March Madness isn’t just limited to college basketball. The NFL has its own month of madness about to begin with NFL free agency opening this week. As Bengals fans, we’re used to less madness than the rest of the NFL as the Bengals don’t fill up their roster with big-name signings. Instead, the Bengals will focus on re-signing their own best free agents. That includes guys like Andrew Whitworth, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Rex Burkhead and Brandon LaFell. We’re not expecting all of those players to return to Cincinnati in 2017, but some of them surely will.
No single month of the year sees more money being spent and players changing teams more than March, when teams are able to pursue players who’ve been with other teams and offer them ridiculous contracts making them multi-millionaires.
Here is everything you need to know about all the fun about to ensure:
Free Agent Classification
A free agent is any NFL player whose contract expires. However, depending on how much time a player has spent on an NFL roster, their classification may differ.
There are three different types of free agents — unrestricted, restricted or exclusive rights. Here's a rundown of all three:
Unrestricted free agent (UFA): A classic free agent, can sign with whoever he wants once the new league year begins. The 2017 new league year begins on March 9 at 4:00 p.m. ET. However, if a player is cut at any point in the offseason, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and is able to sign with any other team before and after the start of the new year.
Restricted free agent (RFA): Can be offered three pre-determined one-year contracts. Another team can swoop in and try to up the offer, but the original team can match the offer (and can get a draft pick if he's signed away).
According to CBS’ Jason La Canfora, the tender amounts for restricted free agents have been announced and are as follows:
- Right of first-refusal only: $1.8 million
- 2nd-round pick and rights of first refusal: $2.7 million
- 1st-round pick and rights of first refusal: $3.9 million
Teams must issue these tenders to any of their restricted free agents prior to 4:00 p.m. EST on March 9th in order to maintain their RFA rights. Otherwise, those players will become unrestricted free agents instead.
It’s expected the Bengals will use the right of first-refusal, $1.8 million tender on backup center/guard T.J. Johnson.
Exclusive rights free agent (ERFA): The team can offer an ERFA a low-cost, one-year contract if they want to. The player has to accept it and cannot be signed away from other teams if offered the deal. No Bengals are ERFAs in 2017.
NFL legal tampering window
Starting March 7 at 12 p.m. ET, all 32 NFL teams are given an open window to start contract talks with unrestricted free agents. This time is known as the legal tampering period since teams are allowed to speak with players from other teams.
That will continue until 3:59:59 p.m. ET on March 9, which is when the new league year officially begins and players can sign contracts with new teams. Since teams had the brief open period before this day, the first few hours of free agency are complete madness, as you’ve probably gathered by now.
Here are the key details about this 2-day negotiating window:
- Agents can negotiate contract numbers with teams, but the two sides cannot sign a deal.
- Teams can talk to agents, but not the player directly.
- Players cannot visit other teams.
- All of this only applies to unrestricted free agents, not restricted free agents or exclusive-rights free agents, who are prevented from talking with other teams until the start of the new league year.
Below is a full calendar of the remaining NFL offseason dates pertaining to free agency:
March 7 - March 9: NFL teams may begin contract negotiations with the agents of players who will become Unrestricted Free Agents.
March 9 (Before 4:00 p.m. ET):
Deadline for NFL teams to exercise options for 2017 on any player with option clauses in their 2016 contracts.
This is also the deadline for NFL teams to submit qualifying offers to players with expiring contracts who will become restricted free agents. NFL teams must also submit a minimum salary tender to players who will become exclusive-rights free agents.
March 9 (After 4:00 p.m. EST): The 2017 NFL league year begins and all 2016 contracts expire.
April 21: Deadline for Restricted Free Agents to sign offer sheets.
July 15 (4:00 p.m. EST): Deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign multi-year extensions. Following this deadline, a player can only sign the one-year franchise tender.
Compensatory draft picks
NFL Teams that lose key players don’t have to come out empty-handed thanks to compensatory picks. If you need a refresher, compensatory picks are those received at the ends of rounds 3-7 of the NFL Draft due to players lost in free agency the year prior.
But if a team signs more free agents than it loses, that team is not eligible for compensatory picks. Teams that sign and lose the exact same amount, but are deemed to have lost higher value players, are eligible for picks.
The exact formula used to determine comp picks is kept secret by the NFL, but it is believed that determining factors include whether or not the player is a starter, how much they play in their first season with their new team, and how much they get paid by their new team in free agency.
Four is actually the maximum number of compensatory picks allowed for any team. An example of this is the Bengals losing Marvin Jones last year to the Lions on a 5-year, $40 million contract. That was enough to net Cincinnati an extra fourth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Getting those extra picks is part of why teams like the Bengals are rarely big spenders in free agency, especially in years where they lose big players like Jones. They would rather pursue players who were cut that offseason, as they do not count against the compensatory formula.
The Bengals have four compensatory picks in 2017.
Bengals free agents
Here is a look at which Bengals are slated to hit free agency:
LT Andrew Whitworth
DT Domata Peko
WR Brandon LaFell
CB Dre Kirkpatrick
RG Kevin Zeitler
RT Eric Winston
RB Cedric Peerman
DE Margus Hunt
DE Wallace Gilberry
CB Chykie Brown
RB Rex Burkhead
C T.J. Johnson