The Various Types of NFL Free Agents


Since I’ve been getting a number of tweets and emails about free agency I though this would be a good time to do a quick overview of the types of free agents that will be available over the coming months:

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 2013 season.  An accrued year is defined as a season in which a player was on a NFL roster for at least 6 weeks.  These players are the ones who are allowed to negotiate, but not sign, a contract with a new NFL team between now and Tuesday. 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.

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 get 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 these players 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.

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 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.

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 2013 season holds the right through Tuesday 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. 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 11. 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 Colts and Redskins) 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 are $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. The RFA free agency period is shorter than that of the regular unrestricted free agent, ending this year on May 2. Once the May 2nd 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.

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 a in year one in 2013 and earned $405,000 the team will place a $495,000 tender on the player and own his rights. Unlike RFA’s he 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. Such players are free to sign as soon as they are released, which is exactly what D’Qwell Jackson and John Carlson just did this week. They don’t have to wait until March 11 to work out a contract. 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.