Each spring, as the NFL's free agency period begins, teams have to decide whether it's worth it to take the plunge into the talent pool. This year, however, those teams will have a chance to ease their way into the water.
Since 1993, the beginning of the new league year in March has brought with it the sudden opening of the free agent market. One day, players with expiring contracts are bound to a team and subsequently off limits to all others; the next day, at the stroke of midnight, (or, in recent years, at 4:00 p.m.), they can talk to whomever they wish.
Thus deals for the most coveted players were officially struck in the hurried first few hours of free agency, sometimes in the dead of night. It was something of a zero-to-sixty process. Recognizing the awkwardness of this procedure, the NFL has come up with a new method, beginning in 2013.
The 2013 league year will begin at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 12. That remains the soonest that a free agent could sign with a new team. However, there is now a three-day period in which club representatives are allowed to speak with the certified agents of players who are going to become unrestricted free agents. From March 9-11 this year, teams can even enter into contract negotiations with those agents, though nothing can be finalized before the 12th.
The upshot is that teams intending to make significant use of free agency this year should be able to open the market with at least an idea of what they may be able to accomplish. Of course, the three-day "grace period" may also allow pending free agents more of a window to shop their services between several teams, or between a new team and their original club. Since this is the first year under the new system, there is likely to be something of a learning curve for teams, players and agents as the implications of the three-day lead-up become clearer.
This new period only applies to pending unrestricted free agents, and not to restricted or exclusive rights free agents. An unrestricted free agent is a player who has accrued four seasons of free agency credit and has an expiring contract. Players who have three years of free agency credit and have been extended a tender offer by their original team are restricted free agents, and that brings with it such things as right-of-first-refusal and draft-pick compensation. Players with fewer than three years of free agency credit and an expiring contract are exclusive rights free agents and can only negotiate with their original clubs as long as they have received tender offers.
That kind of behind-the-scenes work – extending tender offers and tending to the upcoming salary cap – will occupy teams in the coming weeks, as will the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and a handful of regional combines. Still, March 12 is the next enormous day on the NFL calendar, and it is sure to be as eventful as every free agency opening, with big-name players holding up new jerseys in new cities. Last spring, it happened to be the Buccaneers who made the biggest splash, signing Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright in rapid fashion. The only difference this time around is that there may be a little more advanced warning.