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Free Agency FAQ

November 13, 2018

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.

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 2017 is set at $167 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 2017 is 12.375% of $167 M, which is $21.268 M.

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.

Now that the timeframe for tagging players in 2017 has passed, we see that only 8 of the 32 teams opted to use the Franchise Tag:

DE/LB Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals
DT Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers
RB Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
LB Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers
QB Kirk Cousins, Washington
CB Trumaine Johnson, Los Angeles Rams

No team used the Transition Tag in 2017.

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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