Explaining NFL Free Agent Designations

Here is our updated look at the type of NFL free agents and explaining some of the ways to look at free agency.

Unrestricted Free Agents– These are players who have at least four years of accrued service in the NFL, whose contracts expire or void following the 2014 season.  An accrued year is defined as a season in which a player was on a NFL roster for at least 6 weeks, which includes injured reserve.  These players are only eligible to sign a contract with their current team between now and 4PM on March 10, 2015. On March 7 unrestricted free agents can begin to negotiate with other teams, but they may not sign new deals until the 10th. UFA’s do count towards the compensatory pick equations that are used to compensate teams who lose more valuable or total UFA’s than they sign.

Every UFA is eligible for the franchise or transition tag, unless it is explictily stated otherwise in his contract. Teams have between February 16 and March 2, 2015 to apply the tag to a player. A team may only use the tag on one player each season.  The application of the tag means the team extends a one year, fully guaranteed contract to player worth a running average of the top 5 or 10 salaries at his position as a percentage of the salary cap over the prior five seasons. Because the salary is so high it is usually only reserved for top free agents.

Once the tag is applied the team receives the right of first refusal on any contract offer a player signs with another team. In addition, if the franchise tag is used the team will receive two first round draft picks as “trade” compensation if the player signs with another team. Because of that provision the franchise tag essentially bars unrestrictred free agents from free agency and locks them into negotiating only with their current team.

There are usually tiers/waves to unrestricted free agency. The Tier 1 players are the big name players who break the bank within the first few days of free agency. These players are the biggest name talent such as Ndamukong Suh and Dez Bryant. Such players receive large guarantees that likely run into the third year of a contract and genuinely excite the fanbase as a signal of change. These names appeal to even the most casual of football plans.

The Tier 2 free agent won’t command as much money but often proves to be more of a value.  Some teams will only target this tier of player from day 1 while others may wait the Tier 1’s out and then jump to the second tier which is a backup plan of sorts. Often these Tier 2s are the ones that people like me may say “that’s a pretty good value compared to…” and more diehard fans see strong benefits in the player. Both the free agent and the team sometimes will wait to see if the free agent trends shown by the tier ones changes the salary dynamic, though there is a risk to that strategy.

Tier 3 free agents are those who may have something to prove. These are players that may wait out the free agency process or need to wait until others are signed to try and locate ideal situations. They might be a veteran coming off an injury or two, such as Brian Orakpo, or a young player who fell out of favor with a new coaching staff or had something else impact his play. Such players can be very cheap and sign for bargain basement prices with an eye on the future. In many cases they want to find the best situation (long term opportunity, stable staff/front office, etc…) that can provide them with a true audition rather than taking a few extra dollars with a less desireable situation.

Tier 4 free agents are those who may have difficulty finding a home in the spring and may be working through the early summer or training camp months to find a position. They likely need to wait out the draft and then find teams that did not fill holes with drafted players. These are the players that will be competing with the low draft picks and undrafted players for those last few spots on a roster in camp.

Restricted Free Agents– These are players that have at least three years of accrued service in the NFL. Due to changes in the draft process, which now mandates four year contracts, these players are almost exclusively Undrafted Free Agents. In this case the team with which they finished the 2014 season holds the right through March 10 at 4PM to extend a tender offer to the player. A tender allows the former team to exhibit a level of control over the player in free agency, similar to the franchise tag. At a minimum every tender allows them to match the offer sheet made by another team. RFAs are allowed to negotiate with other teams, even if a tender is applied, starting at 4PM on March 10. Tenders count on the salary cap as soon as applied, provided they factor into the Top 51, which most do.

The team can place one of three tenders on the player. The highest tender is the 1st round compensation tender, meaning if another team signs the player and the original team decides to not match it the new team will have to give the team a 1st round draft pick in 2014. If the team does not own their first round pick (such as the Bills) they are unable to sign the restricted free agent. The other tenders are a 2nd round tender, original draft round, and finally right of first refusal tender. The ROFR means you get no compensation if you decide to not match the offer sheet. Teams have five days to match the new offer sheet. During that time period the player will count on both teams’ salary cap.

