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Getting to Know One of the NFL’s Lesser Known, More Intricate Free Agency Rules

Feb 23, 2012, 2:57 PM EDT

Adam Caplan Tweeted on Thursday that NFL rules prevent Evan Mathis from signing a contract before free agency begins on March 13.

For the most part, everybody is an Evan Mathis fan these days. He’s very engaging, and coming off a career year seldom hurts one’s popularity.

He’s also a free agent, and somebody the Eagles would like to have back next season. For his part, Mathis expressed a desire to return as well, so we were fairly confident the two sides would work something out, perhaps even before free agency opened.

As it turns out, that last part… can’t happen.

Responding to a story about Dallas Cowboys free agent wide receiver Laurent Robinson, Adam Caplan Tweeted on Thursday that NFL rules prevent Mathis from signing a contract before free agency begins on March 13.

Like Robinson, Mathis signed something called a “minimum salary benefit” contract last summer. The deal pays the player the league minimum, but the entire salary does not count against the salary cap. In Robinson’s case, the Cowboys saved a little more than $200,000 by doing this.

The downside, of course, is the Eagles can’t lock in Mathis before another club has a chance to make  an offer, which could drive up the price. Technically, they can still negotiate with him in advance of March 13, but ESPN’s Todd Archer, who broke the initial story on Robinson, indicated such a move could hurt their bargaining position.

“The conversation with him goes more like, ‘What are you thinking and then we’ll think about it,’” [Cowboys] executive vice president Stephen Jones said.

Caplan also confirmed defensive tackle Derek Landri is in the same boat.

The silver lining is Mathis wants to play here, so it’s not time to panic quite yet. However, if another GM agrees he looked like one of the best left guards in football this season, that team might make an offer the Eagles won’t match — and Mathis can’t refuse.