As offseason programs open and franchise players remain unsigned and fans looking for something to worry about are now worried about franchise players not participating in offseason programs, the popular belief is that unsigned franchise players can’t participate because they’re not under contract.
Technically, they can.
In a memo sent to all 32 teams on Tuesday, a copy of which PFT has obtained, the league reminded the various franchises of the five categories of players who may participate in the offseason program: (1) players currently under contract; (2) restricted free agents who have received qualifying offers, signed or not; (3) unrestricted free agents whose contracts have expired and who may sign with another team through July 22; (4) players whose contracts have expired by whose teams retain exclusive negotiating rights; and (5) player who have been drafted but who have not yet signed a contract.
Players receiving the non-exclusive franchise tender fall under category No. 3. Players who have received the exclusive franchise tender (this year, Saints quarterback Drew Brees is the only one) fall under category No. 4.
That said, few franchise players ever show up for offseason workouts. A player’s biggest leverage comes from withholding services, and a player who isn’t under contract may withhold services without consequence.
Still, Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney once showed up for meetings but not on-field workouts, despite the franchise tag. Also, players (as unsigned draft picks routinely do) may sign injury protection letters, which ensure that they’ll be paid if they tear an ACL or blow out an Achilles’ tendon.
Months ago, we were told that Brees would not show up if given the franchise tag and not a long-term deal. He ducked the question earlier this week at a press conference, and there’s still no reason to think that he’ll be there, absent a multi-year contract.
That said, much of the early portion of the offseason program consists of weightlifting and conditioning only. The Saints don’t begin their on-field work until roughly the middle of May. So they don’t really need him to be there until then.
This year, the OTAs have been cut from 14 days to 10, and teams are entitled to one mandatory minicamp. (Teams with new coaches may have two.)
With coach Sean Payton gone for the year, it’s now critical that Brees is present when the actual practices begin, both for Brees and for the Saints.