A year ago, the NFL and its players spent a long offseason hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement, followed by a very brief and frenzied free agency period.
The new CBA changed some of the free agency landscape, mostly in terms of (eventually) pumping up the salary cap and making the franchise tags more palatable to team management, as was evidenced by a record 21 teams making use of that option this year. For the most part, however, the open market process is the same as it has been since the modern NFL free agency era began with the first CBA in 1993.
So, with the familiar rules in place and an enormous field of roughly 600 players about to hit the market, the 2012 free agency period begins at 4:00 EDT on Tuesday. Expect phones to be ringing around the NFL by 4:01.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be burning up their phone lines as soon as the bell rings. General Manager Mark Dominik has confirmed on several occasions that it is his team's intention to be more active in free agency than it has been the last few years. Dominik, of course, didn't reveal the Bucs' specific targets, and there will be 31 other teams clambering for some of the same players. Still, this looks as if it will be the most interesting start to free agency for Buccaneer fans since 2008, when center Jeff Faine got a big new deal to come to Tampa and a few other useful parts in Jimmy Wilkerson and John Gilmore came aboard.
In anticipation of the market opening its doors late Tuesday afternoon, let's review the rules of free agency, as released by the league office in Q&A form two days ago. We'll also add any relevant notes as they relate to the Buccaneers and their potential free agency dealings.
Q. When does the 2012 free agency signing period begin?
A. At 4:00 PM ET on Tuesday, March 13.
Note: That time will also be the official beginning of the 2012 league year; until then, contracts from 2011 were still in affect. That meant the last couple months were actually an exclusive negotiating period for teams and their own pending free agents. It was against league rules for teams to contact potential free agents until their contracts officially expired on Tuesday afternoon. One would thus expect their to be a bit of a lag after 4:00 p.m. as teams reach out to their targeted players for the first time. However, history tells us that the biggest deals usually come together very quickly because the competition for the top free agents is intense.
Q. What are the categories of free agency?
A. Players are either "restricted" or "unrestricted" free agents. Within the categories are also "franchise" and "transition" players.
Note: For the most part, fans following free agency only need to concern themselves with the unrestricted free agents who did not receive franchise tags. Except for players with exclusive franchise tags (in this case, only New Orleans QB Drew Brees), players in all of those categories can negotiate with other teams and potentially change NFL addresses. However, the RFAs and tagged players all come with right-of-first-refusal options by their original teams, and the draft-pick compensation that must be paid to sign away one of those players is usually too severe to consider. There are occasional exceptions – perhaps another team will believe it's worth giving up its first-round pick to snatch WR Mike Wallace from the Pittsburgh Steelers – but almost all of the players in those groups will return to their original teams.
Q. What is the time period for free agency signings this year?
A. For restricted free agents, from March 13 to April 20. For unrestricted free agents who have received the June 1 tender from their prior Club, from March 13 to July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later). For franchise players, from March 13 until the Tuesday following the 10th week of the regular season, November 13. If a franchise player does not sign by November 13, he must sit out the season. There are no transition player designations this year.
Note: The reason the signing period for restricted free agents is shorter than it is for unrestricted free agents is the aforementioned draft-pick compensation issue. Using Wallace as an example again, if another team did sign him to an offer sheet, the Steelers would have the option of matching that offer or letting him walk and taking the draft pick. Since the compensation relates to this year's draft, such decisions obviously have to be made before it begins. As always, teams are given a week to decide on whether to match an offer to an RFA, thus the deadline is one week before the beginning of the 2012 draft.
Q. What is the difference between a restricted free agent and an unrestricted free agent?
A*. *In the 2012 League Year, players with three accrued seasons become restricted free agents when their contracts expire. Unrestricted free agents have completed four or more accrued seasons. An unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any club with no draft choice compensation owed to his old club.
Note: This is the most significant area in which the CBA and free agency stayed with the rules it has had in place since 1993. During the somewhat unusual offseasons that led up to last year's labor impasse and the eventual new agreement, the rules on RFAs and UFAs changed, and some players who would have hit free agency sooner had to wait a bit longer. Former Buccaneers linebacker Barrett Ruud is a good example. The new CBA restored the original order, and players now become unrestricted free agents after four seasons, assuming their contracts have expired. That is one of the major reasons why this year's free agency class is so large.
Q. What constitutes an "accrued season? "
A. Six or more regular-season games on a club's active/inactive, reserved/injured or reserve/physically unable to perform lists.
Note: This part can be a little confusing, but it really only comes into play with players who bounce around a little bit in their early seasons before becoming established. WR Micheal Spurlock, for instance, just completed his fourth accrued season even though he first entered the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. He didn't record an accrued season that year because he spent most of it on Arizona's practice squad before a very late promotion. Spurlock also spent all of 2008 on Tampa Bay's practice squad, and thus did not accrue any free agency credit that year. It's important to note that time spent on injured reserve does count; as an example, Buccaneers CB E.J. Biggers has accrued three seasons of credit including the rookie campaign he spent on I.R.
*Q. Other than accrued seasons, what determines a restricted free agent? *
A. He has received a "qualifying offer" (a salary tender predetermined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players) from his old club. He can negotiate with any club through April 20. If the restricted free agent signs an offer sheet with a new club, his old club can match the offer and retain him because it has a "right of first refusal." If the old club does not match the offer, it may receive draft choice compensation depending on the amount of its qualifying offer. If an offer sheet is not executed on or before April 20, the player's negotiating rights revert exclusively to his old club.
