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The Terms And Phrases Of Free Agency

Some of the definitions you need to know this time of year

A week from today, teams are officially allowed to start talking to scheduled free agents from another team. A week from Wednesday, free agency (and the new league year) officially begins. With that, here's a short primer on the terms and phrases and mechanisms of free agency (and contracts) that come up again and again this time of year.

  • Dead cap hit: Any leftover salary cap money from a player that counts against the cap even though the player is no longer around. For example, De'Vondre Campbell, scheduled to be a free agent, will have a $4 million cap hit in the 2021, even though he would not be on the roster. (If Campbell re-signs, that cap hit remains plus whatever his new deal will call for.)
  • June 1 cut: If a player is released after June 1, his dead cap hit can be split up over the next two seasons. A player can be released prior to June 1 with a June 1 designation, but if a team does that, the player's dead money must be carried in full against the cap until June 1 actually arrives on the calendar.
  • Restructuring a contract: This one is used too often when it shouldn't. If a player restructures a contract, it means he is getting all the money he had due this season, just in a different form; i.e., turning salary into immediate signing bonus. The player gets the money he had coming, and the team by turning salary to bonus can spread the cap hit out over future years. A lot of times someone will note a player could "restructure" by taking less money and doing nothing else to the contract -- nope. That's just a paycut.
  • Top 51: In the offseason, until the first Monday before the opening regular season game, only the top 51 salary cap numbers on each team count against the cap. Once we get to that Monday, every cap number on the roster, including injured reserve players and practice squad players, count against the cap.
  • Voidable years: Teams can add void years at the back end of a contract in order to spread out the signing bonus cap hit. It's what they just did with J.J. Watt, who essentially signed a two-year deal although on paper it's five years (with the last three seasons automatically voiding after two played.)
  • Guaranteed money: The team will never put out details like guaranteed money, but the agents will. But that comes with a caveat. The guaranteed money that is most important in a contract; if a player has a non-guaranteed $5M salaries in the last two years of a five-year deal and is released before those years, he doesn't get any of the cash. But even reports of guarantees aren't always in the strictest sense of the word. Sometimes the money in Year Two, for instance, is considered a guarantee even if it isn't, since most teams won't cut a free agent one year into a signing.
  • Agreed To Terms vs. Signed: It's exactly what it sounds like. If a player signs his contract, the deal is done. If the player has agreed to terms, the contract has yet to be signed and usually, the player has yet to take his physical, which must be cleared before a team will sign a guy. Most teams prefer to wait to announce a new player until after he signs (and after the physical is done), which is why often there is a lag between when reports come out that a player is going to a team and the team officially confirming the news.
GM Steve Keim and Adrian Wilson, VP of pro personnel
GM Steve Keim and Adrian Wilson, VP of pro personnel