Editor’s note: Brien is a well-traveled Houstonian and Army Combat Veteran with an extremely wide range of talents and interests including the NFL (Packers), Irish History, and writing. Follow him on twitter @ODonalsVanguard
By BRIEN O’DONAL
The first few weeks of the offseason are defined by under the radar roster moves. It’s not very often that this period is defined by a big name player. Often players and teams in this period are attempting to restructure existing contracts, resign players before the unrestricted free agency period begins, and clear cap space of aging or underperforming players before the new league year. It is what some consider bargain free agency where the risk/reward of signing available players can be minimized. Players found here can be given a chance to contribute for a new team at a relatively low cost. So let’s talk about some of the different terms that apply this time of the year and the effects of a team signing these players.
To begin, players made available in this period must be released from their current teams. What that means is that players still have existing time on their contract, but before the new league year begins and new money becomes guaranteed teams are willing to part ways. In many cases a team has to absorb a certain amount of dead money. It’s a balancing act where the salary cap is reviewed and the new cap number for that player is created. All guaranteed money is accelerated forward but that amount is compared to the money that would have been paid as salary and teams hope that the offsetting numbers are smaller than the player’s liability on the field.
Players released with years left on their contracts are subject to different rules than those with expiring contracts. If a young player has less than three accrued seasons in the NFL he is subject to the waiver wire, those with more than three years become unrestricted free agents. Because these players were released before the contract expiration they are essentially “street” free agents and can immediately begin looking for a new team. Their only real obstacle is overcoming whatever stigma is associated with their release. For some player it may be age, for some league violations, and for others it is simply poor performance. The good thing for teams willing to bring on these new players is that they don’t count in the compensatory pick formula for the NFL draft. If a team feels that they can turn around a struggling player, or that an aging veteran still has gas in tank; they can sign them to a new contract without losing one of those compensatory picks in the following year (which are now worth more because they can be traded).
As was stated at the beginning of this article, a lot of these moves are under the radar. The players released don’t generally fit the mold as big name free agents because of whatever reason their existing team thought to release them. For example, Justin Gilbert was a 2014 first round draft pick for the Cleveland Browns and after underperforming was traded to the Steelers who released him this offseason. Because he did not play a lot of games during his three years he was considered to not have three accrued seasons and is subject to the waiver system. Another cornerback released this offseason is Sam Shields. He was pro bowl player in 2014 but played only one game in 2016. His injury concerns got him released and because he has more than three accrued seasons is now available to sign at any time.
It is these sorts of decisions made by teams that can have a positive impact. These moves can add serious value to a roster if the evaluations are correct. These few weeks are sort of like the preseason for unrestricted free agency. Teams are making moves to either free up cap space or acquire cheap young talent to bring into the offseason program. This goes directly to the long term health of a team’s salary cap and how they deal with larger contracts in the future.
Teams will evaluate all players available because there is another little unknown fact; the roster size at this point in the offseason is 90 players. This means that there is a lot more wiggle room for teams to sign players with a higher risk/reward. The NFL offseason is all about that. Players that can be signed under team friendly contracts due to the nature of their availability have a better chance of getting into camp with a full offseason to examine the playbook and the coach’s system. That is to their benefit when it comes time to compete for a spot on the final roster cut down in September. The depth of a roster involves player evaluation on a year round basis and if talent is seen even in these early weeks it can go a long way to field a healthy team throughout the season.
In only a few short weeks contracts will expire and unrestricted free agency will begin. Before that though; teams will have to decide which of their players need to be given a franchise or transition tag before they hit the open market. When that time nears I will write another article explaining that part of the offseason. For now, let’s watch who gets released and is now on the open market before the new league year starts.