You have one of our readers, Matt, to thank both for this post and for the title. He wanted a primer on free agency, so I'm obliging him. After all, there isn't a lot else to talk about.
First, let's start with something easy:
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA)
An unrestricted free agent is a player whose contract has expired and has accumulated at least 6 years of service time. Normally, that is four years of service time, but the rules have changed thanks to the infamous uncapped year. The Colts have two of these players: Gary Brackett and Matt Stover. The Colts are forbidden from signing UFAs from other teams thanks to the "Final Four" rule. In other words, this category is not of much concern to the Colts. However, if a team has a player they want to keep who is a UFA, there are options.
A team has the option of "tagging" a potential UFA with one of two tags. The Franchise Tag and the Transition Tag guarantee that a team cannot lose the UFA. The team agrees to pay the player a hefty sum for one year of service. If the player signs the offer, the team has a limited time to work out a new deal with the player which is more advantageous for both sides. During that time, the player is not under contract and does not have to participate in team activities. The Colts "franchised" Dwight Freeney recently, but worked out a new deal with him before the deadline.
The team can chose to allow the player to negotiate with other teams during this time if they choose. If the player can work out a better deal with a different club, a trade can be arranged. The Colts chose NOT to franchise Gary Brackett. Why? They would have had to agree to pay him in excess of $9 million next year. He's simply not worth nearly that much money. Come tomorrow, Gary Brackett's contract will be up, and he'll be free to sign with any team he wishes. If he does, two things will happen for the Colts: first, they'll gain the right to sign a UFA under the "Final Four" rules. Secondly, they'll likely get a compensatory pick in 2011.
Compensatory picks are given out by the league each year. They are 'extra' picks that do not come from another team. The NFL has a secret formula that awards extra picks to teams based on how many free agents they lose and how many they sign. They are awarded the year AFTER the players leave. The Colts would receive any compensatory picks this year based on who left in 2009. These picks cannot be traded. If Gary Brackett signs a major deal with another team, and the Colts don't sign anyone comparable, the Colts can expect a 3rd or 4th round compensatory pick to be awarded by the NFL in 2011. Again, that will be an EXTRA pick not given by another team.
Restricted Rights Free Agents (RFAs)
There is a second kind of free agent. Players whose contracts have expired but have been in the league less than 6 years are RFAs. This means that the team they belong to can decide how to handle contract negotiations with the player. Please note: TAGGING DOES NOT APPLY TO RFAs. The team has two options:
If a team wants to keep a player, it can 'tender' them a contract. The tender guarantees the player a certain salary level and grants the team the "right of first refusal". The restricted free agent can sign with any team he likes, but with two conditions. The original team has the right to match any offer from another club. If the Colts in this case decide NOT to match the offer, the new team has to surrender a draft pick for the player. TENDERING DOES NOT APPLY TO UFAs
Here is the list for what 'level' a player can be tendered at:
2010 RFA Tender Values: Players with five accrued seasons
Compensation to original team RFA Tender Value Right of first refusal $1,226,000 ROFR & pick in round player was drafted $1,226,000 or 110 percent prior salary ROFR & second-round choice $1,809,000 or 110 percent prior salary ROFR & first-round choice $2,621,000 or 110 percent prior salary ROFR & first-, third-round choices $3,268,000 or 110 percent prior salary
The Colts have tendered Bethea at first round choice level. Anyone who wants Bethea has to pay him a tidy sum of money (so much that the Colts won't just match it) AND surrender their 2010 first round pick in order to get him. These picks are NOT compensatory picks. They are essentially a 'trade' for the right to sign the player. A hefty tender (first or second round pick) makes it extremely unlikely that anyone else will take Bethea or Bullitt. However, if a team is so in love with either that they offer them a nice deal, the Colts will gladly let them walk and take the great draft picks in return. The Colts have until Friday to 'tender' all their RFAs. The link above has a full list of all the Indianapolis RFAs.
If the team does not want to pay the player the salary level listed above, they can chose not to tender a contract. At that point, the player becomes an Unrestricted Free Agent. Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings have not been tendered by the Colts. The Colts can still resign the players, but they have no right of first refusal. A team will non-tender a RFA if they believe that they are worth less than the tender amount and are likely to not be resigned. The Colts do get 'compensatory' credit for players lost in this way.
Raheem Brock has asked for his release. He's due to make a lot of money next year, so the question is why? Simply put, he knows the Colts will release him eventually because he isn't worth the money he's slated to make. He wants to be released early on so that he can have a good chance to score a new deal with another team. If the team waits to release him until later in the process, his options for a new team will be limited.