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NFL 101: Freedom Isn't Free (Agency)

In the NFL's version of Free Agency, "free" has three meanings: "you are free," "you are free if I say you are free," and "you are free to think you are free, even though you aren't."

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL season is full of jargon that can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated: what is a "football move", for example. But, if in-season talk can be a little troublesome, the off-season conversations are oftentimes downright mind boggling. This series of "primers", known as "NFL 101", aims to break down the communication barriers between Joe and Jane Football Fan and those of use who obsess over every detail.

Employment in the NFL is unique, to say the least. Teams and players are contractually obligated to stay together for a set amount of time -- except that they aren’t. Contracts in the NFL are about as binding as a piece of thread to a gorilla.

In most professional fields and in most states, we as employees can come and go as we please. The majority of states are known as "at will" states, meaning both the employee and the employer have the right to terminate employment at any time, for almost any reason, with or without prior notice.

Because long-term service to a single team is beneficial to both team and player, there is an imperative in each party making a commitment to one another. And the current model of free agency is a darned sight better than what it used to be, all the way back to a time when there was no such concept.

Many people today think free agency in the NFL began in 1993, because that date gets thrown around on T.V. a lot. But free agency has existed in the NFL since the 1940s. It was just very, very different from what it is now. What changed in 1993 was the abolition of "Plan B" Free Agency -- basically, teams could protect up to 37 of their players from normal free agency, giving a player’s current team the right of first refusal on new contracts. This was shot down under U.S. antitrust laws. That paved the way for modern free agency, but it’s not really any less confusing, because now players fall into one of three buckets. And that doesn’t even count Franchise and Transition Tags.

Unrestricted Free Agents

As the name suggests, an unrestricted free agent (UFA, not to be confused with an Undrafted Free Agent -- UDFA -- which we will cover when we get into the NFL Draft) is a free agent who is free to sign with any team he chooses. He is, by definition, unrestricted in his quest for his next payday. In order to become a UFA, a player must have accrued at least four seasons in the league. Under the current rookie contract structure, this would apply to any player drafted in the second round or later who has played his entire rookie contract. First-round picks have an additional stipulation in their contracts where the drafting team has the right to exercise an optional fifth year under their rookie contract. Again, we will detail that concept when we get to the draft. What’s important here is that it’s possible for a first-round pick to have made it to his fifth year without the possibility of becoming a free agent.

Restricted Free Agents

Restricted free agents (unsurprisingly referred to as RFAs) are players who have reached free agency by any means after their third accrued season. Often, these are undrafted players, who can be signed to contracts of fewer than four years, or young players who were cut for any reason prior to completion of their fourth season, and who have received a "qualifying offer" from the team that held their rights the previous season. While UFAs can sign with any team without imposed conditions, RFAs who have received a qualifying offer have the right to negotiate a contract with any team, but their old team has the right to match that offer. If the old team matches, the player remains with that team. If the team declines to match, they may be entitled to receive an additional draft pick from the league, depending on the level of the qualifying offer given to the player.

If the player does not sign a contract with another team before the end of the RFA signing period, his rights revert to his old team exclusively.

The player also has the option of simply signing the qualifying offer. In this case, the player is no longer free to negotiate with other teams as soon as he signs the offer. Typically, this happens in one of two cases: 1) the player does not anticipate generating much interested in free agency, or 2) his market value has been set by negotiations with other teams at a value lower than the qualifying offer.

Exclusive-Rights Free Agents

If a player becomes a free agent before they have accrued three seasons, the team can make them a qualifying offer, just like with RFAs. However, these contracts tend to be short and for minimal salary. Once the offer has been extended, these players are not eligible to negotiate with any other team. If they refuse to sign the qualifying offer, they cannot sign with another team and must sit out the season.

If you aren’t thoroughly confused yet, just wait until we get to Franchise and Transition tags. Maybe we will start with something a little more comprehensible though. Rocket Science, perhaps?