Free agency 101
This is the time of year when you're going to be assaulted by all sorts of terms that perhaps you've heard but never truly understood: restricted free agents, exclusive rights free agents, right of first refusal, tenders, you name it.
Don't fear. Here's a little rundown, in layman's terms, of some of the more common references you need to be familiar with in this season of free agency. The signing period begins Feb. 29.
*Franchise/transition players: Thursday at 4 p.m. is the deadline for clubs to designate a franchise or transition player. Doing so allows a team to protect a single free agent it might otherwise be hard-pressed to keep. Some teams will tag a player as an "exclusive" franchise player, meaning he can't negotiate with any other team. That requires the team commit to a higher salary, however. For slightly less money, the team can designate a player a plain ol' franchise player. Under that scenario, the team retains the right to match any competing offer and, if he is signed by another team, that club must compensate the player's former team with two first-round draft picks. You can see why this almost never happens.
Transition players are dealt with much in the same way, except the salary involved is less. It's a one-year offer equal to the average of the 10 highest-paid players at that position. Franchise players receive an average of the top 5. But with transition players there is no compensation owed by a competing team that signs the player. The old team still retains the right to match any offer.
*Unrestricted free agency: This is free agency in its purest form, meaning a player has at least four accrued seasons in the league and has no strings attached. He can sign with any team he chooses. Most free agents fall into this category.
*Restricted free agency: These are players who haven't yet earned the right to full-fledged free agency but have at least three accrued seasons toward free agency. Also known as RFAs, they must be tendered a one-year contract offer before the start of free agency for the current team to retain the right of first refusal. The tenders can be for different amounts of money. That's what will determine what, if any, compensation the current would receive if it lost the player to a suitor.
This year, the NFL has established the lowest level at $850,000. The next tender level requires an offer of $1.3-million and would reap a second-round pick as compensation. Then, there's the $1.85-million level that would require a first-round pick of a competitor. Finally, the highest tender level of $2.35-million would cost a team a first- and third-round pick.
The Bucs have three restricted free agents: DT Jovan Haye, LB Antoine Cash and S Kalvin Pearson. Haye is a lock to be tendered, but it's not yet clear at what level. Teams have until Feb. 28 to tender RFAs.
*Exclusive-rights free agents: These guys don't have much flexibility. This category includes players who have less than three accrued seasons but whose contracts have expired. That usually is limited to undrafted players or late-round draft picks. They don't have the right to negotiate with any other teams so long as their current team submits a minimum-salary offer before the start of free agency. The player's only option is to sign the deal or sit out for a year. This is the group WR Paris Warren falls into. He has already been offered his contract and will sign it when he returns to town.
Well, my fingers are exhausted after all this. I didn't mean to make this the length of Deuteronomy, but I hope someone will benefit from this as we move toward one of the most active parts of the NFL calendar. Stay tuned for news from the scouting combine in Indianapolis, which will begin heating up in the next few days.
If I forgot anything that needs explaining, hit me up in the comments section.
NOTE: I edited this slightly today (Thursday). Had a couple of details on years of service that were off a bit. I've checked all this against the collective bargaining agreement, so should be good to go now. My bad.