Official website of the New England Patriots

replay
Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Tue Sep 21 | 02:00 PM - 11:59 PM

2021 NFL Free Agency Primer

nfl_shield_20099649275.jpg

Q. When does the 2021 free agency signing period begin?

A. At 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 17.

Q. When does the two-day negotiating period for potential unrestricted free agents begin?

A. From 12:00 p.m. ET on Monday, March 15 until 3:59:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 17, clubs are permitted to contact and enter into contract negotiations with the certified agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents upon expiration of their 2020 player contracts at 4:00 p.m. ET on March 17.

Q. What are the categories of free agency?

A. Players are either "exclusive rights free agents", "restricted free agents" or "unrestricted free agents." A restricted free agent may be subject to a "qualifying offer." A restricted or unrestricted free agent may be designated by his prior club as its franchise player or transition player. An exclusive rights free agent is any player with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract. If his original team offers him a one-year contract at the league minimum (based on his credited seasons), the player cannot negotiate with other teams.

Q. What is considered a "credited season"?

A. Used as a measure for many benefits, it most notably determines a player's minimum salary. To earn a credited season, a player must be on (or should have been on) full-pay status for a total of three or more regular season games.

Q. What is the time period for free agency signings this year?

A. For restricted free agents, from March 17 to April 23. For unrestricted free agents who have received a tender from their prior club by the Monday immediately following the final day of the NFL Draft for the 2021 League Year (i.e., May 3), from March 17 to July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later). For franchise players, from March 17 until the Tuesday following Week 10 of the regular season, November 16. For transition players, from March 17 until July 22. After July 22 and until 4 p.m. ET on the Tuesday following Week 10 of the regular season, November 16, the prior club has exclusive negotiating rights to unrestricted free agents and transition players. If the above-listed players do not sign by November 16, they must sit out the season.  

Q. What is the difference between a restricted free agent and an unrestricted free agent?

A. In the 2021 league year, players with three accrued seasons who have received a qualifying offer become restricted free agents when their contracts expire at the conclusion of the 2020 league year on March 17. Unrestricted free agents have completed four or more accrued seasons. Upon expiration of his 2020 contract, an unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any club with no draft-choice compensation owed to his old club.

Q. What constitutes an "accrued season"?

A. In order to accrue a season, a player must have been on (or should have been on) full-play status for at least six regular-season games in a given season. A player under contract must report to his team's training camp on his mandatory reporting date to earn an accrued season. If player holds out his services for a "material period of time," he is also at risk of not accruing a season.

Q. How do the free agency rules apply to restricted free agents?

A. If a player with three accrued seasons has received a "qualifying offer" (a salary tender predetermined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players) from his old club, he can negotiate with any club through April 19. If the restricted free agent signs an offer sheet with a new club, his old club can match the offer and retain him because the qualifying offer entitles it to a "right of first refusal" on any offer sheet the player signs. If the old club does not match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation depending on the amount of its qualifying offer. If an offer sheet is not executed on or before April 19, the player's negotiating rights revert exclusively to his old club. In addition, prior to the start of free agency a player who would otherwise be a restricted free agent may be designated by his old club as its franchise player or transition player.

Q. What are the right of first refusal/qualifying offer amounts for players who have completed three accrued seasons?

A. For right of first refusal only, a one-year salary of at least $2,133,000.

For right of first refusal and compensation at the player's original draft round, a one-year salary of at least $2,183,000 or 110 percent of the 2020 base salary, whichever is greater.

For right of first refusal and compensation of one second-round draft selection, a one-year salary of at least $3,384,000 or 110 percent of the 2020 base salary, whichever is greater.

For right of first refusal and compensation of one first-round draft selection, a one-year salary of at least $4,766,000 or 110 percent of the 2020 base salary, whichever is greater.

For right of first refusal and compensation of only one first-round draft selection, but any provision in the new club's offer sheet waiving or limiting the new club's ability to designate the player as a franchise or transition player is not a principal term and need not be matched by the prior club, a one-year salary of at least $5,266,000 or 110 percent of the 2020 base salary, whichever is greater.

Q. What determines an unrestricted free agent?

A. A player with four or more accrued seasons whose contract has expired. He is free to sign with any club, with no draft-choice compensation owed to his old club, through July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later). At that point, his negotiating rights revert exclusively to his old club if by May 3 the old club tendered the player a one-year contract for 110 percent of his prior year's salary. His old club then has until the Tuesday following Week 10 of the regular season (November 16) to sign him. If he does not sign by that date, he must sit out the season. If no tender is offered by May 3, the player can be signed by any club at any time throughout the season.

Q. How often can a players contract be renegotiated?

A. The first renegotiation of a veteran contract can occur at any time, but any subsequent increase in salary during the original terms of the contract can only happen twelve months after the most recent renegotiation. Teams can't renegotiate terms from any prior year of a contract. After the final regular season game, terms for the current season can't be renegotiated.

