QB Jeff Garcia and the Buccaneers put their heads together almost as soon as free agency began last spring
NFL personnel pros have spent the last week in Indianapolis evaluating 300 young men who will make up the majority of this April's draft class. The NFL Scouting Combine is almost over, however, and after the final round of 40-yard dashes is run on Tuesday, those team executives will scatter back to their respective offices and begin tweaking their draft boards.
There's still plenty of time to get their rankings just right; the draft is still almost nine weeks down the road. And that's good, because there is actually a more pressing issue in the realm of roster-shaping, one that will shoot right to the top of the list for these executives when they get back to their offices.
The 2008 free agency period begins this Friday. Or more practically speaking, it begins late Thursday night, after the stroke of midnight. Teams can – and will – begin contacting newly-minted free agents at 12:01 a.m. on February 29th.
To be sure, draft preparations will continue apace for the rest of this week and throughout the first two months of free agency. However, the first week or so of the open market is always the busiest, as teams rush to make the perfect sales pitch to the free agents they've targeted as priorities.
The rest of this week, then, is the last chance for a little pre-free agency housekeeping for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their fellow teams. In addition to honing their strategy for the upcoming weeks, the Buccaneers must make sure they have all the proper paperwork done so that exclusive rights free agents remain exclusive, restricted free agents are indeed restricted, and so on.
Those necessary tasks, which we'll look at more closely below, face a Thursday deadline. That is one of the signpost dates of the free agency period, as was last Thursday. That was the final day of a 15-day period in which teams could apply "franchise" or "transition" tags to players.
These tags were purposely inserted in the free agency system during its inception back in 1993. The original intent was to create an avenue for teams to potentially retain their most important players, even with the creation of an open market. Because franchise players have to be offered a salary that is, at the minimum, an average of the top five salaries at their position, it has developed into a tool that is not necessarily used on what would be considered a team's best player. The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, just used their franchise tag on tight end L.J. Smith, who is a very good player but probably not the team's defining star. A franchise tag for Smith comes in at $4.5 million, while the same thing on a defensive end would cost $8.9 million.
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, on the other hand, may have been the Tennessee Titans' most valuable player in 2007. He and Smith are two of the 10 players who received franchise tags this month, along with Kansas City defensive end Jared Allen, Cincinnati tackle Stacy Andrew, Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Carolina tackle Jordan Gross, Dallas safety Ken Hamlin, Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant and Green Bay defensive tackle Corey Williams. Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby received a transition tag, which required an offer of the average of the top 10 salaries at his position but does allow him to negotiate with other teams while the Cardinals retain a right-of-first-refusal.
Teams may only use their franchise tag on one player at a time, and if that player signs a multi-year contract after receiving the tag, it remains associated with that player for the duration of the contract.
The Buccaneers did not utilize their franchise tag. They will surely make the necessary tender offers to their impending free agents, however. That is the next order of business, as is illustrated by this list of upcoming important dates in the NFL.
February 28: Deadline for teams to make qualifying offers to restricted and exclusive rights free agents
Free agency is mostly the playground of unrestricted free agents, those fortunate gentlemen who have expired contracts and at least four seasons of free agency credit. However, there will be two other groups of players who become free agents on March 2, and teams can affect the manner in which they do so with the proper qualifying offers.
A player with an expiring contract becomes a restricted free agent if he has three seasons of accrued credit. He can negotiate with other teams but his original team can match any contract offer he receives or decline to match it and receive draft-pick compensation from the other team instead. A player with an expiring contract becomes an exclusive rights free agent if he has less than three seasons of accrued credit. He can only negotiate with his original team.
In each case, those players only fall into those categories if they receive a tender offer from the team by the day before free agency. If they do not receive such an offer, they become unrestricted free agents, able to sign with any team without compensation. It is common for teams to extend the qualifying offers to almost all of their impending restricted and exclusive rights free agents. It is also common for restricted free agents to accept those one-year offers as their contract for that season, putting them in position to become unrestricted free agents the following spring.
February 29: Free agency begins
As mentioned above, the market opens at 12:01 a.m., and lights will be on in all 32 team offices at midnight on Thursday. Even teams that aren't planning to make an immediate strike will be manning the phones and listening for news. Last year, the Buccaneers clearly planned a quick strike, because they re-signed three of their own players (Mike Alstott, Phillip Buchanon and Torrie Cox) on the first day of free agency, lured two other free agents to Tampa on Day Two (Jeff Garcia and Patrick Chukwurah) and also traded for the rights to Jake Plummer on that second day. The following three days brought, in succession, B.J. Askew, Kevin Carter and Luke Petitgout.
Also, teams can trade players beginning on this date, though that is far less common. Most player trades that do occur during the offseason happen during draft weekend or in the days just before and after the draft.
March 30-April 3: NFL Annual Meeting, Palm Beach, Florida
Commonly referred to as the "owners' meeting," this annual get-together (last year it was in Phoenix) is a breeding ground for news. Last year, for instance, Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the league's new initiative on concussions, which included baseline cognitive tests that had to be administered to all players before the start of the 2007 season.
Most of the news from last year's meetings was overshadowed by Goodell's more thorough player conduct policy, but there was also a vote to make instant replay permanent and a discussion regarding an expanded revenue sharing plan.
There is a spring meeting in May, too, so not all of the big news happens in March. But there are always one or two hot-button issues that dominate the annual meeting.
April 18: Signing period ends for restricted free agents
This deadline always falls about a week before the draft, due to the possibility of draft-pick compensation if a restricted free agent switches teams. It usually passes pretty quietly, however, because by this point most of the restricted free agents have accepted their tender offers. Teams get a week to decide whether or not to match an offer given to their restricted free agents by other teams, and a week after the 18th happens to be one day before the draft.
April 26-27: NFL Draft, New York City
This year, the draft will start at 3:00 p.m. ET on Saturday instead of noon. It will likely finish about the same time in the evening, however, because only the first two rounds will be completed that day. Previously, the league held the first three rounds on Saturday and the last four on Sunday. The proceedings will pick up at the beginning of Round Three at 10:00 a.m. ET on Sunday, an hour earlier than had been the norm.
In addition, the league is seeking to speed up the entire seven rounds by shortening the time limits for each pick. Instead of 15 minutes per selection, teams will now only get 10 minutes in the first round. The second-round limits have been similarly chopped from 10 minutes to seven, while Rounds 3-7 still have five-minute pick times.