How NFL free agency "really" works
Free agency is our (agents) time to shine for our clients. It’s extremely difficult for players to get to a second or third contract so everything has to be orchestrated perfectly for the client to score a lifetime setting deal. On the team side, a few bad free agent signings can get GMs fired, weigh heavy on the cap and hurt a team for several years beyond the signing(s).
Free agency is supposed to work like this:
Teams looking to resign their own players may initiate talks in October or November. Negotiations for top players can take several months to complete. Some teams purposely slow play the process to keep the player on the hook so they stay in consideration. A team is supposed to have exclusivity in talking to its own players but that’s not really the case. If another team contacts the player (usually via his agent), it’s considered tampering and that team will be fined and lose draft picks for doings so.
In 2014, free agency officially begins on March 11th. However, Players/agents are allowed to start negotiating with other teams starting March 8th.
This is how free agency really works:
The Senior Bowl (Jan. 20 to 26): Agents attended the Senior Bowl from Sunday through Thursday. There, agents, coaches, GMs and personnel directors initiate free agent chatter. For example, I had a list of my free agents on a legal pad. I would show it to as many decision makers as possible and ask which players they might have an interest in. Prior to Senior Bowl week my staff and I also broke down team needs and had a short list of which teams may be the best matches for a particular free agent client. During these quick informal conversations, numbers are usually not discussed but the “level” of interest is. For a number of teams, they may not have had any personnel meetings so they may not even be sure yet who they are targeting.
Between January 26th and February 18th: Most agents representing free agents will be burning up the phone lines talking to teams about what positions they will be targeting. However, if the free agent is the top rated at his position, the agent can wait for the call and market to come to him.
The NFL Combine (Feb. 19th to 25th): This is the unofficial start of free agency. This is where I/agents will have many closed-door meetings with teams who have an interest in our free agents. There are also meetings with teams trying to sign back their own free agents. The tricky part of this process for the team (trying to resign their own UFA) is not to set the floor price for the agent to go shop to other teams (which we will).
At a minimum, the agent wants to walk away from the Combine with three or more top teams interested in his UFA(s) and have a good idea of what the market will be for his client.
February 23rd to March 8th: Negotiations between players and their existing club will heat up, if they are interested that is. Agents will press existing teams to step up and get a deal done. Teams aggressively wanting to sign a UFA will start putting numbers on the table and convince the agent to have the player visit them first on March 11th. Some teams will let their own players willingly go into free agency to establish a market. They may sit back and gamble playing “match the market”. Thus, keeping tabs on the player and what other teams are offering then hoping to match it before losing the player. Look for some deals to get done in this time tranche.
March 8th to March 11th: Non-exclusive teams can contact UFAs and their agents and begin negotiating. Players cannot actually visit teams during this time or sign a deal. This is also the period where teams wanting to sign their own players back show their hand and put their best deal on the table.
March 11th through the first five days of free agency: This usually the time where the most sought after UFAs sign with a new club. For agents representing many UFAs they have had the deal done already and are just waiting to make it official. Players also make physical team visits, sometimes lining up as many as five in a row with all teams jockeying to be the first visit. There they may have dinner with the team brass, get a tour of the city, meet the owner, get a physical and/or talk Xs and Os with a coordinator. Teams don’t usually let the player leave the building without signing a new deal.
Beyond March 16th:
During the second week of free agency, the second tier level of free agents may start getting some action along with team visits and eventual signings. A few weeks later a third level of UFAs get targeted. These players are usually being sought after by teams offering deals with minimal signing bonuses and are usually near the minimum of the players salary level for his years of service.
Other factors affecting free agency:
Coach and GM movement: Coaches and GMs would rather go with the known vs. the unknown, so they target players they previously worked with at their former team.
Cap situation: Some teams current cap situation will dictate how aggressive or not they can be in free agency.
Health of player: Some great players are coming off injuries or surgeries. So both the team and player may wait to see if and when they will be healthy.
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