Free Agency FAQ
|Senior Editor, Al Lackner, has pieced together this in-depth analysis of how Free Agency works in the NFL. If you still have a question about free agency after reading this FAQ, feel free to contact Al using the "Contact Us" form on your right.
When does the Free Agency period officially begin?
Answer: Free Agency officially begins on March 13. For RFAs, the period officially ends on April 18. The deadline for old clubs to exercise the Right of First Refusal to RFAs is April 24. 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.
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.
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.
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.
What qualifications must be met in order for a player to become an UFA as opposed to a RFA?
Answer: When a player with five or more accrued seasons (or with four or more accrued seasons in any Capped Year) reaches the end of his contract, he becomes an UFA. A RFA is any player with three or more accrued seasons, but less than five accrued seasons (or less than four accrued seasons in any capped year) whose contract has expired during that period.
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.
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. (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.) 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, that wage is the average of the top 5 players at the player's position. If the team designates the franchise tag as "Exclusive Rights", then the player may not sign with any other team. If the team does NOT designate with 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 (or some lesser level of competition as mutually agreed upon by the two teams). As you can guess, not too many teams are eager to part with such lofty compensation.
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.
If that's the case, then why do teams so rarely use either the Franchise Tag of 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.
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.