While the NFL‘s legal tampering period began at noon ET on Monday, March 13, none of the agreements can be accepted until the new league year begins at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 15.
While the legal tampering period is only 10 years old, free agency dates back to 1962. Who was the first-ever NFL free agent? Here’s everything you need to know about which player made the first franchise switch on his own and the history of free agency in the NFL.
Who Was the First-Ever NFL Free Agent?
While the NFL establishes its own rules, for the most part, free agency has spent most of its time being fleshed out in the courts. When the NFL first started, they used the “reserve” system created by Major League Baseball.
When a player’s contract expired, they could renegotiate with the team that owned the contract. If the two sides could not negotiate a deal, the franchise could renew the old contract with a maximum pay cut of 10%. However, if the player refused to sign, they would be placed on the “reserve list” where no other team could negotiate — the only way out was through retirement or the current team selling the contract to another.
This changed in 1947 when the league adopted the “one-year option rule.” Teams could only automatically renew a player’s contract once instead of indefinitely in the “reserve” system. It would take 16 years before the first-ever NFL free agent, WR R.C. Owens, changed teams.
In a move that shook the league, Owens’ departure from San Francisco to Baltimore made 49ers owner Vic Morabito furious, and he never spoke to Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom again.
The aftermath caused by the first-ever NFL free agent was more than just a destroyed relationship within the ownership group, though. The following year, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle created the “Rozelle Rule.” This rule allowed the commissioner to compensate the team who lost a free agent with money or draft picks from the team the player signed with at his discretion.
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The rule didn’t work as intended. In one instance, the New Orleans Saints were forced to give the 49ers two first-round picks in exchange for signing WR Dave Parks. Parks had only caught 26 passes with the 49ers the previous season. With unfair compensation, teams were shy to sign players, and from 1963-1974 only 34 players signed contracts with new teams.
The player’s union took the Rozelle Rule to court in 1976, which was reversed after being found to be an unfair restraint of trade. Next, the NFL attempted what we know as “Plan B” free agency.
Franchises could protect 37 players on the roster with a right of first refusal while also setting up rules for compensation, standardizing the system, and taking the responsibility out of the commissioner’s hands. This eventually turned into the modern franchise tag system.
While this system was in effect until 1992, the league lost several lawsuits to players due to the restrictive nature of the rule. The owners and the players met to decide how to settle this issue. In 1993, the owners granted players unrestricted free agency in exchange for setting a salary cap.
After realizing free agency didn’t have as harmful an effect as expected, it has become a driving force behind team building, along with the NFL draft, since. Who knows what the 2023 free agency period has in store for NFL fans, but based on the legal tampering period, it should be entertaining, at the least.