Along with the draft and unrestricted free agency, there's another, less glamorous avenue by which NFL teams upgrade their rosters: a pool of restricted free agents every year available to teams willing to take the risk. The rules regarding restricted free agents are different—RFAs are players with three accrued NFL seasons who receive a one-year qualifying offer from their old team but can be signed to offer sheets from other teams, which their original teams can match to keep the player.
There are four levels of restricted free agent offer sheets, all of which give the player's current team the right of first refusal. In 2014, a one-year, $1.323 million contract was the minimum qualifying offer; an offer of at least $1.431 million would return a draft selection in a player's original draft round if the player left for another team; a tender of at least $2.187 million garnered a second-round draft selection; and a qualifying offer of at least $3.113 million brought a first-round draft selection. The upticks in qualifying offers compensate the player for the increasingly onerous costs to the interested teams.
There aren't generally a lot of major RFA deals in a league year, but they do happen. Below are the most intriguing restricted free agents in this year's class.
Tashaun Gipson, FS, Cleveland Browns: Before he was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 12, Gipson was on track for a career year. He was leading the league with six interceptions, and he allowed a 59.1 quarterback rating on 33 targets and just one touchdown all season. If the Browns don't re-up with him, Gipson will be coveted when he does hit the market next year. In today's NFL, every team needs a legitimate cover safety who can patrol the back third and time his jumps correctly on deep balls. Gipson is showing that kind of potential, and as long as he enters the 2015 season healthy, his arrow will be pointing up.
Damon Harrison, DL, New York Jets: A 350-pound behemoth of a nose tackle, Harrison ranked as Pro Football Focus's fourth-best interior defensive lineman in 2014 and the best overall against the run. Harrison tied with Buffalo's Marcel Dareus for the NFL lead with 36 run stops (on just 272 run snaps), and though he's not a dominant pass rusher, he's got what it takes to reinforce the run defense of any 3-4 base team. Rumor has it that the Jets will give Harrison a first-round tender, and they should do more than that by offering him a long-term contract.
Brandon Marshall, OLB, Denver Broncos: Marshall had to deal with a sprained foot in mid-December, but before that, he was enjoying his first full season as a true impact defender for the Broncos. Marshall totaled 91 solo tackles, two sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles in 2014, and he also racked up an impressive 53 run stops. At 6'1" and 250 pounds, he could be a major cog in Wade Phillips's 3-4 base defense and raise his value even more.
Cedric Thornton, DE, Philadelphia Eagles: If Thornton can ever find the pass-rushing technique to match his excellence in the run game, he could be a top-level player at his position. Right now, he's a relative one-trick pony with a really good trick—the ability to stop the run at a very high level. Thornton took up boxing a while back to up his game.
"Everybody’s like, 'Yeah, he’s a good run stuffer but he only had one sack,'" he told CSN Philly last June. "It’s just people putting limits on me and I started to put limits on myself, too. I started taking myself out on third down. So this year I want to be the person that can stop the run and pass rush, too. So I’m just trying to show that I’m more than a one-dimensional player. I know that I can pass rush."
Thornton's had just one sack in each of his three seasons, but if he can add to his skill set in 2015, he'll increase his overall value tremendously.
Jermaine Kearse, WR, Seattle Seahawks: Perhaps the ultimate boom-or-bust player on this list. In the NFC Championship Game, Kearse was the target on all four of Russell Wilson's interceptions, but he also came down with the game-winning catch. He made what was perhaps the most incredible catch in Super Bowl history on Seattle's final drive against the Patriots but was relatively invisible on the interception that decided things for New England. Kearse is a decent receiver with above-average speed, a knack for making amazing plays and a need for better field awareness. We found out what happens to receivers after they leave Seattle's relatively limited passing game when Golden Tate caught 99 passes for 1,331 yards in Detroit last season. It's not a sure thing that Kearse would have the same impact on a pass-heavy team, but he's shown enough flashes to be highly intriguing. Kearse caught 37 passes for 537 yards in the 2014 regular season. Tate caught 64 passes for 894 yards in 2013, his final year in Seattle.
Andre Holmes, WR, Oakland Raiders: If you're looking for a deep threat in an offense that doesn't have a lot of deep threats (or one with a quarterback who doesn't throw deep often), Holmes might be your guy. He caught 47 passes for a team-leading 693 yards in 2014, and though those aren't blow-you-away numbers, consider that he did that in a short passing offense very much under construction with a rookie quarterback at the helm in Derek Carr. Holmes might be forced to stay put, given the robust receiver class in this year's draft, but he's certainly one to watch.
Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Indianapolis Colts: Over his first two NFL seasons, Freeman was one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL. An undrafted free agent out of little-known University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Freeman showed range, toughness and consistency in 2012 and '13. He saw a bit of a drop-off in 2014 due to injuries, but when healthy, he can succeed in just about any kind of defense.