You probably have an idea of what free agency means in the NFL, but let’s go a little deeper. Here’s everything you need to know.
Every NFL fan either dreads or looks forward to free agency — the time when the league’s landscape for the next season is reshuffled according to how each franchise navigates the salary cap.
The subjectivity of “value” is negotiated between labor and management with the goal of compromise and proper compensation. Some veteran players land big paydays, while others have to walk away because a team needs to come in under the salary cap.
The 2022 NFL league year and free agency period will begin at 4 p.m. ET on March 16, and fans will be constantly refreshing their feeds to see whether their favorite players stay or go, or which new faces are coming to town. For when that time comes, Boardroom has prepared a free agency cheatsheet on the timeline and most-used phrases.
How Free Agency Came to Be
Before Free Agency
Free agency has only been around for about 30 of the NFL’s 100 years. Before players could choose where to sign once their contracts expired, they only had three options: re-sign with the team that drafted them, be traded, or retire.
That technically changed in 1947 when the league established that a team could renew a player’s contract, but only one year at a time. For a while, teams elected to do that indefinitely rather than allow a free agent. However, in 1961, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver R.C. Owens broke through, leaving the San Francisco 49ers for the Baltimore Colts. At that point, the owners decided that then-commissioner Pete Rozelle could award compensation to a team losing a free agent at his discretion. That became enough of a deterrent to free agency that the practice was seldom used in the years to come. After a bevy of court cases, rule changes, and a strike, the free agency we know today was established in 1993.
March 1, 1993
Free agency as we know it began on this date. Its initial qualifications were that a player had to have five years of NFL experience to become eligible. Also, a team could designate one player to keep as its “franchise” player (more on that in a minute). The landmark case that ushered in this era of free agency was (Reggie) White v. NFL. The former All-Pro defensive end won his case for free agency and brought about this period where players change teams. It also brought about the salary cap as a way to help ensure competitive balance.
Types of Free Agents
Unrestricted free agency is fairly straightforward — a UFA is free to sign with any team. A player becomes a UFA with an expiring contract and four accrued seasons in the league. The “unrestricted” part indicates that a player’s former team cannot interfere with his seeking a new deal with different teams in any way.
Restricted free agents are players with three accrued seasons and an expiring contract. An RFA’s former team can offer a tender for the player to sign, or choose to match a deal another team offers during free agency. If the former team withdraws its tender, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. If the current team declines to match the other team’s offer, the RFA has a new team and his former team must send a draft pick as compensation.
Players with fewer than three years of experience and an expired contract become exclusive rights free agents. This means that the player cannot sign with another team if his former team offers at least a one-year minimum-salary contract. This is one way a team can maintain some depth and keep potential young contributors. Think of it as a building process for lower-drafted and undrafted players. EFRAs become RFAs and are UFAs by their fifth year.
Before the Year Ends
Feb. 22: 2/22/22 was an aesthetically pleasing date in history, but it was actually important in the NFL. It was the first day a team was allowed to apply the franchise tag to one player. The franchise tag places a player under contract for one year at the average salary of the top-five highest-paid players at his position. In 2020, the Dallas Cowboys made noise by placing the tag on quarterback Dak Prescott. Teams do not have to use their franchise tag, and in Prescott’s case, can still negotiate a new, long-term deal with tagged players. Prescott did just that, signing a four-year, $160 million extension last March.
March 14-16: Beginning at noon EST on March 14, clubs are permitted to contact and enter into contract negotiations with the certified agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents upon the expiration of their 2021 player contracts. However, a contract cannot be executed with a new club until the new league year officially begins at 4 p.m. EST on March 16.
“New Year’s Day”
On the first day of the new league year, there is a 4 p.m. ET deadline for teams to do the following:
- Exercise options for 2022 on all players who have option clauses in their 2021 contracts
- Submit qualifying offers to restricted free agents with expiring contracts to retain a “right of first refusal/compensation”
- Submit a minimum salary tender to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with expiring 2021 contracts who have fewer than three accrued seasons of free agency credit
Also at 4 p.m.:
- The Top-51 rule goes into place — meaning teams have to count the collective salaries of their top-earning 51 players against the year’s cap. All clubs must be under the 2022 salary cap by this time.
- All 2021 player contracts expire
- The trading period for 2022 begins after expiration of all 2021 contracts.
The Weeks After
March 27-30: The annual league meeting takes place at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
April 22: The last day for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets from their current teams.
May 2: The last day for NFL teams to exercise fifth-year options for players selected in the first round of the 2019 draft.
May 23-25: The NFL’s annual spring meeting.
June 1: If a player is released after this date, the team can spread his salary cap hit (dead money) over two years instead of one. The team is relieved of the requirement to pay his base salary and is only on the hook for his bonus proration for that year.
June 15: Deadline for clubs to withdraw qualifying offers to RFAs and still retain exclusive negotiating rights by substituting a “June 15 Tender.” That is, essentially, a one-year contract worth 110% of the player’s previous salary.
The Salary Cap’s Role
The salary cap was put in place, in theory, to maintain competitive balance — so the teams with the most money couldn’t write blank checks to assemble super-teams.
There are currently eight teams with negative cap space (h/t Spotrac):
- New Orleans Saints: $-76.16 million
- Green Bay Packers: $-37.4 million
- Dallas Cowboys: $-21.2 million
- Minnesota Vikings: $-14.7 million
- Los Angeles Rams: $-13.2 million
- New York Giants: $-11.56 million
- Tennesse Titans: $-6.9 million
- Atlanta Falcons: $-6.6 million
- Buffalo Bills: $-2.23 million
On the surface, it appears these teams — especially the Saints — will not be able to sign anyone. But the structuring (or restructuring) of deals is how teams without space will make space to retool their roster. Trades, releasing players, and restructuring deals already in place are some of the ways teams navigate the salary cap. So, if your favorite team is over the cap, you’ll need some faith in your GM and front office to push the right buttons.