The process has begun and the Jaguars clearly have major decisions to make between now and the start of free agency.
From Feb. 8-22, NFL teams may assign "franchise" and "transition" tags to specific players, if they wish to do so. The Jaguars don't have any "franchise" or "transition" candidates, but they do have restricted free agents who would be very attractive in free agency, and the Jaguars must protect their rights to those players by making sure they make them unattractive.
How do you do that? It's all about assigning tenders, which must be designated by midnight on the night of March 1. At that moment, the first day of the NFL's league calendar begins and so does free agency.
The Jaguars have six players scheduled to become restricted free agents: Bobby McCray (pictured), Quinn Gray, Ernest Wilford, Josh Scobee, Jorge Cordova and Ahmad Carroll. According to the rules of restricted free agency, McCray will be the most difficult to protect and Carroll would be the easiest to protect. Why? Because McCray is a former seventh-round pick who became a star pass-rusher in 2006, while Carroll is a former first-round pick who was claimed off waivers last season.
Each of the six RFA players will be tendered an offer at one of four levels:
• Low tender includes right of first refusal for the team holding the player's rights, and original draft pick compensation should another team sign that player. Should a low-tender player not sign with another team, he would be paid an $850,000 salary on a one-year contract in 2007.
• Second-round tender includes right of first refusal, second-round draft choice compensation and a $1.3 million salary.
• First-round tender includes right of first refusal, first-round draft pick compensation and a $1.85 million salary.
• First and third-round tender includes right of first refusal, first and third-round draft pick compensation and a $2.35 million salary.
How might the Jaguars tender each of their six RFA players? Let's save that for another installment. Give it some thought between now and then. How would you do it?
Let's go back to those "franchise" and "transition" tags the Jaguars aren't going to use.
A "franchise" player would be paid at the average of the top five salaries in the league at his position. Should he sign a contract offer from another team, the signing team would owe the player's original team two first-round draft picks as compensation. To sign a "franchise" player, a team must have a first-round pick in each of the next two drafts the equal or higher in the order than their own choice. Each team may only designate one "franchise" player.
"Transition" players would be paid at the average of the top 10 salaries in the league at their position. The signing team owes no compensation, but the player's original team may retain the player by matching the offer he received within a week of having signed it. Each team may designate one "transition" player but not more than one "transition" and "franchise" player at any one time.
Feb. 12 is the first day teams may cut players. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to cut two players before June 2 and count them as June 2 cuts, which means their remaining amortization may be spread over two salary-cap years.
There are three categories of free agents in the free-agent signing period:
• Unrestricted free agents have four or more accrued seasons and their contracts expire at midnight on March 1.
• Restricted free agents have exactly three accrued seasons and their contracts expire at midnight on March 1. April 20 – one week before the draft – is the deadline for RFA's to sign an offer sheet.
• Exclusive-rights free agents have fewer than three accrued seasons and their contracts expire at midnight on March 1. Their teams may retain those players by tendering them a one-year contract offer at minimum wage by midnight on March 1. The Jaguars have two ERFA players: Derrick Wimbush and Kenny Petway.
The free-agent signing period is that time of the year when the salary cap boys – the bean counters of the front office – earn their money and are of premium importance.
The manner in which they move money around and their ability to be creative with contract language are critical. Consider the case of guard Steve Hutchinson last year.
Seattle designated Hutchinson a "transition" player. That was a mistake. They should've given him the "franchise" tag.
Minnesota gave Hutchinson a contract offer that included a clause that would guarantee all of the money in the contract – it was worth $49 million – if Hutchinson wasn't the highest-paid offensive lineman on the Vikings. The contract, of course, made Hutchinson the Vikings' highest-paid lineman.
If the Seahawks matched the Vikings' offer, they would have to guarantee all $49 million because Hutchinson would not have been their highest-paid offensive lineman; Walter Jones' contract would've been richer. Seattle decided it would not guarantee Hutchinson's $49 million.
The league contended the clause in Hutchinson's contract offer from the Vikings wasn't a principal term in the contract, but an arbitrator ruled it was, thus, the Vikings won the war for Hutchinson.
"What it means is the ability to poison-pill these offer sheets seems to be broad, so if you want to keep a free agent you better make sure you tender him at the right level so the compensation keeps teams from signing him to an offer sheet," Jaguars capologist Tim Walsh said.
"We have about $22 million in cap room. We have a lot of room. That gives us flexibility to do what we want to do, but it doesn't mean you're going to spend money if you don't see the value with the player," Walsh added of the Jaguars' situation heading into free agency.