Following the Super Bowl in early February, NFL fans are often at a loss for the drama and thrill provided by professional football. Fortunately, mid-March brings NFL free agency, which can often be a whirlwind of news and excitement for NFL fans.
The blockbuster deals made during the free agency period can shift the balance of power in the league, with teams breaking the bank for players that may or may not pan out. Considering what a monumental role free agency can have, it’s hard to think of March as any sort of offseason.
Birth of NFL Free Agency
In 1989, the NFL instituted the use of “Plan B Free Agency”, in which teams could restrict thirty seven players from their roster from signing with other teams. While the unrestricted players were free to sign with other teams, teams could match any offer of another team for the thirty seven they restricted. The NFL was sued in 1992 by eight players who won the right to a true free agency. Among those players was Reggie White, who was the first major free agent signing. White left the Eagles to sign with the Packers, where he would help lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. The current system allows for players to receive their actual market value once their contracts expire with their teams. Previously, teams had an incredible amount of leverage negotiating contracts.
NFL teams retained some of this power by way of the Franchise Tag. The Franchise Tag allows teams to restrict free agents by placing them under a one year contract comparable to the top players at his position. This can be used once per year by teams that are unable to negotiate satisfactory contracts with players they hope to keep.
Restricted Free Agents
The other exception to today’s free agency is that of restricted free agency, which applies to players with expired contracts after three seasons in the NFL. Teams have the right to offer a tender on a restricted free agent if contract is not reached. If another team attempts to sign the player, the original team can choose to match the offer or accept compensation for the player in the form of a draft pick.
NFL Salary Cap
Part of what keeps a competitive balance among the NFL is the salary cap. Unlike the MLB, in which large market teams are able to buy the best rosters, each NFL team has the same ceiling of money that can be spent. Many teams are still bigger spenders than others in free agency, but this has more to do with a team’s philosophy or the owner’s willingness to spend.
The NFL’s revenue sharing and newly added salary floor, which institutes a minimum level of spending, helps to eliminate notoriously cheap owners bringing down their teams.
The NFL’s salary cap system creates a more unpredictable free agency period. Rather than knowing that the New York Yankees will land the top free agents, as is the case in the MLB, any team is a potential player when free agency opens in the MLB.
NFL Free Agency Today
Today, free agents are the beneficiaries of a spending frenzies and escalating contracts. Each year, players that weren’t highly regarded going into the free agency period sign relatively enormous contracts.
These signings can help bolster a roster or serve to waste a team’s money on a player who turns out to be overrated. When seeing these initial numbers, it’s also important to keep in mind that the reports of contracts are inflated by incentive based money; the guaranteed amount is usually much lower. Most free agents tend to sign quickly, often on the first day.
Others choose to take a tour of the NFL and weigh their options among teams, as Peyton Manning did in 2012. Free agency can make contenders out of bottom dweller or blow up on teams too eager to spend. The free agent period, when done correctly, is an important part of building a team and becoming a championship team.