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The 2010 league year has begun without a salary cap, a development that has led to significant growth in restricted free agency. More than 200 players who would have been unrestricted free agents in a capped system became eligible for restricted free agency if their teams made qualifying offers to them. That gives their teams the right of first refusal if the players sign an offer sheet with another club — and possibly draft-choice compensation if their team elects not to match the offer.
The RFA market is usually sleepy. Only 62 restricted free agents have signed with other clubs in the past 17 years (though this figure doesn't take into consideration transactions in which a restricted free agent is signed and traded to another club). No restricted free agent changed clubs last season, a first since the system was unveiled in 1993.
However, with a significantly deeper pool of restricted free agents for clubs to choose from, more activity is expected in the RFA market this offseason. With that in mind, let's look back at some of the more memorable RFA signings of all time.
1998: Jets sign Curtis Martin
The Jets-Patriots rivalry hasn't lacked for drama, and some of the juiciest story lines have been off the field. Witness the case of Jets head coach and general manager Bill Parcells raiding New England for RB Curtis Martin in 1998.
Parcells coveted Martin, whom he coached from 1995-96 in New England. So, the Jets put together a lucrative and complex offer sheet for Martin. The six-year, $36 million contract gave Martin the option of voiding the deal after one season.
The Patriots declined to match the offer and received the Jets' first- and third-round picks as compensation. Martin would go on to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his first seven seasons for the Jets and racked up 10,302 yards in nine years with New York.
With the Jets' first-round pick, the Patriots selected RB Robert Edwards, who flashed major potential as a rookie. However, he suffered a serious left knee injury in a beach flag-football game at the Pro Bowl after his first season, and he was never the same player again.
2003: Redskins go on an RFA spree
The Redskins, no strangers to making big splashes in the offseason, turned restricted free agency on its ear in 2003. They signed four players, most notably Jets WR Laveranues Coles, whom they gave a seven-year, $35 million contract that included a $13 million signing bonus. They also signed Jets KR Chad Morton, Packers S Matt Bowen and Dolphins DT Jermaine Haley to offer sheets that were not matched.
The RFA bonanza left the Redskins with only three draft picks, none higher than Round Two after their first-rounder was sent to New York for Coles. Nor did it have a major impact on the Redskins' fortunes on the field. After having gone 7-9 in 2002, the Redskins went 5-11 in '03 and 6-10 in '04. Coles was traded to the Jets for WR Santana Moss in 2005, a trade that worked out well for both clubs.
In case you were wondering, the Jets packaged the Redskins' first-round pick (No. 13) and their own first-round pick (No. 22) to Chicago to take DT Dewayne Robertson No. 4 overall. The Bears, in turn, sent the No. 13 pick to the Patriots, who took DE Ty Warren, a standout on their defensive line.
The only other team to sign an RFA in '03 was Buffalo, which added Seahawks PK Rian Lindell, who has proven reliable for the Bills.
2007: Patriots steal Welker
Several teams made shrewd moves in restricted free agency in 2007. The Patriots orchestrated a trade for Dolphins WR Wes Welker, sending second- and seventh-round picks to Miami and giving Welker a five-year, $18.1 million contract with $9 million in bonuses. All Welker has done is catch more than 110 passes in each of his first three seasons in New England.
The Texans also swung a trade for a restricted free agent, acquiring Falcons QB Matt Schaub for second-round picks in '07 and '08 and a swap of first-round picks in '07. Schaub, who received a six-year, $48 million contract, threw for an NFL-best 4,770 yards in 2009 and made his first Pro Bowl.
Finally, the '07 signing period also saw the Rams acquire one of the game's better punters when Miami declined to match an offer sheet to Donnie Jones. Jones has averaged better than 40 yards net per punt in each of the last two seasons.
For the most authoritative NFL draft news and free-agency analysis, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.