying how much he values pass rushers and the thought of losing Barrett could force Elway’s hand to slapping the first-round tender on him.

After another year in which Barrett showed his potential, teams around the league could very well be willing to give up a second-round pick in order to add him to their roster. Putting the first-round tender on No. 48 would nearly guarantee that he stayed a Bronco in 2018. Anything short of that and Denver would be rolling the dice, but it would cost more.

Estimated tender: First round — $3.91 million

Bennie Fowler

The decision with the fifth-year receiver comes down to whether or not the team should place a tender on him, not what tender. If Denver does tender Fowler, it will be a low tender—meaning they would get nothing back in return if he were to sign with another team.

The case for Fowler is his potential. Last year he made strides, going from the eighth-leading receiver on the team in 2016 to the third-leading receiver last year with 350 yards. Additionally, outside of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders—both of whom are not guaranteed to be on the team next year—the Broncos are significantly lacking in depth at receiver and Cody Latimer is an unrestricted free agent.

The reason Denver would not place a tender on Fowler simply comes down to they believe they could get an equal-caliber player for less. Heck, if they didn’t place a tender on Fowler, they could still sign him as an unrestricted free agent if need be, but there’s no guarantee as he would be on the open market.

Estimated tender: Original round/right of first refusal — $1.79 million

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