Restricted free agents don't garner the same headlines that unrestricted free agents do mainly because the odds of them not being with the club for at least the upcoming season are significantly less. That however, does not diminish the importance of Buffalo's restricted free agents this offseason. The assessments Buffalo's brass makes on their trio of restricted players could be as critical to the team's future success as some of their unrestricted free agent decisions.
Two offensive linemen and the team's long snapper make up a relatively short restricted free agent list for Buffalo this offseason.
Kraig Urbik earned the starting job at right guard this season after initially being picked up off waivers a season earlier from the Steelers. He made eight starts there and looked more than capable when stepping in at center for five starts following the season-ending injury to Eric Wood.
"Obviously there are some things I can improve, but overall I felt I played pretty well," Urbik told Buffalobills.com. "I only gave up one sack. I moved to center and did pretty well there too so I think I showed I was pretty versatile. Overall I thought it was pretty good, but obviously it was disappointing having a losing season."
Chad Rinehart was pushing for a starting job for a short time in training camp as he swapping first team reps with Andy Levitre, and that proved to be a blessing in disguise for Buffalo's offensive line. Rinehart would be called upon to make 12 starts in 2011 with eight at right guard and four at left guard when injuries prompted some line shuffling.
"During the year I definitely got a lot more playing time than I was expecting being in the situation I was in as a backup," Rinehart said. "It kind of worked out. I've been fortunate to get that playing time with the opportunities I've been given in Buffalo."
Rinehart was also a valuable pick up in 2010 after he was released by the Jets and added to Buffalo's practice squad. He was eventually called up and made three starts for the Bills that year. More than a year later head coach Chan Gailey admitted he did not know he'd get this much return from those free agent investments.
"I don't think anybody could've foreseen how much they were going to contribute, maybe Buddy (Nix) did which is why he got them," said Gailey. "But I don't think anybody could've foreseen the progress they have made or the impact they would have on our football team. They've been a very pleasant surprise and very steady for us this year. Not spectacular, but very steady and very productive and that bodes well for us in the future because we have quality depth now that we can work with moving forward."
As restricted free agents both Rinehart and Urbik realize it's the Bills that have the first move.
"It's up to them if they want to bring me back for next year," said Urbik. "We'll see here in the offseason what they want to do."
"Being restricted is a little different because the Bills have the first go at me," said Rinehart. "It's looking like I'll be here at least another year unless another team makes a play for me."
Buffalo presumably wants to retain both offensive linemen as they represent talent capable of starting on the interior, an area where the Bills have developed some quality depth. To retain the right of first refusal should another NFL club present one of them with an offer sheet Buffalo must tender Rinehart and Urbik with a qualifying tender offer.
A low tender would give the Bills the right to match any offer the two linemen might receive, and if they chose not to match they would receive compensation from the club that signs them equal to the round in which they were drafted. Both Rinehart and Urbik were third round draft choices.
The two guards were encouraged about the step forward that the offensive line took collectively as they ranked first in fewest sacks allowed and fifth in the league in yards per carry average. They remain hopeful that the group can remain intact.
"I think it can be a good group for years to come," said Urbik. "If they bring back Demetrius (Bell) hopefully and keep us together, I thought we played pretty good as a whole, so hopefully they bring us all back." The other restricted free agent is long snapper Garrison Sanborn. The specialist has been so consistent that most observers are surprised to learn he's already logged three seasons with the Bills. Remarkably consistent and trusted by veteran specialists Brian Moorman and Rian Lindell, it would be surprising if he was not tendered a qualifying offer by the club.