Q. What is the salary cap for 2021?

A. The salary cap is $182.5 million. per club.

Q. When must teams be in compliance with the salary cap?

A. At the start of the 2021 league year, which begins at 4:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 17.

Q. If a team is under the salary cap at the end of a given season, can the team "carry over" room to the next season?

A. Yes. A team may carry over room from one league year to the following league year by submitting notice to the NFL prior to 4:00 p.m. ET on the day following the team's final regular-season game, indicating the amount of room that the club wishes to carry over.

Q. What is the maximum amount of room that a club can carry over?

A. A club can carry over 100 percent of its remaining 2020 room to its adjusted salary cap for 2021.

IMPORTANT CONTRACT TERMS

Base salary

Formally known as "Paragraph 5" salary due to its place in a standard NFL Player Contract, it is the compensation a player receives during the regular season. The collective bargaining agreement set league minimums for base salaries. A player's "game check" is 1/17th of his base salary in a 16-game season (1/18th in a 17-game season). When a player is suspended for a game, he forfeits 1/17th of his base salary.

In 2020 and in the Final League Year (2030), players will be paid 100 percent of their base salary in weekly or bi-weekly amounts. This changes from 2021-2029 when players will be paid 50 percent of their salary over the course of a period that is double the number of weeks the player is eligible to be paid for (i.e. in an 17-week regular season, he would be paid over a 34-week period).

Signing Bonus

Money earned by a player for signing his contract. Typically paid out within the first 12-18 months. Prorated against the salary cap for the life of the contract (five-season maximum). This is how the Lions could afford to give Matthew Stafford a $50 million signing bonus in 2017. For cap purposes, Stafford's signing bonus counts for $10 million against the Lions' salary cap for each of the first five seasons of his contract.

Roster Bonus

Compensation earned by remaining on a team's roster on a certain date. Roster bonuses count in full against the salary cap in the season in which they are earned, unless fully guaranteed at signing. They are used to avoid signing-bonus proration, which pushes dead money into the future.

Per-Game Roster Bonus

A roster bonus awarded on a per-game basis for being on the team's gameday (47 or 48-man) roster ("Active List") or its active (53-man) roster ("Active/Inactive List"), which varies by contract. For example, in a 16-game season, a player with a $1.6 million per-game roster bonus for being on the gameday roster would earn $100,000 for each game he is active. Any previous contract clauses for 46- and 53-man per-game roster bonuses will be amended to reflect the new roster sizes.

Option Bonus

Gives a team (or, at times, a player) the ability to exercise the current or future years of the contract by paying a bonus. Prorated over the life of the contract (like a signing bonus, up to a max of five seasons).

Workout Bonus

Compensation for attending an agreed-upon percentage of the offseason workouts. No workout bonus can require participation in beyond 84.375 percent of the team's scheduled workouts (i.e. a player can miss five of 32 scheduled workouts and still receive his bonus.

Reporting Bonus

Earned by reporting to team activities by a specified date.

Incentives (LTBE/NLTBE)

Incentives in a player contract are limited to the list provided in Exhibits A-C in Article 13 Section 6 of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (page 116-119).

Player incentives are considered "likely to be earned" (LTBE) or "not likely to be earned" (NLTBE) based on the player or team's prior-year performance.

For example, if a player has a $500,000 incentive for accumulating 1,000+ rush yards in the upcoming season and he had 1,000+ rush yards the previous season, the incentive is considered LTBE. If he did not record 1,000+ rush yards in the previous season, the incentive is considered NLTBE.

Except in certain circumstances, LTBE incentives count against the team's salary cap in the current season, and NLTBE incentives do not count against a team's current year's cap. Except in rare cases, unearned LTBE incentives are credited to the following season's salary cap, while earned NLTBE incentives are charged against the following season's salary cap.

Salary escalators

A salary escalator is similar to an incentive in that it is triggered by attaining certain performance thresholds. However, the extra money is not always guaranteed to be received.

An earned escalator translates into a raise in a future year(s) of the contract. If the escalator applies to a non-guaranteed season and the player is released prior to it, he would not receive the benefit of his escalator. Contracts can also contain de-escalators that lower a player's salary for failing to reach performance measures.

Dead money

Refers to salary a team has already paid or has committed to paying (i.e., a signing bonus, fully guaranteed base salaries, earned bonuses, etc.) but has not been charged against the salary cap.

In business terms, it is essentially a "sunk cost." Any money a team pays a player must be accounted for against the salary cap. If there is dead money in a player's contract and he is released or retires, that charge will accelerate onto the team's salary cap for the current year.

There is one avenue to lower this cap hit in a current League Year: the June 1 designation. Teams can spread the cap hit over two seasons by releasing or trading a player after June 1—any signing bonus prorations for future seasons are charged to the following seasons' salary cap. Teams are allowed to release two players prior to June 1 (but on or after the first day of the League Year) while still using this designation and getting the same cap treatment. However, the cap savings created by a June 1 designation do not take effect until after June 1.

Essentially, the salary cap is like a credit card, minus the interest. Anything that is paid out to a player must be paid back to (and accounted for against) the salary cap at some point.

Related Content

Advertising

Latest News

Presented by
Advertising

Trending Video

Advertising

In Case You Missed It

Presented by
Advertising