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Which Seahawks will be Restricted Free Agents this offseason?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

With the NFL season officially over and the offseason preparing to kick into high gear, the Seattle Seahawks will have several decisions to make regarding the roster. Not only will the front office need to make decisions on the players slated to be free agents, but also on players who are scheduled to be Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) and Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFAs). Today we will take a quick look at those players that will be RFAs, and tomorrow we’ll evaluate the ERFAs on the roster.

For a quick rundown on what it means for a player to be a RFA, a RFA is any player whose contract has expired and has exactly three Accrued Seasons. An accrued season is any season in which a player was in full pay status for at least six games. Full pay means either on the active 53 man roster or on injured reserve, but players who spend time on the Non-Football Injury list (NFI) or Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP) do not earn an accrued season.

For each player scheduled to be a RFA, teams have multiple decisions to make. The first decision is whether or not to extend a qualifying RFA tender to the player, and if a tender is to be extended then the level of tender must be decided upon. There are three different tenders which can be placed on a RFA: a first round tender, a second round tender or an original round tender. Each tender is effectively an offer for a one-year contract at a specific salary determined by the league in accordance with the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The league has not yet set the tender levels for 2018 for each of the different tenders, but we can estimate them based on 2017 levels. In 2017 a First Round tender came with one year salary of $3.91, and based on the expected increase in the salary cap, should be somewhere between $4.1M and $4.3M for 2018. A player receiving a Second Round tender earned $2.746M in 2017, and with the increasing cap should earn $2.85M-$3.0M in 2018. An Original Round tender came with a price tag of $1.797M in 2017, and should be in the $1.9M-$2.0M range for 2018.

Teams have until the start of free agency, 4:00 pm New York time on March 14th this year, to decide whether to extend a tender offer to the RFAs from their roster the previous season. Any player who receives a tender offer is then free to negotiate with other teams similar to an UFA and agree to terms with another team, with certain restrictions. The first such restriction is that any team with which the RFA agrees to terms must possess its native draft pick corresponding to the level of tender placed on the RFA. For example, In 2015 when Jermaine Kearse was tendered at the second round level, he was free to sign a contract with any team that possessed its original second round pick. In the case of a RFA such as Garry Gilliam in 2017, who was originally undrafted, no draft pick compensation is required from the signing team. In the case of any RFA who signs an offer sheet with another team, the original team has the right of first refusal and the opportunity to match the offered sheets signed with a new team for seven days after the offer sheet is signed and submitted to the league.

What this means is that for a RFA such as Gilliam, the Seahawks had the right to decide whether or not to match the offer Gilliam signed with the Niners, but received no compensation when they declined to match the contract. Had the Hawks wanted to match the contract offered to Gilliam, they could have done so and kept his services at the exact same amount of money for which Gilliam signed with the Niners. In the case of Kearse, any team which would have signed Kearse to an offer sheet would have surrendered its second round pick to Seattle if Seattle had decided not to match the offer.

In a situation where a RFA signs an offer sheet with another team and the original team declines to match the offer, the draft pick that changes hands is in the current year. That means that if an RFA leaves the team this offseason, the draft pick that changes hands is a selection in the 2018 draft. For that reason, the period of time during which RFAs are free to negotiate and sign with other teams ends on April 20, a week before the NFL draft begins. This gives the original team the full week to decide whether to match the offer sheet as required by the CBA. Once the April 20 deadline has passed, RFAs who originally received a tender offer from their team are only able to negotiate with their old team.

For this reason, the majority of teams put off negotiating with RFAs until after the draft because at that time the leverage is held by the team. This is why RFAs who have received tenders often end up signing multi-year contracts during the summer, such as Doug Baldwin and Matt Tobin have done in recent seasons. In the case of Tobin, the Philadelphia Eagles used their leverage to get Tobin to agree to a two year contract in 2016 for roughly the same amount of money as he would have received for a single season had he signed his one year tender earlier in the offseason.

