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How to navigate the 4 stages of NFL free agency, explained by a former player

Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz, who had plenty of experience as a free agent, details what each stage is like.

NFL: New York Giants at Buffalo Bills Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Money, money, money! The money is flying around the NFL as the start of the free agency is about to begin. The salary cap keeps rising and teams with loads of cap space are spending freely.

Even though free agency doesn’t officially open up until Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET, the tampering period has led to deals being made in principle only (LOL). While there’s an expected frenzy around these monster contracts signed over the next 72 hours, that is only the beginning of the free agency period.

There are four general free agency stages and I’ve been a part of most of them (I was a free agent often). Let’s take a look at each one.

Stage 1: The rainmaker period

This includes all the players who are about to be the highest-paid at their position. Typically, they’re guys who’ve played through their rookie contracts and their current team doesn’t want to pay them. These players are young, talented, and ready to cash in.

There are some, like myself, who had injuries, bounced around, finally got healthy, and are still in their prime. They get the BIG money to start free agency.

When the tampering period opens up and teams are freely able to discuss an impending free agent, their agents’ phones ring off the hook. Teams that are interested call a player’s agent to either offer a contract or to gauge interest and contract demands. More often than not, players are just signing with the highest bidder. Once the deal is done in principle and that magical 4 p.m. time hits, the player receives a phone call from someone within the organization to set up a flight.

The Giants called me at 4 p.m. and I was on a flight at 6 p.m. I got in and had dinner with the offensive line coach. The following morning is when I had my physical and signed a deal. Then, it was celebration time. All the fellow free agents who signed when I did — Rashad Jennings and J.D. Walton — and the coaching staff went to grab a celebration meal. First-class experience for first-class free agent signings.

This is the free agency we all want.

Stage 2: Serviceable depth piece

After this big run of free agents, which are often being signed by teams not in the playoffs, there comes a second wave of players who sign about a week after this tampering period. These are players who will make the team, add depth, and could be starters. They are coming off an injury or might have underperformed, but they still have talent.

These deals are typically one or two years and for a decent but not hefty price. The players typically take a few visits and feel out the situation. They have similar offers and are looking for the best fit.

I played every snap in 2010 with the Carolina Panthers. I spent all of 2011 on injured reserve with two hip surgeries. The Panthers decided I wasn’t in their future plans and didn’t offer me a tender for the 2012 season.

I was a free agent. Young and healthy now. No one was going to sign me in the first wave, but I was a prime second-wave player. I visited three teams. Visiting teams can be used as leverage to get more money.

I did physicals, toured the facility, and met with the coaches. The money was all about the same — above minimum — but I was looking for the best opportunity to play while setting myself up for free agency next season. I chose the Vikings.

We will see this play out over the coming weeks.

Stage 3: Depth signing

After the first wave of big names and the second wave of serviceable players, the third wave is depth signings. Teams look at their roster after the dust has settled from the first two or three weeks of free agency and see where they are deficient still. They survey the remaining free agents and start to figure out where to fill some needs.

Even within the depth signings, there are different tiers to it:

1. The first tier is more similar to the serviceable depth piece, but for far less money.

After my bad season in Minnesota, my body was fresh but my film wasn’t. The Chiefs called two weeks into free agency and I took a visit there. They were the only team that showed interest in me, which is often the case at this time of the offseason. I signed when I got to Kansas City for a minimum deal plus some incentives. Because of my talent level at the time and my versatility, I’m sure the front office penciled me onto the roster. If I was damaged goods, they could cut me at no cost.

2. The second tier of this free agency are the signings that are veterans who are “backup” pieces.

They are veterans near the end of the line but who sign with a team in case something weird happens at their position. I signed with the Lions knowing they had young players on the offensive line. I was brought on as insurance for their young linemen. If they got hurt, I was there. If the Lions had to cut me, which they did, they weren’t out money.

We will see these signings around May.

Stage 4: Veterans on their last hoorah

There are a number of veterans released before the start of this league year who still want to play. Well, they think they do. But first, they want to spend time with the family. They are tired of the training grind and believe it’s close to retirement time.

Then, the itch starts to come back. Someone gets hurt at their position on a team close to winning. That team needs to fill that spot and here’s that veteran to fill it.

So if your favorite team is sitting out of the first wave of big signings, don’t worry, there are plenty of players still left who will sign with your team.