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Football 101: Futures Contracts Explained

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Every year, we get plenty of reaction as the Miami Dolphins start signing players to "futures contracts." What exactly are they?

Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson is one of eight players who has signed a futures contract with the Miami Dolphins following the 2014 season.
Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson is one of eight players who has signed a futures contract with the Miami Dolphins following the 2014 season.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This happens every year, and it is a little funny. Fans read that their team has started signing free agents in January, and then get all upset that their team is "wasting money" on "garbage" players who "couldn't make it on any other team." What they don't realize is, that's exactly the point.

Last offseason, we started a series of posts we called "Football 101." It was our way of taking a better look at terms used everyday by all of us as football fans, but may not be a completely understood aspect of the game. Things like a West Coast Offense or a Coverage Shell. We hear it, we talk about it, but what is it? We bring back that series this offseason, starting today with a look at "Futures Contracts." What are they and why, if free agency does not start until March, can free agents be signed now?

The key point in the opening paragraph that defines a futures contract is the "couldn't make it on any other team" portion of the complaints. That is exactly why the players can be signed now. A futures contract can be signed for the next season, if the player is not on any active roster at the end of the preceeding season. These are not supposed to be the great star player, who has had his contract expire after the 2014 season. They are not free agents until the change of the league year in March. Free agent players who are floating on the fringe of the league, but are not signed to any team, are available for teams to sign, just as they were at any point during the season.

Who are these players? Typically, they are guys that were on a practice squad somewhere, often for the team with which they signed. These are players the team is hoping to continue to develop, with the possibility of either adding them to the back end of the 53-man roster for next season, or stashing them on the practice squad again.

The other big piece of why teams sign these players is the size of the roster. While right now, the roster limits are set to the 53-man in-season limit, with a 10-man practice squad, the rosters will expand to the 90-man limit as the next league year begins in March. That means every team in the league will be looking to add 37 players, or 1,184 players not currently in the league will be added. That is not even counting the soon-to-be free agents with expiring contracts, since they will likely stay in the league, just changing teams. There will also be retirements that increase the number of players needed, and, of course, there will be the Draft, which will fill some of the slots.

Some of the futures contracts signings could simply be camp bodies, filling up a roster - though hopefully there is some potential for development in any of the players signed.

We do have one technical question left, however, when it comes to the discussion of "futures contracts." Why are the "futures?" It is because these contracts are exactly what they sound like: future contracts. In essence, the players signing now are all signing 2015 contracts, even though the league has not rolled into the 2015 league year.

Futures contracts are not going to be flashy, big-name players who will make-or-break your next season. They are players that are going to provide you depth, potentially develop into something, and help fill out a roster that is getting ready to drastically expand. Think of them in terms of undrafted free agents, players that you are adding in hopes that maybe someone will flash. They are low risk signings, and players at whom coaches or general managers want to take a closer look when the offseason program for next season begins.