Note: A potential restricted free agent who doesn't get a qualifying offer from his team becomes an unrestricted free agent. The Buccaneers had three potential RFAs on their list, and gave tender offers to DE Michael Bennett and T Demar Dotson. There are different levels of qualifying offers a team can choose, which then determine the amount of compensation that would be required for another team to sign that player away. The Buccaneers have not disclosed the levels of the qualifying offers they extended to Bennett or Dotson, but outside reports suggest it would take a first-round pick to sign Bennett away. The team did not extend an offer to potential RFA RB Kregg Lumpkin.
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 draft choice compensation owed to his old club, through July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later). At that point, his negotiating rights revert exclusively to his old club if by June 1 the old club tendered the player a one-year contract for 110 percent of his prior year's salary. His old club then has until the Tuesday following the 10th week of the regular season (November 13) to sign him. If he does not sign by that date, 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.
Note: The Bucs had 12 potential unrestricted free agents when the offseason started but reduced that by one last week with the re-signing of their top priority, OL Jeremy Zuttah. In addition, K Connor Barth received Tampa Bay's franchise tag, which means it is exceedingly likely he will re-sign with the Bucs. The team has also spoken to CB Ronde Barber to let him know they would welcome his return, but Barber is still mulling over whether to play a 16th season. In addition to Barber, the 2011 Buccaneers who will become UFAs at 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday (not including Barth) are Spurlock, FB Earnest Graham, DT Jovan Haye, LB Geno Hayes, QB Josh Johnson, S Sean Jones, T James Lee, S Corey Lynch and CB Elbert Mack.
Q. What determines a franchise player?
A. The salary offer by a player's club determines what type of franchise player he is: exclusive or non-exclusive.
An "exclusive" franchise player – not free to sign with another club – is offered the greater of (i) the average of the top five salaries at the player's position for the current year as of the end of the Restricted Free Agent Signing Period on April 20; or (ii) the amount of the Required Tender for a non exclusive franchise player, as explained below.
The methodology for calculating the Required Tender for a non exclusive franchise player has changed. Formerly, such players were tendered a one year NFL Player Contract for the average of the five largest Prior Year Salaries for players at the position at which the Franchise Player played the most games during the prior League Year, or 120% of his Prior Year Salary, whichever is greater.
Article 10, Section 2(a)(i) of the CBA sets forth the new methodology, known as the "Cap Percentage Average," for calculating the Required Tender for such a player:
The Nonexclusive Franchise Tender shall be a one year NFL Player Contract for (A) the average of the five largest Prior Year Salaries for players at the position . . . at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays [formerly, "games"] during the prior League Year, which average shall be calculated by: (1) summing the amounts of the Franchise Tags for players at that position for the five preceding League Years; (2) dividing the resulting amount by the sum of the Salary Caps for the five preceding League Years . . . ; and (3) multiplying the resulting percentage by the Salary Cap for the upcoming League Year . . . (the "Cap Percentage Average") . . . ; or (B) 120% of his Prior Year Salary, whichever is greater . . . .
If a club extends a Required Tender to a non exclusive franchise player pursuant to this section, the player shall be permitted to negotiate a player contract with any club, except that draft choice compensation of two first-round draft selections shall be made in the event he signs with a new club.
Note: The key to take out of all of that: Even non-exclusive franchise tags make a player's move to a new team very unlikely, because the new team would have to send two first-round draft picks back to the original club. The Saints used the exclusive type of tag on Brees, presumably because they could envision another team coughing up two firsts for a quarterback of his caliber. The other 20 teams all went with non-exclusive tags on their franchise-tagged players, non of whom are quarterbacks.
Q. How many franchise and transition players can a team designate each season?
A. A club can designate one "franchise" player or one "transition" player among its potential free agents.
Note: No team used a transition tag this year.
Q. Can a club decide to withdraw its franchise or transition designations on a player?
A. Yes. A club can withdraw its franchise or transition designation and the player then automatically becomes an unrestricted free agent, either immediately or when his contract expires.
Note: A team can even remove a franchise tag from its designated player and then sign him to a long-term deal. The advantage to that is it keeps the franchise tag from being locked up for multiple years. If a player signs a new long-term contract while the tag is in place, the tag remains off the table for the life of that contract. Removing the tag before finalizing the deal, however, carries the inherent risk that the player will use his reacquired freedom to move on instead.
Q. After withdrawing the designation, can a club then designate another player?
A*. *Not in the 2012 season.
Q. What is the salary cap for 2012?
A. The salary cap is $120,600,000 per club.
Q. When do teams have to be in compliance with that number and be under the cap?
A. At the start of the 2012 League Year, which begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 13.
Note: That is why some veterans who are not pending free agents usually get cut in the days leading up to the beginning of the new league year. A player can have a contract that does not put his team in cap trouble in 2011 but would if it continues into 2012. At the moment that the new league year begins, the player's 2012 number takes affect and must be accounted for under the new cap.
Q. If a team is under the salary cap at the end of a given season, can the team carry over room to the next season?
A. Yes. A team may "carry over" room from one League Year to the following League Year by submitting notice to the NFL prior to 4:00 p.m. ET on the day before the team's final regular-season game indicating the maximum amount of room that the club wishes to carry over.
Q. What is the maximum amount of room that a club can carry over?
A. One hundred percent of its remaining room.
Note: The Buccaneers have carried over all of their leftover cap space from 2011 into 2012. Dominik declined to reveal what that specific number is or what it means the Bucs' overall cap space is in 2012, but it clearly will help the team's negotiating power this spring.