The restricted free agent has become a dying breed over the course of the past six years ever since the most recent shuffling of the collective bargaining agreement made all rookie draft pick contracts at least four years. Only undrafted players and those who were released and not claimed off waivers—with few exceptions—reach the restricted free agent status anymore.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have themselves a couple of interesting ones this year with starting cornerback Ross Cockrell and reserve offensive lineman Chris Hubbard. There are some mixed opinions about Cockrell as a long-term starter, but it’s hard to imagine that they do not offer him at least an original-round restricted tender, which would require that a team signing him to a contract forfeit a fourth-round draft pick if the Steelers choose not to match the offer.
Pittsburgh one gave wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders an original-round tender a few years ago when the Patriots signed him to an offer sheet that he accepted. The Steelers could have gotten a third-round draft pick, but instead they chose to match the contract, which was a one-year, $2.5 million offer if memory serves.
That will not be the case for Hubbard, who was originally an undrafted free agent. If he is signed to an original-round tender, then the Steelers will gain merely the right of first refusal to match a contract offer without getting any compensation if they do not.
But what is interesting is Hubbard’s market, which is surprising considering the discussion surrounding him a year ago—or even back in September. He has dramatically raised his stock over the course of the past few months, and it would not be surprising if he had a suitor or two out there for at least a depth role.
The Steelers have over the years flexed him out to make him a jack of all trades. He has played snaps at every offensive line position as well as at tight end as a tackle-eligible. He started three games at right tackle during the 2016 season and held his own quite admirably.
Pittsburgh made the extra lineman an integral part of their offense over the course of the second half of the season. they used Hubbard on a bit less than a quarter of all of their offensive snaps between the start of their winning streak and the victory over the Ravens, a total of six games.
So where does that leave him in terms of the Steelers projecting his value not only to them, but also potentially to others around the league? He is, after all, not a starter, so it’s possible that they could forego signing him to a restricted free agent tender in the hopes of signing him to a lesser contract.
But restricted free agent tenders are not guaranteed, and he could be released and re-signed in that event. Yet they tend not to take that route. While they give him an original-round tender? Or will they try to work out a longer extension instead at a lower rate? A second-round tender is probably unlikely.