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NFL restricted free agency: Rules, tender amounts, and more

Unlike restricted free agents, RFAs can’t just sign with any team.

Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On March 14, players not under contract for the 2018 season will officially become free agents. But not every player who hits the market will do so as an unrestricted free agent able to sign with any team.

In the interest of parity, the NFL provides extra protections to teams so that richer organizations aren’t able to steal away star players with promises of bigger contracts. Instead, teams can apply the franchise or transition tag to keep players from leaving.

Another protection designates players as restricted free agents.

Who qualifies as a restricted free agent?

A restricted free agent is any player with an expiring contract who has exactly three accrued NFL seasons. An accrued season is defined as a player being on a team for at least six regular season games, although practice squad designation doesn’t count. The reserve physically unable to perform (PUP) list for non-football injuries also doesn’t count as an accrued season.

For example, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith sat out his rookie season on the non-football injury list due to a knee injury suffered during his final game at Notre Dame, so his first season in the NFL was not an accrued season. However, Washington wide receiver Josh Doctson appeared in only two games, but his Achilles injury didn’t keep his rookie season from being an accrued one.

What makes a restricted free agent different?

Unlike an unrestricted free agent who can either re-sign with their current team or test the open market and go elsewhere, restricted free agents are tied down unless a team allows them to become an unrestricted free agent.

Teams have four different tender options they can place on their restricted free agent that usually keeps those players from leaving.

  1. First-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a first-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.
  2. Second-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a second-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.
  3. Original-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a selection equal to the round the player was originally selected in if it opts not to match the deal.
  4. Right of first refusal: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal. The team will not receive any compensation if it opts not to match another deal.

Why not give every player a first-round tender?

Money and the salary cap implications would come with that. There aren’t many restricted free agents that are so valuable that a team would ever even consider giving up a first- or second-round pick to acquire them, so it’s a waste to apply a more expensive tender when a cheaper one can ward off prospective teams.

How much more expensive?

First-round tenders are valued at $4.149 million in 2018.
Second-round tenders are $2.914 million.
Original-round and low-level tenders are $1.907 million.

The tender amount increases each year by the same rate of increase as the NFL salary cap, at a minimum of five percent and a maximum of 10 percent.

It wouldn’t make much sense to give a fringe-player a first-round tender because a team would then be committing too much money for that player. Then there’s players like Matt Paradis, the center for the Denver Broncos who has already received a second-round tender for 2018. He played every offensive snap a season ago, so might be a player teams try and sign away with a low-level tender.

What happens if another team signs a restricted free agent?

Sometimes, even if a tender is placed on a player it won’t dissuade another team from trying to snatch them up anyway. But if a player has been tendered, he can’t just be signed to a contract. Instead, he gets signed to an offer sheet.

Two years ago, the Miami Dolphins signed running back C.J. Anderson to an offer sheet worth $18 million over four years, but the Denver Broncos matched the deal. When the Patriots signed wide receiver Chris Hogan to a three-year, $12 million offer sheet, the Buffalo Bills chose not to match.

Neither Anderson nor Hogan — a pair of undrafted free agents — received tenders that offered the Broncos or Bills compensation for the options of not matching the offers.

What’s an exclusive-rights free agent?

An ERFA is a player with only one or two accrued seasons — a list that actually includes Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon this time around — But unlike restricted free agents, ERFAs aren’t able to negotiate with other teams. Instead their rights belong exclusively to the team that applied the tender.

Who is on the restricted free agency market in 2018?

There’s a list of over 80 players scheduled to be a restricted free agent when the new league year begins on March 14. The full list is on Over The Cap, but the most noteworthy names are Chicago Bears receiver Cameron Meredith, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Eli Rogers, Broncos center Matt Paradis and linebacker Shaquil Barrett, among others.