RB Aaron Stecker is one of the Bucs set to become an unrestricted free agent on Wednesday
The NFL's 2004 free agency period begins at midnight on Tuesday. Over the next few months, the league's 32 rosters will take shape for the upcoming season, as dozens of players re-sign with their existing teams and dozens more find new addresses to call home.
Below, you will find a series of questions and answers designed to take some of the mystery out of the NFL's free agency process. Read on for key dates, updated cap figures and definitions of key terms.
Q -- What are the categories of free agency?
A -- Players are either "restricted" or "unrestricted" free agents. Within the categories are also "transition" and "franchise" players.
Q -- What is the time period for free agency signings this year?
A -- For restricted free agents, from March 3 to April 16; for unrestricted free agents and transition players, from March 3 to July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later); and for franchise players, from March 3 through the 10th week of the season (November 9).
Q -- What is the difference between a restricted free agent and an unrestricted free agent?
A -- Players become restricted free agents when they complete three accrued seasons and their contract expires. Unrestricted free agents have completed four or more accrued seasons with an expired contract.
Q -- What constitutes an "accrued season?"
A -- Six or more regular-season games on a club's active/inactive, reserved-injured or "physically unable to perform" lists.
Q -- Other than accrued seasons, what determines a restricted free agent?
A -- He has received a "qualifying" offer (a salary level predetermined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players) from his old club. He can negotiate with any club through April 16. If the restricted free agent accepts an offer sheet from a new club, his old club can match the offer and retain him because it has the "right of first refusal." If the old club does not match the offer, it can possibly receive draft-choice compensation depending on the amount of its qualifying offer. If an offer sheet is not executed, the player's rights revert to his old club on April 16.
Q -- What determines an unrestricted free agent?
A – A player with four or more accrued seasons whose contract has expired. He is free to sign with any club, with no compensation owed to his old club, through July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later). On July 23, his rights revert to his old club if it made a "tender" offer (110 percent of last year's salary) to him by June 1. His old club then has until the 10th week of the season (November 9) to sign him. If he does not sign by November 9, he must sit out the season. If no tender is offered by June 1, the player can be signed by any club at any time throughout the season.
Q -- What determines a transition player?
A -- His club must offer a minimum of the average of the top 10 salaries of last season at the player's position or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. A transition player designation gives the club a first-refusal right to match within seven days an offer sheet given to the player by another club after his contract expires. If the club matches, it retains the player. If it does not match, it receives no compensation.
Q -- What determines a franchise player?
A -- A club can designate one franchise player (or one transition player) in any given year. The salary level offer by a player's old club determines what type of franchise player he is. An "exclusive" franchise player -- not free to sign with another club -- is offered a minimum of the average of the top five salaries at the player's position as of April 16, or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. If the player is offered a minimum of the average of the top five salaries of last season at his position, or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, he becomes a "non-exclusive" franchise player and can negotiate with other clubs. His old club can match a new club's offer, or receive two first-round draft choices if it decides not to match.
Q -- Can a club decide to withdraw its franchise or transition designations on a player? If so, can it then use them on other players?
A -- A club can withdraw its franchise or transition designations and the player then automatically becomes an unrestricted free agent either immediately or when his contract expires. The club cannot name a new transition player (two allowed in 1993, one in 1994 and one in the final year of the CBA). It can name a new franchise player the next year. A club can, though, designate a transition player in lieu of a franchise player at any time.
Q – What determines each team's salary cap? Is it always in effect?
A – The salary cap is the maximum each club may spend on player salaries in a capped year. For 2004, that amounts to 64.75 percent of league-wide "Defined Gross Revenues" (divided by 32 teams), made up of preseason, regular-season and postseason gate receipts and radio and television rights. The cap is in effect 365 days a year. From March 3 to the day before the season begins, a club's top 51 salaried players count towards the cap, plus pro-rated signing bonuses, incentives, etc., but not base salaries of other players on the roster up to 80. Thereafter, all salaries on a club's roster count towards the cap. The maximum salary cap for 2004 is $80,582,000 per club. The minimum club salary is $67,337,000. Player benefits are $12,865,000 per club above the salary cap number.