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NFL free agency: What is it, when is it, and how does it work?

We have all the details as teams get ready to flash the cash on March 9.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 NFL season is in the rearview window, but the offseason is just getting started. With free agency right around the corner, fans are mounting anticipation about their favorite teams getting upgrades at key positions.

This year has a star-studded class of free agents, including big names like Le’Veon Bell, Kirk Cousins, Alshon Jeffery, Chandler Jones, and Eric Berry. Of course, not all of these players will actually hit the open market — some of them will get a long-term deal done with their current team, and some will get slapped with the franchise tag and take longer to work out a new contract. Still, there will be no shortage of talent available for teams — provided they have the salary cap space, of course.

We should also take into account that most contracts aren’t what they look like on the surface. A player could sign a “six-year, $100 million” deal and end up seeing only a fraction of that money. The devil is in the details, which in this case is guaranteed money and signing bonuses. Those are the real goals for players and their agents — get as much money now while you can still play in a sport with short careers.

So before the festivities begin, let’s go over the timeline of free agency, along with some important details to take note of.

Important dates

March 1: The deadline for assigning the franchise or transition tag to players passes at 4 p.m. ET.

March 7-9: Before the new league year begins, the NFL has a three-day window where teams and impending free agents are allowed to freely negotiate. Also known as the “legal tampering” period, this is where most of the megacontracts get hammered out. By the time the league calendar flips over, we’ll have a good idea of where nearly every big-name free agent is heading next.

March 9: The 2017 league year begins at 4 p.m. ET. You can expect about a thousand Adam Schefter tweets all at once when free-agent contract deals become official. This is also the time when all teams must be under the salary cap.

July 15: This is the deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign a long-term deal. If the player and team are unable to reach an agreement, then the player is locked into his one-year deal and is a free agent again next offseason.

Unrestricted vs. restricted free agents

There are actually two types of free agents: unrestricted and restricted. Unrestricted free agents are, as the title implies, free to hit the open market and negotiate with any team once their contract expires. Restricted free agents (RFAs) are players with three years of service who become eligible to receive one-year qualifying offers.

Teams place a tender on RFAs depending on draft pick compensation (first round, second round, or the player’s original draft position). Those players are then able to negotiate with other teams, which can make a matching offer. If the original team declines to match that offer, it receives the draft pick designated in the RFA tender.

This year’s top RFAs include Malcolm Butler, Taylor Gabriel, Kiko Alonso, DeShawn Shead, and Isaiah Crowell. Of those players, Butler is the most likely to get a first-round tender.

How does the franchise tag work?

A complete explainer for the franchise tag process can be found here.

Short version: It’s a one-year contract with a salary that averages out the top-five salaries at that player’s position. Teams then have until July 15 to negotiate a long-term contract, otherwise the player must play under that tag. A lot of players hate the tag because it limits their options in free agency, but at the end of the day it’s still a pretty healthy paycheck for one year.

What’s the deal with the post-June 1 designation?

Cap casualties are usually settled by March, but there’s a special “post-June 1 designation” that some teams use. In basic terms, it allows teams to release a player but soften his cap hit — players released before June 1 have their bonus money count toward that year’s cap, while waiting until after the date spreads it out over two years. It’s essentially a way for teams in cap trouble to release players and still have some wiggle room in free agency.

One of this offseason’s biggest stories is the future of Tony Romo, who passed the torch to Dak Prescott in Dallas and will almost certainly be playing somewhere else. Romo carries a $24.7 million cap hit for 2017, and if the Cowboys cut him now they’ll have to eat $19.6 million in dead money, while saving just $5.1 million.

However, Dallas can designate Romo as a post-June 1 cut, in which case the team saves $14 million with $10.7 million of dead money. Of course, the Cowboys will try to work out a trade before it comes to that, but the post-June 1 option is on the table for them.

Can current free agents sign with teams right now?

For the most part, yes (the Seattle Seahawks already signed kicker Blair Walsh, for instance), but there are some exceptions. We’ve already seen a couple of players hit the market early after teams declined their 2017 option, like tackles Russell Okung, Ryan Clady and Kelvin Beachum. They still have the option of re-signing with their former teams (the Denver Broncos for Okung, the New York Jets with Clady, the Jacksonville Jaguars with Beachum), but they’re not officially free agents until the league year starts on March 9.