If you see NFL headlines in March, more than likely they have something to do with NFL free agency.
Free agency is one of those things that sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is. Thank goodness for that.
Quite simply, free agency is the time for players who do not have contracts (“free agents”) to sign a contract somewhere. These players have come to the end of an existing contract and have yet to sign a new contract with their most recent team or a new team.
Why is free agency important?
First, free agency is the time for teams to fill roster holes from the prior year. Sure, teams will fill some of their needs through the draft in April, but most rookies aren’t going to make as immediate of an impact as a more experienced player.
Secondly, this is an opportunity for players to make big money. If negotiations with their most recent team aren’t going well or a team has flat-out told a player they won’t re-sign him, free agency is the time for that player and his agent to test the market and see what kind of deal he can make elsewhere.
Deals with other teams are largely affected by 1) the type of free agent the player is and 2) the free agency timeline.
For the sake of our discussion and keeping things simple, free agents usually fall into one of two categories:
1. Unrestricted free agents (UFA): Players with expired contracts that have completed four or more accrued seasons of service. They are free to sign with any franchise and there is no draft choice compensation owed to his most recent team. Some of 2015’s most notable free agents (and most recent teams) include DT Ndamukong Suh (Lions), CB Darrelle Revis (Patriots), TE Julius Thomas (Broncos), and RB DeMarco Murray (Cowboys).
2. Restricted free agents (RFA): Players who have three or fewer accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. Not gonna lie – these are a little more complicated than unrestricted free agents, so I won’t blame you if you skip the next paragraph.
RFAs get a “qualifying offer” from their most recent team. This is a predetermined amount of money dictated by the CBA (collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union). RFAs are free to negotiate with any team up until right before the draft (this year it’s April 24). If a new team makes an offer, the old team has the chance to match the offer of the new team and retain the player. If the old team does not match the offer, the team can get draft choices from the new team in exchange for letting the player go.
Whew, that was a lot. Let’s take a break and watch players talk about their favorite types of Girl Scout cookies. (Video will open up in a new tab because the NFL doesn’t like it when people embed their YouTube videos onto their sites.)
Just for the record, I am #TeamThinMint and #TeamTagalong. While Val has occasionally played for #TeamThinMint, she is really #TeamSamoa and #TeamTagalong. Bottom line is that we both have mad respect for Antonio Brown after he declared his love for Taglongs.
OK, back to business here…
Most of the sexy free agency headlines come from unrestricted free agents because there are a heck of a lot more of them than restricted free agents.
As I alluded to earlier, the other thing that plays a substantial role in free agency is the timeline imposed by the league.
(Let’s keep in mind that players are allowed to negotiate deals with their existing teams at any time during the year, so the deadlines imposed by the league are kind of only used to help speed negotiations along if a player or team is in a rush to get the deal done.)
Truthfully, behind-the-scenes negotiations start at the Senior Bowl and the Combine, as described in this interesting post by an NFL agent. These aren’t exactly legal, but if your agent doesn’t start talking you up right after the season ends, you risk missing out when it comes to contract negotiations.
In order to curb the amount of early unofficial deal-making, the NFL introduced a Negotiating Period in 2013. It’s also referred to as the “legal tampering” period. Per this helpful post, the following things can happen during the negotiation period:
• Agents can negotiate numbers and years, but not actually sign a deal
• Teams can talk to agents, not the player
• Players can’t visit other teams (except their own)
• Only applies to UFAs
The negotiating period started at noon EST on March 7 this year.
Three days after the Negotiating Period starts is the official start of free agency. This is the point where all hell breaks loose, or at least it will seem that way on Twitter. Once free agency starts, teams are free to host visits with and negotiate with all unrestricted free agents. Any deals that were set up during the Negotiating Period cannot be announced until the official start of free agency. This year, the start of free agency is 4 PM EST on March 10.
It’s also important to note that teams must be under the salary cap as of the start of free agency.
The whole salary cap thing is key because it often limits how aggressive teams can be with their negotiations.
Just a quick reminder definition for those that need it – the salary cap is the total amount of money a team can spend on player salaries for a given year. The 2015 salary cap is $143,280,000 per team.
If you have limited cap space, it can be difficult to offer the type of money that attracts big names.
That, my friends, is my high-level take on free agency. Hopefully this helps you navigate some of the NFL headlines you will be seeing over the next few days.
Although I didn’t even get into it on this post, the franchise tag is also important factor in the free agency discussion. Val has a special post on that topic coming your way. Oh, and in case you were wondering (I’m willing to bet you weren’t), the definition of an accrued season is “six or more regular season games on a club’s active/inactive, reserved/injured or reserve/physically unable to perform list.”