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Free Agency FAQ

August 13, 2020

Al Lackner
Are you confused beyond belief about the NFL Free Agency? You may have heard such terms as "Unrestricted Free Agent", "Restricted Free Agent", "Franchise Tag", and "Transition Tag", and if you are very confused by what these terms mean -- don't feel embarrassed. Half of the sports journalism world doesn't seem to fully understand what these terms mean either!

Fear not. The Commish is here to help. Our goal is to provide you with a quick course on Free Agency so that you can understand what is going on here. By the time we're through with you, you will have the knowledge and power to second guess your favorite team's General Manager!

Question 1.1
When does the Free Agency period officially begin?

Answer: Free Agency officially begins on March 9. However, teams may begin negotiating with UFAs on March 7th, 2 days prior to the start of Free Agency. For RFAs, the period officially ends on April 22. The deadline for old clubs to exercise the Right of First Refusal to RFAs is April 29. For UFAs (including Franchise players and Transition players), who have been given a tender offer from their prior team, the period officially ends on July 22 or the first day of training camp -- whichever is later. For more on the entire timeline for Free Agency check out our Free Agency 101 page.

Question 1.2
A player who is a "Free Agent" is free to seek out the highest bidder, right?

Answer: Well, yes and no. As the fine print always states: "Certain Restrictions" apply. First of all, it depends on what kind of Free Agent (FA) we are talking about. Is the player an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) or a Restricted Free Agent (RFA)? And in either case, NFL teams still maintain certain avenues whereby they can even maintain their UFA's.

Question 1.3
OK, what exactly is the difference between an UFA and a RFA?

Answer: In a nutshell, an UFA has the right to sign with any team he so chooses without his prior team demanding any sort of compensation. A RFA differs in that the prior team benefits from the Right of First Refusal, which means that the prior team has the right to match the player's best offer. In some cases, the prior team can also demand draft compensation based on the "Qualifying Offer" made to the RFA. For a breakdown of how such compensation is determined, check out our Free Agency 101 page.

Question 1.4

Let's assume that a RFA negotiates a new contract with a new team (Let's call them Team A), and the prior team opts to match it. Can the player go back to Team A to see if they will up their bid?

Answer: No. When the player agrees to the deal with Team A, it becomes a binding contract pending the prior team's Right of First Refusal. The league must be notified of this contract within two business days, and the player's prior team has seven days to decide whether to match the offer. If nothing is done after seven days, then the contract with Team A becomes official. If the prior team elects to cash in their Right of First Refusal within 7 days, then they must present the player with the "First Refusal Exercise Notice" at which time the team and player have entered into a binding contract of their own.

Question 1.5
What qualifications must be met in order for a player to become an UFA as opposed to a RFA?

Answer: When a player with four or more accrued seasons reaches the end of his contract, he becomes an UFA. A RFA is any player with three or more accrued seasons, but less than four accrued seasons whose contract has expired during that period.

Question 1.6
OK, so what is an "accrued season"?

Answer: A player is said to have an "accrued season", when he has participated in six or more regular-season games on a club's active/inactive, reserved-injured or "physically unable to perform" lists.

Question 1.7a
You mentioned that a prior club has "certain avenues" whereby they can still restrict the market for their UFAs. What are these avenues?

Answer: Each team can name one Franchise Player or one Transition Player. When the team places either tag on a player, they have effectively offered the player a one year contract at a predetermined annual wage.

(Note: In the final year of the CBA, the team may elect to designate a Transition Players AND a Franchise Player -- or two Transition Players in lieu of naming a Franchise Player.) More specifically, for this season, had a new deal not passed and the league year began with no CBA in place past 2020, teams would have been able to use both a franchise and transition tag had they so chosen.

For Franchise Players, a team can choose between two types when designating. If the team designates the franchise tag as "Exclusive Rights", then the player may not sign with any other team. The tender associated with this version of the tag is a one year contract that is the minimum of the average of the five largest salaries (as calculated at the end of the free agency signing period) for players at the position at which he played the most games during the prior year, or 120% of his prior year salary, whichever is greater.

