As I touched on in last week's column, Darren Sproles is a restricted free agent this offseason but his situation is a bit more complicated than most of the other 200+ players who were slapped with restricted free agency this offseason due to the uncapped year. To retain Sproles services for the 09 season the Chargers used their franchise tag on him (when he was an unrestricted free agent) signing him to a one year contract paying him $6.63 mil. This was a bit of a gamble in the hopes that Sproles would once again be able to capture his playoff magic and help carry the team to the super bowl...unfortunately the gamble did not pay off as the Chargers were jettisoned from the payoffs in the AFC divisional series with Sproles only gaining 110 total yards and no TD's (which is about 1/3 of his production last season).
Since all signs point to 2010 being an uncapped year, which according to the current CBA extends a players restricted free agency window by two additional years, Sproles is now classified as a restricted free agent. This gives the Chargers certain rights to the contract offers in which Sproles can receive from other teams. If the Chargers decide to tender an offer to Sproles it will give them the right to match any offer sheet that another team may be willing to offer Sproles and if the Chargers decide not to match the offer they may entitled to draft pick(s) in compensation for their loss.
To Tender or not to Tender
This is where the Sproles situation gets complicated. The NFL rules regarding restricted free agents states that any compensatory tender offered to a player must be at least a 10% increase over the player's salary the previous season. This means that any tender offered to Sproles must be worth at least $7.29 mil, which is not exactly a bargain for a KR specialist/third-down back. While offering a tender to Sproles would give the Chargers the opportunity to match any offer another teams gives to Sproles and/or gives them a draft pick(s) in compensation for their loss, this does present a substantial risk if another team does not make an offer, Sproles cannot come to a long-term agreement with another team (no teams feel like his is an every down back and therefore will not pay him feature back money), or Sproles decides he is better off taking the $7.29 mil guaranteed for on years worth of work instead of a long-term non guaranteed contract.
There is one other option, the Chargers could offer Sproles a right of first refusal tender, in which Sproles would be guaranteed a $1.176 million dollar salary in 2010. The Bolts wouldn't get any compensation if another team signed him to an offer sheet, but they would be able match the offer and keep him if it made sense. This would allow Sproles to shop himself around the league and see if he can get starters money, if that happens the Chargers will probably let him walk out the door and not get any compensation for him. However, if teams are only willing to pay him as a third-down back this would give the Chargers the right to match any offer.
Let's Talk Numbers
So now we have the question of value, how much (in terms of years and money) is a 27 year old third-down back/kick returner worth. There are really not a lot of great recent examples out there of a third-down back / kick return specialist entering into their 2nd contract. Really the best two examples I could find are Devin Hester and Andre' Davis (who are both more of a 3rd option type receivers). Never the less like Sproles both players contributions come primarily in the kicking game. Here is a look at both of their contracts:
Hester (2008) - 4 years, 40.975 mil, $15 mil guaranteed, $18.939 in incentives and roster bonuses - Hester contract seems huge at first but when you really dig into it you can see that its really structured to give the Bears the option to cut him at any point and really not suffer much of a cap hit. Alot of Hester's money is locked up in roster bonuses (around $15 mil) and pushed towards the back end of the contract. Also you have to remember this contract was signed right when Hester's value was at his peak (right after the Bears went to the Super Bowl). My guess is that the Bears somewhat regret handing out this kind of cash to a player who really only helps them on 10 to 15 downs a game.
Davis (2008) - 4 years, $16 mil, $8 mil gauntleted - this contract seems about the right fit for Sproles. In 2007, the season before Davis signed this contract he put up very similar numbers to Sproles (in 2009) both on offence and the Kicking game (30.3 yards per KR with 3 TDs and 583 yards receiving with 3 TDs).
In the end I would feel comfortable singing Sproles to a 3 year 12 million dollar contract with $6 million of it guaranteed. This would keep Sproles a Charger until he hits the age of 30 (a killer year for RBs) and pay him competitively with players in a similar position.
I think the safest and best option for the Chargers is to tender Sproles with the right of first refusal tender. Even though they will not get a draft pick in return for his departure it does give them the ability to gauge the market for Sproles without having to negotiate with him and in the end they have the right to match any offer. If teams do not see Sproles as a every-down back and are only willing to offer him a contract in the 3 year $12 million dollar range then I think the Chargers have to match that anything more I think they have to let him walk.