How Does Free Agency Work in the NFL? Start Dates, End Dates & More

The NFL free agency period allows players to earn larger salaries or discover better team fits while simultaneously providing teams with another opportunity to upgrade and strengthen their squads. Few multi-year deals might carry forward; however, other contracts from the year before come to an end as the new NFL season starts. This leads to the start of the trade period, and among other things, negotiations for the restricted free agent players take place.

Why Does the NFL Have Free Agency?

The NFL adopted its modern free agency format in 1993 as a response to many lawsuits players filed against the league and other legal issues related to antitrust laws. Before reaching its modern format, the NFL had several systems.

In its early days, the NFL used a reserve system for players, much like what MLB used. In this, players could only negotiate a new contract with their previous team. If they couldn’t reach an agreement but the player wanted to keep playing, the team simply could decide to renew the player’s old contract with a pay cut of up to 10%. If the player didn’t want to remain with that team, they were placed on a reserve list and were prohibited from negotiating a contract with any other team.

In the late 1940s, the NFL instituted a one-year option rule that allowed teams to automatically renew a player’s contract only one time. Despite this, until 1963, few players took advantage of this rule to change teams. In that offseason, R.C. Owens left San Francisco to play for the Baltimore Colts after his option year expired.

NFL owners created the “Rozelle Rule” in response, which dictated that a team that signs someone else’s free agent owes that initial team compensation. If the two clubs couldn’t agree to a fair deal, commissioner Pete Rozelle would decide what’s appropriate. Under this rule, very few teams attempted to sign another team’s free agents. This trend continued until 1976, when the NFL player’s union won a court case that determined the Rozelle Rule unlawfully restrained trade.

The league and player’s union then wrote predetermined compensation amounts for free agents into their collective bargaining agreement. However, this deal still favored owners, so NFL players went on strike in 1987 to change the system. Two years later, the union sued the NFL again, but a court ruled players couldn’t sue for antitrust violations because they had a union. Two years later, the players decertified their union, which allowed them to sue the league.

Jets running back Freeman McNeil took advantage of this, filing suit saying the league’s current system, called the “Plan B” system, was illegal. Under Plan B, NFL teams could protect 37 players from their roster to ensure they keep them, while the unprotected players all became unrestricted free agents. Many more players followed suit with McNeil, and the league’s owners began negotiating with players again to find a more fair system. In 1993, the sides agreed to the current free agent rules in exchange for a salary cap.

Who Is Eligible for Free Agency?

The free agency period in the NFL allows teams to enter into contract negotiations with players who aren’t under contract, regardless of whether their old contract expired or if they’ve never signed a professional contract. The NFL breaks down its free agents into multiple categories based on how many accrued seasons they have earned in the league. For a player to earn an accrued season, they must be on an active roster or a reserve list for an injury, for at least six regular-season games for a particular team on a full-pay basis.

The various types of NFL free agents, including the qualifications for each, are:

  • Unrestricted free agents: These free agents are players who have accrued four or more seasons and have had their previous contract expire. These players are eligible to have contract negotiations and sign with any team in the league.
  • Restricted free agents: These players, also referred to as RFAs, have three or more accrued seasons and have had their previous contract expire. RFAs may earn a qualifying offer from their previous team to retain limited rights to them, but these players can enter contract talks with other teams until the cutoff date before the draft.
  • Exclusive rights free agents: These free agents, referred to as ERFAs, are players who have accrued two or fewer seasons in the NFL and have had their previous contract expire. Teams can give qualifying offers to ERFAs, too, and players must accept this offer.
  • Undrafted free agents: These players, called UDFA, are any player who was eligible for the NFL draft but was not selected by any team. These players are free to have contract talks and sign with any team.

Player Tags

Despite the league moving to a system that gives players more freedom to change squads at the entire of their contract, teams still have a couple of ways to ensure they retain certain players each year. Each team can “tag” a player once per offseason, and there are two tag designations from which they can choose. Teams have a two-week window to tag players. It starts 22 days before the new league year and ends eight days before the new year. In 2022, this window was from Feb. 22 to March 8.

Franchise Tag

There are two types of franchise tags, which are the exclusive and non-exclusive tags. Players who get a non-exclusive tag can negotiate with any other teams. They receive a new, one-year contract with a salary that’s either the average cap hit for their position or 120% of that player’s cap hit from the previous season. Teams using this tag have the right of first refusal if the player signs an offer sheet with another club. If this happens, the previous team has five days to decide whether to match the offer. If it doesn’t, the previous team receives draft compensation.

A player who’s given an exclusive tag isn’t allowed to negotiate a contract with any other team. This player receives a new, one-year contract for the average of the five highest cap hits at their position from the previous year or the amount of the non-exclusive tag, whichever is larger.

Transition Tag

Players who get a transition tag can negotiate a contract with any other team. This player receives a new, one-year contract for the average of the 10 highest cap hits at their position from the previous year or 120% of the player’s cap hit last season. If a player on a transition tag agrees to a contract with a new team, the previous team has five days to match this offer. If they don’t, the previous team isn’t owed any draft compensation.

If a player who was given a transition tag hasn’t signed an offer sheet with another team before July 22, they can negotiate a new contract only with their previous team and can’t change clubs that offseason.

When Does NFL Free Agency Start?

The NFL’s free agency period officially begins on the day of the new league year, which was March 16 for the 2022 season. Despite this, teams still can make roster moves before this date, such as giving players franchise or transition tags or making waiver claims on players other teams release who still have years left on their contract. Two days before free agency starts, the NFL has a legal negotiation window to allow all pending free agents to enter into contract discussions with other teams.

Come the start of the new league year, all teams must be under the salary cap ceiling, and the trading and free agency periods open.

When Does NFL Free Agency End?

Although many players, such as unrestricted or undrafted players, can negotiate with teams throughout the offseason, there are certain cutoff dates for some free agents. Some cutoff dates for other free agents in 2022 include:

  • April 22: Restricted free agents.
  • July 22: Players with a transition tag.
  • July 22 or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later: Unrestricted free agents who were given a tender from their previous club.
  • Tuesday following Week 10 of the regular season, which is Nov. 15: Players with a franchise tag.

Other Important Dates for 2022 NFL Offseason

The 2022 NFL offseason is in full swing, and there are plenty of important dates still yet to come as teams prepare for this fall. Some important dates to note include:

  • April 18: Teams without a new head coach can begin offseason workout programs.
  • April 20: Deadline for teams to give draft-eligible players a physical examination at their team facility.
  • April 27: Deadline for teams to test and interview any players eligible for the draft.
  • April 28-30: 2022 NFL draft in Las Vegas.
  • July 15: Deadline for franchise-tagged players and their teams to sign a multi-year contract extension.

The offseason is one of the best times for NFL fans to stock up on their favorite team’s officially licensed sports apparel, collectibles, and memorabilia. The most passionate fans know the best place to do that is at Fanatics, which carries merchandise for all 32 teams in the league for people of all ages and genders. Fans should shop now to ensure they’re ready to represent their club when preseason play begins in August.

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