If the team designates the franchise tag as Non-Exclusive Rights, then the player is free to negotiate with other teams. However, if the player signs with another team, then that team must fork over two first round draft picks to the prior team. As you can guess, not too many teams are eager to part with high draft picks, so often the two teams will work out a deal for lesser compensation.

The required tender for this type of tag is based on a tedious formula that calculates the average percentage that the league as a whole spent on franchise players against the salary cap (by position) over the previous five seasons. These percentages (one for each position) are then applied to the current salary cap to calculate the price tag for the given position.

Here is an example:

The base salary cap for 2020 is set at $198.2 M for each team.

For the QB position, the average percentage spent on QBs designated with the Franchise Tag against the salary cap over the past five years is 12.735%.

So the Non-Exclusive Rights Franchise Tag for a QB in 2019 was 13.2% of $188.2 M, which was $24.865 M. For 2020, see the numbers below:

PositionFranchise TagTransition Tag
QB$26,824,000$24,837,000
WR$17,865,000$15,680,000
DE$17,788,000$15,184,000
CB$16,338,000$14,197,000
DT$16,126,000$13,143,000
LB$15,828,000$13,767,000
OL$14,781,000$13,505,000
S$11,441,000$9,860,000
TE$10,607,000$9,117,000
RB$10,278,000$8,483,000
ST$5,019,000$4,559,000

Of interest is the rankings by position. Everyone knows that the QBs get the big $ -- but it is noteworthy that the 2nd highest tender is for wide receivers. Note also that linemen are grouped together, so the tender for a Center would be the same as that of a Left Tackle. Ironically, this year there were no OTs tagged, but there were multiple OGs. Same goes for Special Teams players, where the tender is the same for a long snapper and kicker!

For the Transition Tag, the wage is the average of the top 10 players at the player's position. The tagged player is free to negotiate with any other team. Although the original team is not entitled to any form of compensation from the new team, the original teams does maintain the Right of First Refusal, which in essence means that a Transition Player is like a RFA with the lowest tender offer.

If the player signs the one-year tender for the Franchise Tag, then that salary is guaranteed. Historically, that was not true of the Transition Tag; however, under the latest extension to the CBA, the one-year salary for the Transition Player is also a guaranteed one-year contract.

Question 1.7b
If that's the case, then why do teams so rarely use either the Franchise Tag or the Transition tag?

Answer: There are a couple of reasons. First and foremost is the Salary Cap. When a team designates a player with either tag, the predetermined annual wage we cited above immediately hits the team's salary cap. For example, in 2003 when the Bengals elected to name Takeo Spikes their Transition Player, he was guaranteed an annual salary of $4.8M (the average of the top 10 NFL LBs' 2002 salaries), and this amount immediately hit the Bengals' 2003 Salary Cap. Also at work is a notion of professional courtesy. Many NFL players look upon the Franchise or Transition tag with an unfavorable view. As such, naming a player with one of these tags could send a bad message to other players on the team -- or other prospective free agents, for that matter.

Last season only 6 teams made use of the Franchise Tag. Now that the timeframe for tagging players in 2020 has passed, we see that a whopping 15 of the 32 teams opted to use the Franchise Tag:

RB Kenyan Drake ARZ
OLB Matt Judon BAL
WR AJ Green CIN
QB Dak Prescott
FS Justin Simmons DEN
DE Yannick Ngakoue JAC
DE Chris Jones KC
TE Hunter Henry LAC
DB Anthony Harris MIN
OG Joe Thuney NEP
DT Leonard Williams NYG
LB Bud Dupree PIT
LB Shaquil Barret TBB
RB Derrick Henry TEN
OG Brandon Scherff WAS

Question 1.7c
What if a team decides that it was a mistake to designate a player with the Franchise or Transition Tag?

Answer: The team may rescind the designation. However, they may not re-use the tag on another player.

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