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Explaining the NFL Free Agency terms and terminology

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NFL free agency terms can seem complicated, but under the hood, they are not so confusing.

Divisional Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The offseason is officially here for the Pittsburgh Steelers but that does not mean NFL fans go into hibernation -- nor do their beloved teams. The NFL's offseason can be as action packed as any time during the regular season. This can also be a confusing time for NFL fans as there are lots of twists and turns and contract terminology that might be confusing. Time to clear up some of that terminology.

Credited season (CS)

This term is used to describe the benefit level a player will receive once they retire from the NFL. CS is any season in which an NFL player has been on a team's roster for at least three games. It includes both active and inactive roster, injured reserve (IR), and physically unable to perform (PUP). Suspended players, such as Martavis Bryant, do not accrue time toward CS.

Accrued season (AS)

AS is used to determine a player’s free-agent (FA) eligibility when his contract expires. A player must be on a team's active or inactive roster, PUP or IR list for a minimum of six games to gain an AS. Players on a team's practice squad, or who are suspended or on the non-football injury list (NFI), do not accrue an NFL season.

The three designations of free agents.

Unrestricted free agents (UFA)

This term is the most familiar to fans. These players are not under contract with any NFL team and can freely sign with any team. Le'Veon Bell will become a UFA when the new league year starts March 9. He will be eligible to negotiate a contract with any other team. The only thing that could prevent this from happening would be a team's use of a franchise tag.

Restricted free agent (RFA)

The thing that makes RFA players unique is that they have less than three years of AS when their contracts expire. In these cases, the player’s current NFL team holds his rights. They are tendered a one-year contract by their current team at one of three levels, first, second or original draft status (also referred to as low). Ross Cockrell will become an RFA in 2017. As he was originally drafted in the fourth round, the Steelers could designate him as an original round tender. If another team came along and offered him a contract and the Steelers decided not to match it within five days -- Pitt would receive the other team's highest fourth round pick. (The team would not be eligible to make the offer if they did not have a corresponding pick in that round.) The more likely scenario is that the Steelers tender Cockrell -- second round, which means the Steelers would receive a team's highest second round pick as compensation if they did not match the other team’s offer to Cockrell. If a player is not tendered, he automatically becomes a UFA. Once a player is tendered, he immediately counts against the salary cap and the contract is fully guaranteed.

Exclusive rights free agents (ERFA)

This tag has such a ridiculous name. They are not free to do anything. These players have less than two AS. Unlike RFA players, there is no concern about other teams vulturing these players. They are generally tendered at the league minimum with no bonus. Alejandro Villanueva is the Steelers most prominent ERFA, and it would not be too surprising to see him sign his tender and then for the Steelers to start banging out a new contract. If a new deal is not worked out in 2017, then AV would become an RFA in 2018.

The three different tags that can be applied to a player.

Once any of these tags are placed on a player that player’s salary immediately counts against the salary cap. Only one tag can be applied per team per year. That means if a team does not have the salary cap space to absorb the hit, they are unable to place the tag on a player.

Non-exclusive franchise tag

The non-exclusive franchise tag is a one-year contract that pays the player no less than the average of the top five cap hits in the past five years, at his position, or 120 percent of the player's current salary, whichever is greater. The salary of the player is fully guaranteed. There is one condition to this. The player must “establish or maintain his excellent physical condition”. If that condition isn’t met, the contract can be terminated, and at that point, the player is able to negotiate a contract with other teams. If the current team declines to match the offer it receives two first-rounders as compensation. The non-exclusive franchise tag is the most commonly used franchise tag because it is generally not as expensive as the exclusive franchise tag. This would be the tag the Steelers will presumably use on Le'Veon Bell. It will reportedly come at a cost of $12.377 million. Bell can try to work out a long-term contract with any team as long as he does not sign the tender. July 15th is the last day to work out a long-term deal.

Exclusive franchise tag.

This tag is a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average salary of the top five players at a given player’s position during the current league year or 120 percent of the player’s current salary, whichever is higher. Exclusive franchise tagged players are not eligible to negotiate with other teams. A team may only use one of the tags on one player per season. A tag can be used multiple years, but doing so is very costly. If a player is tagged a second year, he would make 120 percent of his previous salary. If tagged for a third season, the increase would be to 144 percent of his previous salary.

Transition tag

The transition tag pays a player the average of the top ten salaries of players in the league in that position or 120 percent of the players current salary, whichever is greater. As with the non-exclusive tag, a transition-tagged player is free to negotiate with other teams. If an offer sheet is extended to the player his current team has seven days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, there is no compensation.