Lardarius Webb should be the target of any team looking to poach a restricted free agent.
Now that the first wave of free agency is over, playoff teams will look at their rosters and cap room available and make a final decision on whether to make an offer to any other team's restricted free agents by the deadline of April 20.
The new CBA has made this more viable by reducing the compensation for the highest tender (about 2.74 million) to a first-round pick instead of the top price of a first- and third-round pick under the old CBA. The Pittsburgh Steelers' decision to tender RFA WR Mike Wallace at that level instead of using the franchise tag was the subject of a lot of talk when it happened in February.
Speculation put the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals as potentially choosing to surrender their late first-round pick for the right to sign Wallace to a long-term contract. The Steelers would have had to commit $9.5 million to Wallace if they used the franchise tag, but they would have been given two first-round picks if another team had signed him to a contract that they couldn't or wouldn't match. They could have even used the current year average of the top five WR salaries (which would have been higher than the 2011 number) to deny any other team the ability to negotiate with Wallace.
A closer examination reveals that there is a restricted free agent that should be targeted by teams like the Patriots and Bengals, but it isn't Wallace. Baltimore CB Lardarius Webb is the best restricted free agent on the market, and if an RFA changes teams in the next month, it will be him, not Wallace. Why?
Webb is one of the best corners in the game.
Simply watching football makes this instantly apparent, but let's go to ProFootballFocus.com for some statistical confirmation. Webb was fifth overall in QB rating against, behind only Darrelle Revis, Asante Samuel, Chris Gamble, and Ike Taylor. Gordon McGuinness from PFF agrees with me on Webb's worthiness as an RFA target, pointing out that Webb was second in their positional rankings behind Revis, didn't allow a touchdown all season, and demonstrated the ability to cover well in the slot in addition to covering outside receivers.
Baltimore is even more hamstrung than Pittsburgh.
The Ravens used their franchise tag on RB Ray Rice, but they can't even think about approaching him for a long-term deal until they lock up 2013 free agent QB Joe Flacco. The Steelers made some deep cuts and could have the ability to match an offer sheet for Wallace, but the Ravens can't match an offer sheet for Wallace without seriously putting a cramp in their long-term blueprint. The Steelers actually have $4.1 million more cap room than the Ravens, as of March 30.
Mike Wallace's salary demands are ridiculous.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reported that Wallace wants a better deal than Larry Fitzgerald's eight-year, $120 million pact with the Cardinals. If there's any truth to the report, it isn't worth a team's time to even negotiate with Wallace.
The cornerback market was just as hot as wide receiver in free agency.
Big-dollar contracts for wide receivers Vincent Jackson ($55.5 million/five years, $26 million guaranteed—Buccaneers) and Pierre Garcon ($42.5 million/five years, $20.5 million guaranteed—Redskins) dominated coverage of the first day of free agency, but the $50.1 million/five-year deal with $26.5 million guaranteed for CB Brandon Carr from the Cowboys and the $37.5 million/five-year deal with $15.5 million guaranteed for CB Eric Wright from the Buccaneers are even more astounding considering that they are lesser players than Jackson and Garcon. Teams are desperate for corners, and they're willing to pay middling talent elite money to lock them up.
The Patriots and Bengals badly need a shutdown corner, and they could hurt a rival in the process.
The Bengals lost Leon Hall to an Achilles tear last year, which could end his days as a top-end corner, and their other starter, Nate Clements, turns 33 this year. The Bengals also have the most cap room of any team, at $20.5 million. Sure, they could hope to draft Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick or South Carolina CB Stephon Gilmore at No. 21, but why not give up that pick for Webb, the player they hope one of those prospects will become down the line? Oh by the way, Webb picked off an Andy Dalton pass in the fourth quarter of a divisional showdown with the Bengals that helped the Ravens open up a 31-14 lead that held up for a 31-24 victory.
The Patriots had a famously terrible pass defense last year. 2010 first-round CB Devin McCourty looked better at safety late in the season, and 2011 second-round CB Ras-I Dowling couldn't stay healthy. The Patriots have an earlier first-round pick (No. 27) that they acquired from the Saints, so they wouldn't even be giving up their first pick. They have little hope of landing Kirkpatrick or Gilmore. The Patriots have $9.9 million in cap room, and they can open more by signing franchise tagged WR Wes Welker to a multi-year deal. Oh by the way, Webb picked off Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game last year.
Keep your ears tuned for RFA offer sheet news for the next two weeks, but listen for the name Webb, not Wallace.