49ers Free Agency Primer
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
For 49ers fans, this offseason will be condensed thanks to the team’s run to the Super Bowl. The first day for teams to begin designating franchise players is February 25. During this time of year there is a dizzying array of terms, acronyms and shorthand that is thrown around, so to make sure that everyone is working from the same sheet of music, here is a free agency primer.
NFL free agents fall into one of three categories, unrestricted (UFA), restricted (RFA) and exclusive rights (ERFA):
Players become unrestricted free agents once they have accrued four seasons of service time and their contract expires. As the name suggests, unrestricted free agents are free to negotiate and sign with any team they wish (unless they are tagged, more on that later). This offseason, the 49ers have thirteen players who are unrestricted free agents. Some of the key players who make up the thirteen are wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, free safety Jimmie Ward, defensive tackle Arik Armstead and defensive end Ronald Blair.
Restricted free agents are players who have accrued three seasons of service time and their contracts have expired. In restricted free agency, the player is free to negotiate and sign with another team, but his original team can retain the right to match the offer from the new team by placing a contract tender on the player.
Contract tenders have three tiers, first, second and original round. In these tiers, the contract value is slotted and changes each year based on future salary cap projections. The salary projections for the 2020 season are $4,667,000 for a first-round tender, $3,278,000 for a second-round tender and $2,144,000 for an original round tender. The type of tender not only determines the amount of the contract, but the compensation the team receives should the player leave for another team, e.g. if a player receives a first-round tender and signs with a new team the new team must surrender their first-round choice to the team losing the player.
This offseason the 49ers have three restricted free agents: Elijah Lee, Kendrick Bourne and Matt Breida.
Exclusive rights free agents are players with fewer than three years of accrued service time and their contracts have expired. The 49ers have six exclusive rights free agents: running back Jeff Wilson, tight end Ross Dwelley, corner back Emmanuel Moseley, quarterback Nick Mullens, and offensive linemen Daniel Brunskill and Andrew Lauderdale. Exclusive rights free agents are free agents in name only because they cannot negotiate with other teams and they will either be retained on one-year contracts for the league minimum amount for a player with their number of credited seasons time or they will be released, at which point, they would be free to sign with any team.
The NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement gives teams the right to apply either the franchise tag or the transition tag. The franchise tag actually has two varieties: the non-exclusive (most commonly used) and the exclusive.
The non-exclusive tag pays the tagged player the average of the top five salaries of players at his position or 120 percent of his previous salary, whichever is greater. On the non-exclusive tag, a player can negotiate with other teams but any team that signs the player must give two first-round picks as compensation.
The exclusive tag is, like the name suggests, exclusive, meaning that a player tagged in this manner cannot negotiate with other teams, but would be guaranteed a salary that is the average of the top five highest paid players at his position.
The transition tag is a one-year tender offer that would pay the player the average of the top ten highest paid players at his position, but he is free to negotiate with other teams. Should a player on the transition tag receive a better offer from another team, his original team has the right to match that offer, and if they choose not to match, they do not receive any compensation from the other team.
How this affects the 49ers:
For the first time in a while the 49ers have neither a surplus of salary cap space nor draft picks so they will need to make some shrewd decisions as they look to keep the team intact and make another run at the Super Bowl.
The easiest decisions are the exclusive rights free agents, all of which can be retained for less than $700,000 each.
When it comes to the three restricted free agents on the roster, the decisions are only slightly less straight forward. Kendrick Bourne will get at least a second-round tender, which would put him on the books for just over $3.2 million next season. Matt Breida is likely to get a second-round tender as well (with both players being undrafted free agents as rookies, placing an original round tender on them would mean that the 49ers get no compensation if they sign with another team). Elijah Lee is unlikely to receive a tender, even at the original round (Lee was a seventh-round pick by Minnesota) rate of just over $2 million; it’s too much to pay for his production. Lee could be re-signed at a lower rate after he is non-tendered.
The unrestricted free agents are where the big decisions lay, but thanks to a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement teams may use both the franchise and transition tags if they wish. For the Niners, Arik Armstead is a prime candidate for the non-exclusive franchise tag. The team can tag Armstead with the idea of bringing him back to or flip him in a trade to recoup some of the missing draft capital (the 49ers are without picks in the second, third and fourth rounds of the draft because of the trades for Dee Ford and Emmanuel Sanders).
Jimmie Ward is a key piece to the 49ers defense, but his inability to stay healthy could limit his value on the open market. The 49ers could place the transition tag on Ward, who has not played a full 16-game schedule since 2015 and allow Ward to shop his skills on the open market, but give them the right to match any offer.
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