In any case, Seattle has several restricted free agents this offseason, including Dion Jordan, Justin Coleman, Dewey McDonald, Mike Davis and Thomas Rawls. Of these, Jordan and Coleman are each likely to receive tender offers, while McDonald, Davis and Rawls are more likely to go untendered.

Jordan, originally drafted in the first round by the Miami Dolphins can be tendered with an original round tender, which would make it extremely unlikely for another team to sign him to an offer sheet. This is the result of the fact that the probability is pretty low of another team giving up a first round pick for a player who has played five games over the last three seasons and is one failed drug test away from an indefinite suspension. In addition, because of the lower compensation associated with an original round tender compared to the other two tenders, using such a tender on Jordan helps the Hawks out regarding their already tight cap situation in 2018.

As for Coleman, with nickel being the new base defense for most NFL teams, Coleman is a de facto starter, even if he is listed as having started only 5 games for the Hawks. His 654 of the 1,098 defensive snaps played by the team in 2017 puts Coleman in a tie for the eighth most defensive snaps played by any Seahawk this past season. Coleman is likely to receive at least a second round tender, though if the franchise fears that another club could sign him even at the cost of a second round pick, it is possible a first round tender could be used instead. First round tenders are rarely used across the league, however, that is exactly what the New England Patriots used on cornerback Malcolm Butler last offseason to prevent his departure to another team.

Moving on to Dewey McDonald, he’ll be a 28 year old coming back from a torn ACL who has never started a single game in four seasons in the league, so the likelihood of him being a hot commodity on the free agent market is extremely slim. Thus, I expect McDonald to go untendered, but if his rehab from knee reconstruction is going well, then I will not be surprised to see him sign a contract at or near the minimum to compete for a special teams and SAM linebacker role.

That brings us to the running backs on the list. Mike Davis was the starter down the stretch for the Hawks, and while he provided a spark at times, he was also far from dominant. His 3.5 yards per carry were well below league average, and his 41% stuff rate was the highest of all Seattle backs and nearly double the NFL average. Those facts, combined with the tepid market for running backs in free agency and the front office history regarding similar backs, makes it unlikely Davis is tendered. In 2015 the Hawks had a similar situation with Christine Michael, who was added to the active roster late in the year and started for the team down the stretch. Michael average 4.4 yards per carry in three starts between the regular season and playoffs that year, and in the offseason he was non-tendered as a RFA. I see no reason to expect the front office to deviate from that pattern.

As for the highly divisive Thomas Rawls? Well, I’m going to turn to the trusty Pro Football Reference Player Season Finder for this one. This is a list of the top four NFL running backs by yards per carry when doing a search for all backs who had at least 100 carries over the past two seasons.

Unfortunately for Rawls, that list is sorted in ascending order, which means of the 78 running backs across the NFL with at least 100 rushing attempts over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Rawls is the third worst. Some will (deservedly so) blame it on the offensive line, while others will (deservedly so) place the blame on the coaching staff. However, what is indisputable based on the stats is that over the last two seasons Rawls ranks among the worst running backs in the NFL. That means there is no discussion: he’s getting non-tendered, period. CMike, coming off the season in which he averaged 4.4 yards per carry down the stretch for the Hawks received an offer of barely above league minimum in free agency, and there is little reason to believe Rawls will have a market consisting of anything other than minimum salary prove offers. Thus, there is no reason for the Hawks to use even the lowest tender on Rawls, when the odds are very strong they can sign him for 2018 for far, far less as an unrestricted free agent.

And that is the breakdown of the RFAs for the Hawks this offseason. There are five more weeks until the deadline for the team to determine the tender levels to use on the players, but there should not be any surprises. The only real discussion is likely to be whether to place a first or second round tender on Coleman in regards to how much he could command on the market.

Obviously, there could be some surprises, especially considering the past habits of this front office, but the RFA questions for the Seahawks in 2018 are about as cut and dried as they can be. That said, it means the front office will likely make a big move in the coming weeks to prove me completely wrong. Oh well, at least we’ll have something fun to talk about other than counting down the days until training camp.