In an NFL offseason, free agency (in mid-March) and the draft (in late April) are the two main ways teams can try to improve their rosters for the upcoming season. Notably, teams must remain under the salary cap, which for 2023 is $224.8 million.
So, how does free agency work?
Every year, hundreds of players whose contracts have expired hit the open market. Basically, teams try to pay as little as possible for the players they want, while the agents for those players try to find the best deal for their clients.
In general, teams are wary of free agency because agents can create competition for a player and drive up salaries. Many teams like the draft because it includes cost controls via the rookie wage scale. But if a team wants immediate help, free agency provides more proven talent.
For example, the Cincinnati Bengals drafted quarterback Joe Burrow and went on spending sprees in two subsequent free agencies to build up the team around him.
Why are there different kinds of free agents?
Key phrase: accrued seasons. To accrue a season, a player needs to be on a team’s active/inactive roster, injured reserve or physically unable to perform list for at least six regular season games during a year. Accrued seasons delineate the three types of free agents.
An unrestricted free agent (UFA) is a player with four or more accrued seasons and an expired contract. UFAs can negotiate and sign with any team.
A restricted free agent (RFA) is a player with three accrued seasons and an expired contract. An RFA is allowed to negotiate and sign with any team, but if his original team offers him a qualifying offer (officially called a tender), then the original team has right of first refusal and can receive compensation in the form of draft picks for the player’s departure. More on this in a second.
An exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) is a player with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract. These players have very little leverage. If an ERFA’s original team offers him a one-year deal at the league minimum, he cannot negotiate with any other team.
Wait. What are the rules for RFAs?
Buckle up. If a player is a restricted free agent, the team for which he played the previous season can submit tenders that qualify his negotiations with other teams. There are five types of tenders — first round, second round, original round, right of first refusal and upgraded — and their amounts change every year.
This year, the first round tender is worth $6.005 million or 110 percent of the player’s prior-year base salary, whichever is greater. If a player signs an offer sheet with another team and his original team doesn’t match it, the original team receives a first-round pick from the new team.
It’s the same premise for second round ($4.304 million) and original round ($2.743 million), which reflects when the player was drafted. The right-of-first-refusal tender is a one-year deal worth $2.627 million but has no draft compensation. The upgraded tender is a rare case in which a team wants to put a first- or second-round tender on a player drafted outside those rounds, and it carries special stipulations.
Essentially, clubs are given a head start on free agency; before free agency officially opens, they’re allowed to officially contact and negotiate contracts with the agents of players who will be unrestricted free agents. This year, the legal tampering window opens at 12 p.m. Eastern time on Monday, March 13 and closes at 3:59 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15. Agreements made during the legal tampering period are not official and or binding.
During the 2022 period, defensive end Randy Gregory agreed to terms with the Dallas Cowboys, and the team announced the news on its social media accounts. But later, Gregory reportedly balked at conditions in the contract and ultimately signed with Denver.
Officially, players can sign as soon as the new league year begins at 4 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, March 15.
But didn’t some players sign before that?
Yes, some players’ contracts are terminated before the end of the league year, and they are free to sign with teams immediately. For example, the Las Vegas Raiders cut quarterback Derek Carr on Feb. 14. Days before the start of free agency, Carr agreed to a new deal with the New Orleans Saints.
What can tagged players do during free agency?
Depends on the tag the player received. There are three types — exclusive franchise, nonexclusive franchise and transition — and all are one-year deals calculated by referencing the top five or 10 salaries at the player’s position.
Players who receive the exclusive franchise tag cannot negotiate with other teams. Players who receive the nonexclusive franchise tag or transition tag can — though with both tags, the original team has the right to match any offer by another team.
In free agency, the key difference is compensation. If player with a nonexclusive tag signs elsewhere, the new team must give the old team two first-round picks. If a player with a transition tag signs elsewhere, the new team owes the old team nothing.
The nonexclusive tag is the most common tag. This year, all six players who were tagged received it, including Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. So, if a new team wants to sign Jackson, it would have to pay him a big new contract and give up two first-round picks.