At the expiration of his contract, a player will fall into one of three free agency designations: unrestricted, restricted, and exclusive rights. Each status offers or limits the bargaining power for a player. Below is a breakdown of each of these terms.
Unrestricted free agent (UFA): Any player with four or more accrued seasons and an expired contract; free to negotiate and sign with any team.
Notable unrestricted free agency signings in 2020: Tom Brady, Buccaneers; Teddy Bridgewater, Saints.
Restricted free agent (RFA): A player with three accrued seasons and an expired contract. RFAs are free to negotiate and sign with any team, but their original team can offer them one of various qualifying offers (“tenders”) that come with the right of first refusal and/or draft-pick compensation. If the tender is withdrawn by a team, the RFA becomes an unrestricted free agent. In 2020, teams must submit these tenders before 4 p.m. ET on March 18. These amounts change annually; the following numbers are for the 2020 season. Players can choose either (a) or (b) regardless of which is greater in the applicable tenders below.
The RFA tenders are classified as follows:
First-round tender: One-year contract worth the greater of (a) $4.641 million or (b) 110 percent of the player’s prior-year base salary. If the player’s original team decides not to match an offer sheet signed with another team, it is entitled to a first-round draft pick from the player’s new team. Unless received two days or later prior to the NFL draft, draft compensation for each tender is due in the same league year as the offer sheet is signed.
A signed offer sheet with a new team includes Principal Terms that must be matched by the prior club. However, if the new team includes terms that waive or limit its ability to designate the RFA a franchise player, the old team will not have to match this term if it has tendered the player with an offer worth $500,000 more than the first-round tender ($5.141 million in 2020).
Second-round tender: One-year contract worth the greater of (a) $3.259 million or (b) 110 percent of the player’s prior-year base salary. Draft-choice compensation: second-round pick.
Original-round tender: One-year contract worth the greater of (a) $2.133 million or (b) 110 percent of the player’s prior-year base salary. Draft-choice compensation: a pick in the round the player was originally drafted in.
Right-of-first-refusal tender: One-year contract worth $2.133 million. Team has the right to match any offer sheet signed with another team, but there is no draft compensation tied to this tender.
Upgraded tender: If a team places a first-round tender on a player who was selected outside of the first round, it can only receive a second-round pick as compensation for any of its other RFAs who were first-round draft picks. The same is true for the second-round tender — if a team uses it on a player drafted in the third round or lower, it can only receive a third-round pick for any other second-round RFA it intends to tender. As an example, the Saints are reportedly using a first-round RFA tender on QB/RB/WR/TE Taysom Hill this offseason. Had New Orleans had any RFAs who were former first-round picks, it could only receive a second-round selection in return for a declined offer sheet.
RFA tender salary increases: If there is an increase in the salary cap in the 2021 or 2022 league years, each of the tenders will increase by the percentage of the salary cap from one season to the next. In addition to this, each of the tenders will increase by an additional amount during the 2021 and 2022 league years as follows: Right-of-first-refusal tender ($0), original-round tender ($50,000), second-round tender ($125,000) and first-round tender ($125,000). Beginning in 2023, each of these tenders will only increase with the percentage of the salary cap (if any) from league year to league year.
Exclusive rights free agent (ERFA): Any player with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract. If his original team offers him a one-year contract at the league minimum (based on his credited seasons), the player cannot negotiate with other teams.