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5 phases of NFL free agency

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Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz, who’s been through four of them, explains the process.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The favorite part of the NFL calendar for sources, reports, and people close to the situation has arrived. NFL free agency is here, and as usual, it’s hectic.

The legal tampering period started at Noon ET on Tuesday. The official start of free agency is Thursday at 4 p.m. ET. The legal tampering period took the place of the tampering period that happened but was never allowed. Free agents to be are allowed to be contacted by teams to discuss interest and terms. Nothing is allowed to be agreed upon until 4 p.m. on Thursday, but we all know that’s not the case. Deals are getting done while you read this.

The splashy part of the free agency gets all the attention, but in reality, that’s a small part of it. There are five tiers or phases of free agency. After playing eight seasons, I’ve been a part of four of those.

First phase: Straight cash homie

The first phase are the high-priority free agents. These are the big-name players who will be getting contracts that set them up for life. This is always what players are striving for, the second contract.

I finally got my second contract in year seven when I signed with the Giants. When the legal tampering period opened up, oddly enough on the morning of my wedding, I got eight calls right away. My agent and close family members started making a list of pros and cons, but my agent knew the Giants would be the most interested.

After the wedding that night, he told me we were set. Over the next couple of days before it could become official, not much happened. Right before 4 p.m. on the day you’re allowed to sign, the action picks up. My agent told me to pack a bag and be ready to hop on a flight.

For guys in this phase, the first flight you take is the only one. Teams battle for that opportunity. I was instructed that when 4 p.m. hit, only take a call from a N.Y./N.J. number and ignore the rest. The Giants called at 4 p.m., and I was in New York for dinner with the coaching staff. You must pass a physical the following morning before it can be official.

Second phase: Injury baggage

The second phase happens after the flurry of activity on day one. These players are backup plans for teams after they miss on first-phase players. Most often these are the guys who have been starters, but whose play declined because of injury. Some are still rehabbing from an injury. These guys will often take multiple trips to get physicals for each team and find the right spot for them to play and start.

In 2012, coming off my two hip surgeries, I took three trips in free agency: Minnesota, Detroit, and San Francisco. Each team wanted to clear me medically, and thought I’d compete for a starting spot if healthy.

The first-phase trips are to the steakhouse; these trips are to the local BBQ spot. Still fun, but not the same treatment as first phase. The contracts tend to be more incentive-laden, rewarding a player for staying healthy throughout the season.

Third phase: Depth signings

The third phase starts at the end of the second week of free agency and lasts through the third week. These are teams who have gone through free agency, looked at their depth, and decided they needed to add a possible rotational piece.

This was my year in Kansas City. I got picked up by an intern at the airport, not my position coach or anyone important. I went straight to the hotel and had my physical in the morning. After the physical, I went to the facility to meet the coaches, but none were there because of pro days. I signed my contract and went back to train.

These contracts tend to be base deals, with a tad of incentives. No fan fare and no guaranteed spot on the roster.

Fourth phase: Oh wait, that guy is still there

So the third-phase guys tend to be younger players who can provide depth at a few positions like linebackers, special teams, multiple OL positions, etc. Fourth-phase players tend to be veterans who can fill a specific role, like my signing with the Lions. I was insurance for their young players up front. If they got hurt, I was there. These contracts have almost zero guaranteed money. If it doesn’t pan out, oh well for the team.

Fifth Phase: Ballers just waiting for camp

These are the oldest players who are beyond proven and just want to train at home and wait for camp. Or in some cases, wait until camp is almost over to find the best spot. These players tend to be pass rushers, like Dwight Freeney. He can wait until something opens up late in camp and get into the season feeling fresh.

No matter what phase of free agency a player falls into, I hope they get every cent possible. The NFL is a ruthless business, so I always root for the player.