Now that the Super Bowl is over and the Kansas City Chiefs have been crowned the Champs, it’s peak optimism time for the other 31 franchises. As teams embark on the NFL offseason, it is a time for them to gear up, reload or add the last piece or two for a championship run.
One tool NFL general managers have in their arsenal as they look to improve their team is Free Agency. If you are like me, after about week three of far too many Jets seasons, I’m over at Walter Football checking to see who’s a free agent in the upcoming offseason. This year Jets fans were able to hold off until mid-December to start scouting free agents as, despite a long losing streak; they were still alive for a playoff spot.
The Salary Cap
This season the NFL base salary cap is expected to be $224,800,000, according to overthecap.com. As of today, February 15th, the Jets have about -$264,000 in cap space. That number will increase as Douglas tinkers with the roster before free agency starts. Douglas will have to restructure players like C.J. Mosley, Laken Tomlinson, and John Franklin-Meyers. And potentially cut guys like Carl Lawson, Duane Brown, and Corey Davis. With cuts and restructures, the Jets could see themselves with nearly $55 million in cap room.
The salary cap is determined by splitting about 48% of the league’s total revenue by 32. The NFL operates with what is known as a hard cap. This means that if the salary cap is $100 million, a team can only spend that much on player salaries. They can spend less and roll over the unused space into the next season but can not spend over the cap one year and below the next to “balance” it out. Teams must spend at least 90% of cap space during three or four-year windows within the 10-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
Types of Free Agents and Different Tags
- Exclusive Rights Free Agents (EFFA): Players with less than three years of service time whose contract is up. A player is awarded an accrued season if he is on the roster for six games. Injured players on Injured reserve (IR) or the physically unable to perform list (PUP) are given credit for games if the injury is not designated a non-football injury. Their team can offer them a qualifying offer for one year at the league minimum salary, and they must sign the offer or sit out.
- Restricted Free Agent (RFA): Players that have accrued three years of service time and whose contract is up, becomes an RFA. RFAs are allowed to negotiate with other teams in free agency, but before the start of free agency, the original team can extend a tender offer. There are four levels of tender offers: first-round tender, second-round tender, original-round tender, and the right-to-first-refusal tender. The level of player compensation is tied to the level of tender. If the new team signs an RFA, the original team has five days to match the offer. If they do not match the offer they will be, they will be compensated with draft picks based on tender level. In the case of right-to-first-refusal, if the original team does not match the offer, no draft compensation is awarded.
- Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA): Players that have accrued four seasons and whose contract is up are UFAs. These players can negotiate with any team they want and sign with any team they want.
- Franchise Tag: A franchise tag is a tool NFL teams can use to keep UFA. There are two franchise tags, the exclusive rights franchise tag and the non-exclusive rights franchise tag. If a team designates a player with the exclusive rights franchise tag, they must pay that player the average of the top five players at that position or 120% of the previous year’s salary, whichever is higher for one year. The non-exclusive rights franchise tag allows the player to negotiate with other teams. If a deal is reached, the original team can match the offer. If they decline to match the offer, the new team must compensate the original team with two first-round draft picks. Teams often use the franchise tag as a catalyst to work out a long-term deal with players.
- Transition Tag: The transition tag is similar to the franchise tag, but the player compensation is based on the average salary of the top 10 players at the position instead of the top five. Other teams can sign players designated with the transition tag. The original team can match the offer. The original team receives no draft compensation if they do not match the offer.
Who Actually Gets to Free Agency?
On February 21st, teams can begin to designate franchise and transition tags, with the deadline being March 7th. Many of the top players never make it to free agency. Teams will try to sign their top free agents to long-term deals before using the different tags. Each year some good players make it to the open market, but just what are you getting? In all likelihood, when a team signs a free agent, they have probably outbid other potential suitors. And why didn’t the team that just worked with that player every day for four years re-sign him?
Here is a look at the top 3 free agents each year between 2015 and 2019, as ranked by NFL.com.
- Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Detriot Lions, signed a six-year $114 million deal with the Miami Dolphins (the highest contract for a defensive player at the time). Suh was released before the 2018 season.
- Julius Thomas, Tight End, Denver Broncos, signed a five-year $46 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was traded to the Dolphins before the 2017 season.
- DeMarco Murray, Running Back, Dallas Cowboys, signed a five-year $42 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Murray was traded to the Titans after just one season.
- Malik Jackson, Defensive Tackle, Denver Broncos, signed a six-year $85 million deal with the Jaguars. Jackson was released before the 2019 season.
- Olivier Vernon, Defensive End, Miami Dolphins, signed a five-year $85 million deal with the New York Giants. Vernon was traded to the Cleveland Browns before the 2019 season.
- Kelechi Osemele, Offensive Guard, Baltimore Ravens, signed a five-year $60 million deal with the Oakland Raiders. Osemele was traded to the Jets before the 2019 season.
- Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver, Chicago Bears, signed a one-year deal with the Eagles.
- Calais Campbell, Defensive End, Arizona Cardinals, signed a four-year $60 million deal with the Jaguars. Campbell was traded to the Ravens before the 2020 season.
- Brandon Williams, Defensive Tackle, Baltimore Ravens, re-signed with the Ravens for five years at $54 million. Williams played the entire contract.
- Kirk Cousins, Quarterback, Washington Commanders, signed a three-year $84 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings. Cousins played out the entire contract.
- Drew Brees, Quarterback, New Orleans Saints, Brees re-signed with the Saints for two years at $50 million. Brees played out the contract.
- Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, signed a one-year $14 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams. Suh was not offered a new contract after the 2018 season.
- Le’Veon Bell, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers, signed a four-year contract worth $52.5 million with the Jets. Bell was released on October 13th, 2020.
- Earl Thomas, Safety, Seattle Seahawks, signed a four-year, $55 million deal with the Ravens. Thomas was released on August 23rd, 2020.
- Trey Flowers, Defensive End, New England Patriots, signed a five-year $90 million with the Detroit Lions. Flowers was released on March 16th, 2022.
Of the 15 players highlighted here, five played out their entire contract. Of the five, two were on one-year deals, and two re-signed with their original team. The remaining ten players were either released or traded before the end of their free-agent contracts.
The Jets’ main focus of the offseason will be finding a quarterback through free agency (Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo) or a trade (Aaron Rodgers). New York will use the rest of free agency to fill in the gaps of a much-improved roster as they look to compete for a playoff spot in 2023.