There weren't too many blockbuster signings at the skill positions last year, but it's a pretty good skill position class this year for free agency so we'll be closely watching to see which studs re-sign and which ones seek out a new home. After a three-day negotiating period for teams, the new league year officially begins on March 9 at 4 p.m. Eastern, giving the NFL a primetime free agency special, and it’s possible many of the top names in this article are locked up in the days – or even hours – after the new league year starts (there’s always flurry of activity as soon as 4 p.m. hits).
In this article series, we will have an extensive list and analysis of all of the key free agents in the NFL this off-season (and quite a few guys who aren’t so key). Some of these guys will make an impact next year, and many will not. We have you covered either way.
To start, a primer on the 2017 free agency process:
These are terms you’ll hear a lot in this article and over the next few weeks. These brief descriptions should have you adequately prepared for the whole process.
Unrestricted Free Agent
Any NFL player who has accrued four or more years of service time and has an expired contract. An unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any team in whatever situation for whatever contract he deems most beneficial, with no penalty to the acquiring team.
Restricted Free Agent
Any NFL player who has accrued three years of service time and has an expired contract. Restricted free agents are free to negotiate on the open market. Once a player is given an offer sheet, his previous team has a seven-day “right of first refusal” period to match the offer.
If the controlling team declines, the acquiring team could be forced to pay a draft-pick penalty for signing that player to a contract, the cost of which is depending on the RFA tender offered to the player by his previous club. On the flip side, if a player is not offered an RFA tender by his club, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Teams can also work out trades with interested parties, adjusting the terms any draft-pick compensation the player’s RFA tender would require (the Dolphins and Patriots did this in 2007 with Wes Welker).
Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Any NFL player who has accrued two or fewer years of service time and has an expired contract. The term “free agent” is a misnomer, in that the player has no contract, but his rights are controlled by his team unless that team willingly decides to release him. If an exclusive rights free agent is tendered a contract (at the veteran minimum), he must sign it if he wishes to play because he has no negotiating power.
Any player who will become an unrestricted or restricted free agent can be designated as his club’s franchise player. If a player is designated as a franchise player, he is tendered a one-year, guaranteed contract. To make a complicated scenario simple (and trust us, it’s complicated), the franchise tag under the new CBA signed in 2011 is calculated as a percentage of the salary cap, using the salaries of highly paid players at the tagged player’s position, which reduces the overall value of the tag (this was a “win” for the owners in the CBA negotiations). Every dollar of the franchise tag is guaranteed.
If a player is designated a franchise player, he can sign the one-year deal immediately, and he can continue to negotiate a long-term deal with his club. However, once a deadline in mid-July passes, the franchise player is no longer free to negotiate a long-term deal and must either sign the franchise tag or hold out (teams can also work out trades). Moreover, if a franchise player holds out past a certain date late in the NFL season, he is no longer free to sign the tag and will go without pay for the entire 2017 season (Vincent Jackson came dangerously close to this date during the 2010 season).
A player can be either an “exclusive” or “non-exclusive” franchise player. A “non-exclusive” franchise player is free to negotiate with other teams, like a restricted free agent, and like in an RFA scenario his previous club is given right of first refusal. If the club declines to match an offer sheet, the player’s previous club is awarded two 1st-round picks as compensation. Because of this, we won’t often see a “non-exclusive” franchise player sign with another club.
In 2017, teams must designate a player a franchise player by 4 p.m. on March 1st.
Like the franchise tag, the transition tag is a way for teams to retain their unrestricted or restricted free agents under a one-year guaranteed deal. However, there are some differences, explaining why it is not as prevalent as the franchise tag. First, and most notably, the transition tag is “cheaper” to the offering team, as it takes into account the salaries of the top-10 players at the position instead of five, like in the franchise tag.
However, transitioned players are always free to negotiate with other clubs, like restricted free agents, and their controlling clubs are given right of first refusal. But there is no draft-pick compensation for being unable to match an offer sheet, unlike the two 1st-round pick compensation on a non-exclusive franchised player.
This has led to very interesting scenarios in the past, in which teams included “poison pill” clauses in their offer sheets to transitioned players, making it essentially impossible for a player’s old club to match the offer (Steve Hutchinson and Nate Burleson were signed with “poison pill” deals in the past). The risk was minimal for offering teams – they didn’t have to pay any compensation, like they would have to under an RFA tender or a franchise tender.
That’s why the tag is little used. While there is less financial commitment, there is a greater risk to the club offering the tag (the Dolphins used it on Charles Clay recently, and he signed in Buffalo). So teams could use the tag on players they know will be willing to sign it, or on players whom they don’t believe will be as valued on the open market as the player expects.
In previous years, teams could use both the franchise tag and a transition tag. Under the new CBA signed in 2011, teams can choose only one of the two tags.