When Did NFL Free Agency Begin?

A look at the history of NFL free agency and how it has changed the landscape of professional football.

What is NFL Free Agency?

NFL free agency is when professional American football teams can begin signing free agents to contracts. These free agents are players who are not under contract with any team. NFL free agency began in 1993, and it happens every year in March.

A Brief History

NFL free agency is a relatively new phenomenon. It began in 1993 with the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The agreement included the introduction of free agency for players with four or more years of NFL experience.

In the years since, free agency has become an integral part of teambuilding in the NFL. Each year, hundreds of players change teams as teams attempt to improve their rosters through the addition of veteran talent. Free agency also plays a role in shaping the rookie draft, as teams often look to fill holes on their rosters with young talent.

The amount of money that players can earn in free agency has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks in part to the massive new television contract that the NFL signed in 2014. That contract, which runs through 2022, is worth $27 billion and kicked in for the 2014 season. It’s safe to say that free agency will continue to be a major factor in the NFL for years to come.

How Does NFL Free Agency Work?

NFL free agency is when professional football players who are not under contract with a team become free agents and are allowed to sign with any team in the league. In order for a player to become a free agent, they must have been in the league for four years. There are different types of free agents, including unrestricted, restricted, and exclusive rights.

The Process

In the NFL, free agency is when a player is free to sign with any team in the league that he chooses, without his current team having the ability to match or exceed that offer. Players become free agents either by choice, or when their contract expires and they choose not to sign a new one with their current team.

Players who have been in the league for four or more years are unrestricted free agents, meaning they can sign with any team. Players who have been in the league for fewer than four years are restricted free agents, meaning their current team can place a “tag” on them, which gives them the right to match any offer from another team. If the player’s current team does not want to match an offer, they can let the player go and receive compensation from the signing team in the form of draft picks.

In recent years, there has been an increase in players using free agency to change teams in search of higher salaries. This has led to player movement during the season as well as after it has ended.

Free Agency Rules

In the National Football League (NFL), free agency is the time when most professional football contracts come to an end and players are free to sign with any club. In order for a player to become a free agent, he must have been out of contract for four or more years. If a player signs a contract extension with his current team, he is not eligible for free agency until the end of that contract.

There are two types of free agents in the NFL: unrestricted and restricted. Unrestricted free agents are free to sign with any team in the league, while restricted free agents can only sign offer sheets from other teams. If the player’s current team decides not to match the offer sheet, he will be allowed to sign with the new team but his old team will receive compensation in the form of draft picks.

The NFL’s free agency period begins on the first day of the league’s new fiscal year, which is typically in early March. During this time, teams can begin negotiating with free agents but cannot officially sign them to contracts until 4:00 p.m. ET on the first day of the new league year.

When Did NFL Free Agency Begin?

Free agency in the National Football League (NFL) began in 1993 with the signing of defensive end Reggie White to the Green Bay Packers. In the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and its players that was signed in 1992, a plan was laid out for free agency to begin in 1993.


Prior to 1993, NFL free agency consisted of two types of free agents: Plan B free agents and unrestricted free agents. Under the Plan B system, each team was allowed to protect 37 players on their roster from being signed by another team. The remaining players were free to sign with any team, with their former team having first-right-of-refusal to match any offer sheet the player signed. In 1992, only 167 of 1,600 eligible players changed teams via Plan B free agency.

Unrestricted free agency, on the other hand, allowed any player with four or more accrued seasons to sign with any team, with no rights of first refusal or compensation owed to his former team. The vast majority of veteran players who changed teams did so via trades rather than via unrestricted free agency. From 1987 through 1992, there were only 13 veteran NFL players who changed teams as unrestricted free agents.


In 1993, NFL free agency began with the advent of the first year salary cap. A set amount of money was allocated for each team to spend on player salaries, creating a more level playing field among teams. Prior to this, teams with more money to spend could sign the best players, giving them a significant advantage over other teams. The salary cap system helped to level the playing field and made free agency more competitive.


The current system of NFL free agency began in 1993, when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was reached between the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). This CBA included the establishment of free agency for veterans, meaning that players with four or more accrued seasons were no longer bound to their former teams and could sign with any team in the league.

There was a lot of skepticism about how well free agency would work in the NFL. Some people thought that it would lead to massive contract inflation, while others thought that it would create a competitive imbalance between teams. However, free agency has generally worked out well for the NFL. It has created more parity between teams, as evidenced by the fact that 12 different teams have won Super Bowls since 1993. It has also led to players signing more team-friendly contracts, as they are often willing to sacrifice some individual money for the chance to play on a contender.

What Have Been the Biggest NFL Free Agency Moves?

NFL free agency began on March 11, 1993. On that day, NFL teams were allowed to negotiate with players who had expired contracts. The first big free agency move came a few days later when the San Francisco 49ers signed defensive end Reggie White to a four-year, $17 million contract.


Free agency in the NFL began in 1993, but the biggest free agency move prior to that took place in 1989 when Reggie White left the Philadelphia Eagles to join the Green Bay Packers. In 1992, White helped the Packers win their third Super Bowl title in team history.


In 1993, free agency in the National Football League began under a system Talks between the NFL and NFLPA to replace the league’s previous system of restricted free agent signings, options, and first-refusal rights had begun as early as 1987. But those negotiations collapsed in both 1988 and 1989. In February 1993, after U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled that the league’s Plan B free agency system was no longer valid, the two sides finally reached an agreement on a new system.

The 1993 professional football season saw an unprecedented level of player movement. After years of teams holding on to their players with no real possibility of losing them to another team, over 400 players changed teams in 1993. The average salary for a player also increased dramatically, from $285,000 in 1992 to over $1 million in 1993.

The impact of free agency on the NFL was immediate and dramatic. Teams that had been cellar dwellers for years suddenly became contenders, as they were able to sign high-profile free agents who could change the course of a franchise. For example, the Miami Dolphins went from a 6-10 record in 1992 to 12-4 in 1993, thanks in part to the addition of wide receiver Irving Fryar and linebacker Bryan Cox through free agency. Similarly, the New York Jets went from 8-8 in 1992 to 10-6 in 1993, thanks largely to the addition of quarterback Boomer Esiason via free agency.


In the years since the 1993 decision, free agency has had a dramatic impact on the NFL. Perhaps the most significant change has been the increase in player salaries. In 1994, the average NFL salary was $1.2 million. By 2017, it had increased to $2.7 million. The total amount of money paid to players has also skyrocketed. In 1994, NFL teams paid a total of $1.017 billion in salaries. By 2017, that number had jumped to $4.544 billion.

The growth of free agency has also led to increased player movement from team to team. In 1994, an average of just over four percent of players changed teams during the offseason. By 2017, that number had increased to nearly 13 percent.

While free agency has been good for players, it has had mixed results for teams and fans. On one hand, it has created more parity than ever before by allowing teams to quickly improve their rosters through signing experienced veterans from other teams. On the other hand, it has made it more difficult for fans to remain loyal to their favorite team because star players can suddenly leave for another team with little or no notice.

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