The tender offer is a non-guaranteed one year contract amount based on the compensation level. In 2014 the tenders were $3.113 million for the 1st round tender, $2.187 million for the 2nd round tender, and $1.431 million for the original round and ROFR tenders. Those numbers will rise by a minimum of 5% and a maximum of 10% this season, with the number being based on the official salary cap limit. The RFA free agency period is shorter than that of the regular unrestricted free agent, ending this year on April 24. Once the April 24 deadline passes the player can only negotiate with the team that tendered them.

Often once the RFA free agency period is complete teams will use the leverage to reduce the costs of these contracts, specifically for the low tendered players, since they know the players’ options are limited. What they will do is offer the player a minimum salary and a guaranteed bonus somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000. The total compensation is lower but at least there is some job security.

Just because a player is extended a tender does not mean he can’t find a new home. Teams will sometimes work out trades for these players at lower compensation levels. For example the Saints tendered RB Chris Ivory in 2013 at the 2nd round level with the hopes of trading him as he was going to be unaffordable on their salary cap once the roster expanded to 53 players. Before the draft he was traded to the Jets where he signed a three year contract.

If a player is not tendered or the tender is rescinded before a player is signed he immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent that is free to sign with any team in the NFL. These players should not factor in the compensatory draft equations. It is rare that RFAs switch teams but it does occasionally happen- last season Andrew Hawkins signed an offer sheet with the Browns which the Bengals failed to match.

Exclusive Rights Free Agents– Players with less than two accrued seasons are the exclusive property of their former team provided the team makes a one year tender offer for the minimum salary. So for a player that was in his first year in 2014 on a $420,000 contract, the team will place a $510,000 tender on the player and own his rights, assuming he earned a credited season (if no credited season was earned the player woud receive a $435,000 tender). Unlike RFA’s the ERFA is not allowed to negotiate a contract with another team once the tender is applied. Essentially they are locked in for another season with their original team. If no tender is made or the tender is rescinded then the player becomes and unrestricted free agent. If that occurs they do not factor into the compensatory equation. Tenders count on the salary cap as soon as applied, provided they count in the Top 51, which they usually do not.

Street/Other Free Agents– These are players who had contracts that extended into at least 2014 with a NFL team but were released from the contract. Players who were released or not on an active roster prior to the playoffs were free to sign futures contracts for the 2015 League Year in January. Now that the Super Bowl is complete, teams can begin to release players under contract for 2015. Unlike unrestricted free agents who are not allowed to sign until March 10,  these players are free to sign with any team in the NFL once released from their contract.

Usually players released from their contract during this period are those who don’t factor at all into the future plans of a team and the team sees fit to let them have an early chance at free agency, which is what occured last season with D’Qwell Jackson of the Browns. These players do not factor into any compensatory equations and would be the type of free agent that draft conscious teams like the Ravens and Packers would target once available.

We maintain a very accurate database of free agents at OTC that is often used (and copied) by other sites. I dont think you will find a better resource than the one here though. We list every UFA, RFA, and ERFA that we know of (some mistakes in status are bound to happen so please let me know if you see an error) and once loaded you can use the menu above the table to quickly change the view without having to reload pages or anything like that. So you have the option to select all unrestricted free agents in the NFL and then drill that down into position or by team by simply slicking a menu button. Or just to look at every position there is.

We are the only site that I know of that breaks the offensive line down into all 5 positions and defensive tackles down into what defense they play. we’ll also be updting for some other positions in the future. Players are listed in order of their prior contract annual value, but you can click on a table header to change that. I firmly believe that this is the best free agent resource you can find.

If you want to learn more about the draft process and compensatory picks check out Nick’s draft page he developed that includes his process for identifying all the compensatory selections in the draft. This compensatory forecast is unique to OTC so when you see it showing up elsewhere just know it came from here. We have estimates for each teams salary cap pool there as well.