Front Office University: Free Agency

What's the deal with free agents? Who can be negotiated with and who is hands-off? Who gets to choose what kind of contract they take and who has to take what's given to them? Let's take a look at the rules for free agency and find out!

Unrestricted Free Agents

An unrestricted free agent is any player who has accrued 4 seasons of service and whose contract has expired. They are free to negotiate with and sign with any franchise.

Undrafted Free Agents

Undrafted free agents are a subset of unrestricted free agents - they can negotiate and sign with any team, since they have no contract when they become eligible for the league.

Buffalo's Unrestricted Free Agents

Here is a list of Buffalo's unrestricted free agents for this year, according to Rotoworld:

Jairus Byrd
Tashard Choice
Tarvaris Jackson
Spencer Johnson
Andy Levitre
Ruvell Martin
Corey McIntyre
Leodis McKelvin
Shawne Merriman
Kyle Moore
Bryan Scott
Tyler Thigpen

Restricted Free Agents

A restricted free agents is a free agent with at least three years of accrued seasons, who has received a "qualifying offer" (certain level of salary offered) from his current team. He can negotiate with any other team until a certain date. If he makes a deal with another team, the current team has "right of first refusal." They have one week (seven days) to match the offer and retain their player, or choose not to, in which case they get compensated depending on the level of qualifying offer they made.

Table of Different RFA Tenders

Here is a table of the different qualifying offers a team can give their restricted free agents:

Tender Amount Compensation Required
$2.742 million First-round
$1.927 million Second-round
$1.26 million Determined by RFA's original draft status (see below)

Each player that signs a tender receives the one-year salary their tender allocates. If a team chooses not to match another team's offer for their tendered player who received the lowest-level tender, they receive a draft pick from that team corresponding to the round in which the player was originally drafted, except that the highest round pick they can receive is a second round pick.

Buffalo's Restricted Free Agents

Here is a table of Buffalo's Restricted Free Agents and the original round they were drafted at, according to Rotoworld:

Player Name Round drafted in
Donald Jones UDFA
Colin Brown UDFA
Mike Caussin UDFA
David Nelson UDFA
Chad Rinehart 3rd round

Exclusive Rights Free Agents

An Exclusive Rights Free Agent is a player whose contract has ended, but who has only two years of accrued seasons. If his current club makes him an offer at the minimum salary for a 3-year veteran, he has to take it or leave the NFL for the year. These guys have no rights to negotiate - they're only "free" in the sense that they're free to quit. If, however, the club chooses not to retain him, he becomes an unrestricted free agent for that season.

Buffalo's Exclusive Rights Free Agent

According to Rotoworld, Dorin Dickerson is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent with the Bills in 2013. Buffalo can make him an offer at the three year veteran minimum salary of $630,000 per year, and he must accept it.

The Franchise Tag

"Tagging" a player is giving them an offer that locks them up for a single season with a high salary. It's usually used for star players whom the team hasn't been able to sign to a long-term deal yet. There are two kinds of franchise tag; the Exclusive Franchise Tag, and the Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag, and there is another "tag," the Transition Tag.

Exclusive Franchise Tag

An "exclusive" franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player's position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams. The player's team has all the negotiating rights to the exclusive player.

The "exclusive" franchise tag locks in a player without letting them negotiate, but comes with a slightly higher price than the non-exclusive franchise tag, as it measures the top 5 salaries at the exact moment, instead of the previous 5 years, which are cheaper due to inflation.

Non-Exclusive Franchise Tag

A "non-exclusive" franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player's position for the "previous five years", or 120 percent of the player's previous year's salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if he signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.

The non-exclusive franchise tag doesn't guarantee that a player will stay with his team, because it's possible for him to negotiate with other teams. But it's a little cheaper, and in the instances where a star player has become a problem (Chris Johnson), it could have allowed a team to keep him around without signing him to an expensive contract, or to replace him with 2 first rounders from the team that signs him away.

Transition Tag

It guarantees the original club the right of first refusal to match any offer the player may make with another team. The transition tag can be used once a year by each club unless they elect to use a franchise tag instead. Transition tags can be rescinded; however, teams that rescind a transition tag cannot use it again until the next season. Transition tags are almost never used – in recent times, only Max Starks in 2008 and Steve Hutchinson in 2006 had the Transition tag applied.

Essentially, the Transition tag allows a team to hold one of their free agents hostage - they don't need to negotiate with him, and if another team signs him, they can take him back for the same contract. Teams either have to overbid for a player's services, try a fair market price and hope the original team doesn't bite, or switch to some dirty contract practices - for example, the "poison pill" - to ensure the original team can't "match" the offer they gave.

Don’t expect to see it used anytime soon, though – it gives a team a bad reputation due to the unfair rules it imposes. If you're interested in the history of the Transition tag, look into Steve Hutchinson's free agency situation in 2006.

Franchising a player multiple times

If a player is franchise tagged, multiple years in a row, different rules than usual apply. In the second year in a row, their salary is automatically set to 120% of their previous year's franchise tag salary. If the player is franchised a third year in a row, it becomes 144% of their second year salary.

Here's an example: If you had a player signed for $10 million and you franchise him for one year, his salary becomes 120% of his previous salary, and becomes $12 million. If you can't come to an agreement in that year, and franchise him again, his salary becomes 120% of $12 million, or $14.4 million. If you still aren't able to come to an agreement, and franchise the player for a third year in a row, his salary becomes 144% of $14.4 million, or a whopping $20.74 million! At this point, hopefully you're smart enough to realize you just signed your player to the largest single-year salary in NFL history, and you won't franchise them again in the fourth year to learn what THAT new salary is. As you can see, it's in teams' best interests to sign their players to long term contracts, not continuously franchise them year after year.

Further Reading

In the first article, I linked you as I went. This time, there were only a few relevant pages, so I'll just link them down here so you can browse them if you're interested in learning more about the free agency rules:

Wikipedia: Explanation of the Exclusive Rights Free Agent

Wikipedia: Explanation of the Restricted Free Agent

Wikipedia: Explanation of the Transition Tag

Wikipedia: Explanation of the Franchise Tag

Cal Science: Explanation of Free Agency in general (slightly outdated)

Rotoworld: Listing of Buffalo's players and contracts, including information about free agents in 2013

UPDATE 12/18/2012: Kraig Urbik has been signed to a 4 year, $15 million contract, and is no longer an RFA.

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