THE REVISING of player contracts over the off-season has seen the AFL push back its classifications of this year’s restricted and unrestricted free agents.
The League usually releases its official list of free agents to clubs in the lead up to round one, with the banding of players who can have their deals matched by clubs and those who can’t also part of the detail.
AFL.com.au revealed the full group of 2021 free agents in January and published an updated list this week, but the players who qualify as restricted free agents remains unclear as the AFL finalises the contracting changes around the competition.
INSIDE TRADING Free agents list revealed
Restricted free agents are players who fall in the top 25 per cent best paid players at their respective clubs and come out of contract after their eighth or ninth season at the club, with their owner clubs able to match rival bids for them under free agency rules. For instance, Jeremy Cameron was a restricted free agent at Greater Western Sydney last year, which allowed the Giants to match a bid for him and force Geelong into a trade.
Unrestricted free agents are players who are in the bottom 75 per cent of salaries at the clubs in their free agency year, or a player who has served 10 or more years at his club. Players who have previously qualified as a free agent – such as Port Adelaide’s Tom Rockliff – or players who have previously been delisted – such as Brisbane’s Jarryd Lyons – also qualify in this bracket. Clubs do not have the option of matching offers for unrestricted free agents.
Of this year’s crop, Essendon’s Zach Merrett, Western Bulldogs superstar Marcus Bontempelli, Carlton co-captain Patrick Cripps and Giants midfielder Josh Kelly are certain to qualify as restricted free agents as marquee players of their clubs.
The banding of free agents is dependent on what the player is paid in his free agency season, not across the average of his contract, meaning that each year there is often a surprise addition in the restricted group, including Giants defender Aidan Corr last year.
It means a player could have a heavily back-ended contract that pushes him into the group with the established stars of the competition.
The League last year slashed the salary cap by nine per cent to $13.17 million after the COVID-19 impact on the game, but the mandated drop for players was just 3.5 per cent.
However under agreed upon cuts with the AFL Players’ Association, some players faced nine per cent cuts depending on when they signed their latest contract, meaning clubs worked through new pay models with players.
Some approached a handful of players to defer payments down the track to ensure they are under the cap this year, while some such as West Coast, St Kilda, Richmond, Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn saw their players agree to bigger across-the-board models in a collective move.
Carlton was one club to take a hybrid model of deferments and increased pay cuts, with the different approaches that weren’t finalised until just before the season starting pushing back the release of the free agency classifications of players.