With every NFL season, new players enter the league and veteran players retire or no longer make the grade. A host of players are under contract, but hundreds of others are NFL free agents. Every March, the National Football League takes all the sports media outlets by storm with anticipation. Rumors swirl as to which players are re-signing with their current teams, which are signing with new teams, and which players will retire.
Throughout the NFL free agency period, players’ agents talk numbers with front-office personnel, trying to get the best situations for their clients. Late in the game, they may be frantically attempting to strike deals. This is one of the most exciting times for NFL fans, and it’s not even during the season!
What Are NFL Free Agents?
NFL free agents are professional football players who have played through their prior contracts and have the ability to sign new NFL contracts with any team in the league. (Other, less sought-after free agents are those who have never played in the NFL before.) When a player becomes a free agent depends on how many seasons he has played. A player must be on an NFL team's roster for six games to accrue one season of "credit" within this system. These six games count even if the player is:
- Active but does not play
- On the injured reserve list
- On the teams physically unable to perform (PUP) list
There are four essential types of NFL free agents: unrestricted, restricted, undrafted, and "franchise."
Unrestricted NFL free agents are players that have no contractual ties with any team in the NFL. These players are free to talk with anyone and sign any contract that complies with the league's rules. These players have either been released, cut, or their contracts have expired. Unrestricted NFL free agents have completed four or more accrued seasons in the NFL, and when one signs, his new team does not have to give up a compensatory draft pick. Although teams can only designate one person for this role, unrestricted free agents can receive a transition tag that imposes a few restrictions.
Restricted Free Agents
A restricted NFL free agent is a player that can negotiate with other teams, but his original team has the right to match what a bidding team offers and bring him back. These players have accrued three seasons in the NFL, and their contracts have expired. If the player’s old team makes a qualifying offer, then that team retains the right to first refusal.
First refusal lets the original team match any offer that player receives from a new team and keep that player by doing so. If the team does not match the offer, it may have the right to receive a compensatory draft pick; this depends on the dollar value of the player’s new offer. The rights to players who do not receive offer sheets by April 20th revert to their original teams.
Undrafted Free Agents
Undrafted NFL free agents are college players who didn’t get drafted and are free to sign with any NFL team. After the NFL draft each year, each team typically signs a number of undrafted free agents. These players participate in training camp when the roster expands and goes up to 90 players, providing an opportunity for them to shine and make an NFL squad.
What Is the Franchise Tag?
A franchise tag is a designation a team can put on one of its (typically very high-value) free agents, whether that player is unrestricted or restricted. Each team can designate one player as the franchise player, but it can then withdraw the tag before the start of the year in which the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. There are two types of franchise players: exclusive and non-exclusive.
Exclusive Franchise Tags
An exclusive franchise player is a player that is not free to sign with any other NFL team. This player receives a salary that is greater than the average of the top five salaries paid to others in that player’s offensive or defensive position during that same year. In most cases, a franchise player is a star or core component that the team does not want to lose but is challenged to sign through standard negotiations.
Non-exclusive Franchise Tags
NFL free agents who receive a non-exclusive franchise tag receive salaries based on a CAP Percentage Average established through the prevailing collective bargaining agreement between owners and the players' association. However, unlike an exclusive franchise tender, under a non-exclusive franchise tag, players are allowed to negotiate with other teams. If a player does sign with another team, the old team receives two first-round draft picks as compensation from his new team.
What Are The Risks Of Free Agency?
The main risk of being an NFL free agent usually comes up in the season before the player is actually a free agent. At the beginning of the season, if the team wants the upcoming free agent to return, that player will most likely receive an offer before the season starts or fairly early in that final contract season. Because a player and his agent cannot talk to any teams while still under contract, it’s that players decision to either sign with that team or test free agency at the end of the year. There are several risks that this player takes by deciding not to sign at that time.
Players get injured in the NFL every day that practices or games occur, and if a player gets injured in the last year of his contract, that can be devastating. Even if the player signs with the team he currently plays for at the end of the year, the team may come back with an offer less than the former contract.
Upcoming NFL free agents don’t even have to suffer injuries to hurt their contract offers. It’s considered among NFL clubs that the “contract year” can be a motivational year for some players. If a team is on the fringe about re-signing one of their upcoming free agents, sometimes they let the player play the season out before offering a contract. If the player does not perform well, his outlook as a free agent darkens considerably.
The NFL is a very liquid sport. While it’s established that quarterback is the most important position, the rest of the positions' values rise and fall like stocks from year to year. The number of viable free agents in a certain position, alongside the crop at that position in the upcoming draft, can significantly affect an NFL free agent's contract.
Players aren’t the only ones who take risks in free agency. Front office personnel's jobs are on the line if they make decisions that don't pan out. General managers and coaches, in particular, have to assess the risks when trying to sign a free agent.
The Best Free Agents Demand Big Money
Great talent demands big money, and if a team is looking to sign an elite talent to their team, it is usually not the only bidder. Making the right decisions for a team can come down to how many millions that team is able to spend. Sometimes teams don’t have enough money from past contracts to even try to sign free agents that will help them win.
Sometimes NFL free agents just don’t fit with their new teams. Whether it’s a problem in the locker room, a mismatch in coaching, or maybe the free agent lost a step, some deals don't work out well. This is a huge risk that can affect your team for years to come.
What Are the Key Dates for Free Agents & NFL Teams in 2019?
Teams who currently have upcoming free agents can start negotiating at any time. But the NFL calendar is packed with important dates for all NFL free agents, and it’s a lot to remember. Here’s a breakdown of some important dates in the 2019 NFL free agency season.
This is the first date that NFL teams can place a franchise or transition tag on a player.
This is the deadline for NFL teams to place a franchise or transition tag on a player.
This is the 3-day period during which teams can negotiate with their upcoming free agents. However, contracts cannot actually be signed and approved before March 13th, which is the date that NFL free agency officially begins.
Franchise and transition tag players can sign contracts with their team.
This is the deadline for restricted free agents to sign any offer sheets.
April 24, 2019, is the deadline for any team to use their rights of first refusal on restricted free agents.
After this date, all teams have exclusive rights to their unrestricted free agents and transition players.
If any unrestricted free agents, including franchise- or transition-tagged players, have not signed their tenders by this date, they must sit out the entire upcoming season.
NFL free agency is a fun, wild time when teams try to build their rosters to better compete in the upcoming season. Most coveted NFL free agents are signed by the beginning of training camp, but some veteran players wait for opportunities created by injuries and struggling squads later on.
NFL free agency is popular with the fans young and old because they love to see their team bring in new talent. However, for general managers and other office personnel, free agency is a tactful game focused on getting the right players for the right amount of money while facing down 31 other teams all looking to win.