Willie Colon has not complained, his agent has not complained, and the Steelers have said nothing to him or his agent about it, but they have their starting right tackle over a unique barrel.
Under usual circumstances, Colon would become an unrestricted free agent March 5, four years after he signed his first contract as a fourth-round draft choice. As a three-year starter at right tackle, about to turn 27 years old and acclaimed by his own coaches to be among the best tackles in the NFL, Colon could hit the jackpot.
The average compensation of the top five offensive linemen in the NFL one year ago was $8,451,000; the average of the top 10 was $7,744,000.
Fourth-round draft choices do not make much money on their first contract, relatively speaking, of course. Colon averaged $454,500 annually for those three years. He then became a restricted free agent last year, and the Steelers tendered him a contract of about $2.2 million to keep him. That was a nice jump in pay for Colon, but nothing like what he could experience this year as an unrestricted free agent.
Instead, he will remain a restricted free agent because the rules will change as, almost everyone in the business expects, the NFL heads into the unfamiliar waters of an uncapped year in 2010. The rule that impacts Colon and more than 200 other players changes the number years of service to become unrestricted from four to six.
Colon, then, would become a restricted free agent again March 5. If no contract is negotiated this year and the Steelers tender him a deal under the restricted free agent rules, he again would be restricted in 2011 if no collective bargaining agreement is negotiated a year from now.
Some refer to these players as "notch babies." Tight end Heath Miller also would have been in that spot, but he signed a long-term contract last summer.
Colon would make around $2.5 million this year if the Steelers tender him a contract. While that is good money, it cannot compare to what, for example, left tackle Max Starks received from the Steelers. They signed Starks to a four-year, $26.3 million contract in June. That averages to about $6.6 million per year.
Assuming Colon (who took Starks' starting job in 2006 and kept it) could get the same if he were free, he would lose nearly $8 million over the next two seasons under the new rules that keep him a restricted free agent.
No one from the Steelers approached Colon's agent, Joe Linta, about a long-term deal last year, and the Steelers have said nothing to him yet about it since the season ended.
"The Steelers at this point have chosen not to pursue Willie on a long-term contract," Linta said. "Willie would love to stay and hopes he fits in their plans but to this point that hasn't occurred."
Restricted free agents are permitted to shop themselves to other teams and to sign a contract with someone else. His current team is permitted to match any offer and keep him. However, if the team decides not to match, it receives compensation in return. The salary depends on which tender the team issues the player. If another team signed Colon last year and the Steelers did not match, they would have received a first-round draft pick in return. They can put a higher tender on him that would bring draft picks in the first and third rounds.
Good offensive tackles are hard to find, and perhaps there might be a team willing to give up a first-round draft pick to sign Colon, particularly if it is a low pick in the round. The only pure tackle on the team besides Starks and Colon is Tony Hills, a fourth-round draft choice in 2008 who has not played a snap in two seasons. Undrafted rookie Ramon Foster, who played tackle at the University of Tennessee, was converted to guard by the Steelers.
"The Steelers are watching the same films I am and it's pretty obvious he's in the top three players at his position in the league," Linta said, "and they will make their decision accordingly.
"There is no animosity. They're playing by the rules. It's not like they're doing anything wrong, immoral or unethical. Willie is like, 'They're going to do what they're going to do. I'll just go out and play ball.' "