The NFL Free Agency

Joseph Choe, Staff Writer

NFL Free Agency is often chaotic and can be quite difficult to comprehend for the casual fan. During the free agency period, general managers— the executive of the team— use their intuition to the best of their ability to bring in the best players available to their team, budget permitting. A good general manager can be the key to a team’s success or its downfall. They negotiate contracts, recruit players, and hire coaches that they believe will elevate their team’s level of play.

Free agency. What is it? When a player joins a team, the first thing they do is  sign a contract. In exchange for his play, he will be paid x amount of dollars, for x amount of years. When that player has played until his contract hits its expiration, he can do two things. The first option is to re-sign with that team, which means the general manager and the player renegotiates a different and separate contract for the next years. The second option for that player is to become a free agent. If that player feels that he is being underpaid for his play, or if the team feels that the player is not good enough and not worth another contract, they can release him. When the player becomes a free agent, he is free to meet with other teams, and can join the team that presents the greatest pay or opportunities.

Every year, the NFL sets a cap on salary. For 2017, the salary cap for the NFL was set at $167,000,000. This means in the 2017-2018 season, teams cannot exceed the limit and spend more money on players than allowed by the league. The purpose of the salary cap is to ensure that all teams have equal access to players, so large market teams don’t outspend the small market teams by ginormous sums of money. If a team spends under the salary cap, that team can carryover the money that was not spent into the next season. So, as a general manager, one is required to keep their team under budget, or pay hefty fines to the league.

There are two main types of free agency: unrestricted and restricted. An unrestricted free agent is allowed to sign with any team that he wishes to. Think of this as a classic auction, in which the highest bidder wins. A restricted free agent is one whose team has control where he can or cannot sign with. If the original team offers the player a contract extension, he cannot sign with another team. However, if the original team does not negotiate a contract, and the free agent is offered a contract from another team, and the original team can match that offer and retain the player. If the original team does not match the offer, depending on certain circumstances, the new team will be forced to send the original team draft picks or money. Imagine restricted free agency as an opportunity for a player to test the waters in the market, and the team having the freedom to end the contract early if the player is not worth his salary. Whether or not a player is a restricted or unrestricted free agent is negotiated in the contract prior to signing.

It’s not surprising to most people that the NFL is a business. However, it is surprising to most people when they learn about the complexity of the system, which can take advantage of unsuspecting or uneducated players. It is expected that the NFL Players’ Association will attempt to negotiate free agency rules to benefit players more and allow them more freedom, but the rules will only change if the owners agree. We may see a shift in the economic and fiscal approaches that players will take when it comes to free agency.