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Free Agency Guidelines Explained

A review of what each type is called and how it affects your Browns

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Cornerback T.J. Carrie (#38) signed last year on the first day of free agency with the Browns after four seasons with the Raiders
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If there is one thing the NFL is exceptional at, is that there isn’t any off-season for fans. Yes, the games ended with the Super Bowl in February, but throughout the year there is always something new to converse about that will spark an interest on how to improve your favorite squad.

In January, there are the various college All-Star games such as the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game which allows players to go against the better talent to see where their ability matches up - or down. Many a player has seen their stock rise a full round with a successful week at the one of these games.

Just concluded was the NFL combine in Indianapolis where selected players showed off their speed, skills and were accurately measured. Since last weekend’s combine event, fans have more knowledge of athletes at every position and have new stuff to talk about.

The NFL college draft begins April 25. Already, fans and draft sites are all abuzz about who to take and why, which players have moved up or down, or what positions each team needs more desperately than others.

And then, there is the free agency period.

But what exactly is free agency, when does it begin and who qualifies to become a free agent?

The Importance of March

Back in the day, February and March were the months that every NFL player, scout, coach and front office personnel took off to relax and find somewhere warm to chill. Not anymore. Now, the month of March is a very important league period for two reasons: preparation for the draft, and the launch of free agency.

The free agency period begins March 13 at 4 p.m. (EST). Why 4 p.m. Eastern Time? Because in the NFL, 4 p.m. is usually the beginning or the ending for whatever event is scheduled. And the NFL offices are located in New York City, which is on Eastern Time.

A player qualifies to become a free agent with at least four accrued seasons and is no longer under contract.

There are three types of free agents: 1. Unrestricted free agents (UFA), 2. Restricted free agents (RFA) and 3. Exclusive rights free agents (ERFA). With each of these designations, there are terms which place each player into a certain category.

UFA’s may sign with any team at any time and are no longer under contract with their respective club. RFA’s allow the player’s current team the ability to designation value “tenders” which then allows the host team the right of first refusal. ERFA’s are no longer under contract with a franchise but have less than three accrued seasons.

Here are some add-ons to each. With the RFA’s, the host team can match any offer by another team. If the host club passes and allows the player to move on, the host team then receives a compensatory draft pick in next year’s draft based on that player’s performance. If an ERFA player receives a contract offer from his host team prior to the first day of the league year, he can only sign with that club. Prior to the free agency period, UFA’s may only sign with their host team but after the free agency period begins they are free to make any deal with any team.

It used to be that negotiations could not begin until 4 p.m. on the designated free agency period start date, but now players and agents are allowed to begin this process a few days earlier and make deals. This year that date is March 11. The free agency period concludes April 20.

The Salary Cap

Unlike other professional sports leagues, the NFL has a hard salary cap to which all teams must abide by. The reason for the cap is simple: the league is only as strong as its weakest team. Parity is an important aspect of the fabric of the league and is why a 4-12-0 Rams club in 2016 can end up playing in the Super Bowl just a few short years later.

Otherwise, the NFL would become like the NBA where several of the best players congregate and dominate every season. This drives away interest in the cities that never have a chance of success or affects the smaller market clubs.

This year, the NFL salary cap is $188.2 million per club, an increase of $11 million per team over last year. It has been reported the Browns have $67.59 in available cap space this year so their free agency spending should be fierce and many a quality player will shortly call Berea, Ohio home. Every club must be in compliance with the league’s salary cap on March 13 and remain under the guidelines all season.

Teams that do not spend all of their funds may roll that amount over into the following year.

Other Designations

In addition to adding to the Browns’ roster via free agency, each NFL club can designate a current roster player as a “franchise player.” This is always a player who would become an UFA or a RFA. This permits the franchise to retain that player’s talents for another season. With this title, there are also three different types: 1) Exclusive franchise, 2) Non-exclusive franchise, and 3). Transition.

The Exclusive franchise tag means the club will keep the player and he cannot sign with another team. However, the salary for this designation usually is much greater than what the club would normally pay.

The Non-exclusive tag is the most widely used. This allows any other club the ability to sign that player but gives the host team the ability to match the offer. Conversely, the host club would receive two first-round draft picks as compensation if the player leaves which is a very steep price.

The Transition tag is exactly like the Non-exclusive tag, but when another NFL team signs the player the host club does not receive any draft picks as compensation.

Either tag allows that the player is paid the average of the highest players in the league at that particular position. This means the “franchise player” usually receives more money for that one season than if he was under contract. The reason teams “tag” players is usually contract negotiations have broken down or the club/player cannot work out a solid deal. The team doesn’t want to lose the player, so the “tag” is applied. This will also allow the GM and the player’s agent more time to work on an extended contract.

Each NFL club is allowed to designate one player with any of the three franchise player titles per season. This year the period to tag players was from February 19 to March 5. The Browns did not add the franchise tag to any of their players this year.

What all this does basically is allow fans to bring up new subjects year-round and keeps the NFL on the tongues and minds of the folks who are loyal followers.