What Is an NFL Restricted Free Agent, and How Do They Affect Free Agency?

What is an NFL restricted free agent, and how does the system of RFA tenders work both for the original and the offering team?

As the start of the 2023 league year approaches, NFL teams will begin to place restricted free agent (RFA) tenders on their players. Let’s look at how a player becomes a restricted free agent and the value of the three RFA tenders.

What Is an NFL Restricted Free Agent?

Restricted free agents are players with three years of accrued NFL seasons. Unlike unrestricted free agents, restricted FAs can have their markets limited due to three different tenders.

A team that places a tender on a restricted free agent will receive the opportunity to match an offer sheet from another team. If a draft pick value is attached to the tender, the original team can receive compensation if it lets the player walk.

Like the franchise tag, a restricted tender protects a team from losing internal talent. Teams can place first-round, second-round, and right-of-first-refusal tenders on players. Each tender is a one-year contract with a value based on the level of the tender.

For example, a first-round tender would yield a first-round pick from another team if an offer sheet wasn’t matched. A second-round pick would go to a departing team if a restricted free agent didn’t have an offer sheet matched on a second-round tender.

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If a player is tendered at the original round/right-of-first-refusal level and signs an offer sheet that his incumbent team declines to match, that club would be entitled to a draft choice equal to the round in which the player was originally selected. The team wouldn’t receive any compensation if the player wasn’t drafted.

Restricted free agents are typically players who have been cut or injured during their rookie deals or former undrafted free agents. UDFA contracts must receive three year-contracts. When that deal runs out, the player is technically a free agent but hasn’t accrued enough service time to become an unrestricted free agent.

For players who are former late-round picks or went undrafted, the right-of-first-refusal tender is typically the best avenue for teams. However, a second-round or even first-round tender could make sense if a Day 3 selection or UDFA has become a high-profile player over his first three NFL seasons.

If a restricted free agent isn’t tendered by the start of the new league year (March 15), they’ll immediately become an unrestricted free agent and can sign anywhere without an offer sheet.

How Much Does Each Restricted Tender Cost?

Each restricted tender has its own price point based on the projected salary cap. The salaries are relatively expensive, as they compensate the player for his inability to move freely to another team.

They also create leverage against the incumbent team deciding on the tender. For instance, a team might want to tender an up-and-coming backup offensive tackle, but they might not want to pay the price of a second-round restricted tender to retain his services.

Over the Cap has projected the following values for each of the four restricted tenders in 2022:

  • First-Round Tender: $6.005 million
  • Second-Round Tender: $4.304 million
  • Original Round/Right-of-First Refusal Tender: $2.627 million

The values of each tag can hinder a team from placing a higher tender on a player. Suppose a team likes a running back who is expected to enter restricted free agency. In that case, a general manager might be more inclined to reach a long-term deal ahead of the new league year instead of paying the value of the second-round tender.

Does a Restricted Free Agent Have To Sign?

Much like with a franchise tag or a transition tag, an NFL player can choose not to sign his restricted free agent tender. However, he doesn’t become an unrestricted free agent by doing so. Instead, his rights remain with his original team. Consequently, if he chooses not to play, he doesn’t receive an accrued season in the following year.

The only leverage an RFA has is to get an offer that his original team will not match. However, that is easier said than done, particularly if a player comes with a first- or second-round RFA tender.

If his NFL team does not offer a restricted free agent an RFA tender, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Additionally, if a team withdraws a tender before the player signs it, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Can a Restricted Free Agent Be Traded?

A restricted free agent can still be traded between NFL teams after receiving a tender. Rather than going through the offer sheet process, teams can negotiate a trade.

For example, in 2007, Wes Welker was offered a second-round tender by the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins then agreed to a trade with the New England Patriots. The Patriots sent second- and seventh-round picks to the Dolphins in return for Welker.

Is There a Limit on the Value of RFA Tenders Teams Can Offer?

There is no limit to the number of RFA tenders that teams can offer at any particular value. However, there is a limit to RFA tenders regarding a player tendered at a higher value than they were drafted.

MORE: How Does the NFL Salary Cap Work?

In this instance, the original team must reduce the value of another restricted free agent tender relative to their NFL draft position. For example, if a second-round player was designated with a first-round RFA tender and another first-round player is tendered, the team will receive a second-round selection for that player. This prevents teams from designating multiple restricted free agents above their original draft selection.

Notable Players Eligible To Become Restricted Free Agents in 2023

Terence Steele, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Steele has started 40 games for the Cowboys for the past three seasons, seeing time at both left and right tackle. Dallas will tender him at the second-round level, per the Dallas Morning News. Steele tore his ACL in December but is expected to be ready for the 2023 campaign.

Yosh Nijman, OT, Green Bay Packers

Like Steele, Nijman is a versatile lineman capable of playing left or right tackle. A 13-game starter in 2022, Nijman will likely receive at least a second-round tender from the Packers.

Rival teams could still be interested in Nijman at that price, but the availability of unrestricted free agent tackles like Orlando Brown, Donovan Smith, and others will give potential suitors other options.

Tyler Huntley, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Injuries to Lamar Jackson have forced Huntley to start eight games over the past two seasons. Huntley is a decent facsimile of Jackson, but the Ravens are unlikely to rely on him as their starter if Jackson moves elsewhere this offseason.

Juwan Johnson, TE, New Orleans Saints

Johnson posted a breakout campaign in 2022, putting up 42 receptions on 65 targets for 508 yards and a team-leading seven touchdowns. The Saints are always trying to cut costs, but they might have to use the second-round tender to ensure Johnson isn’t signed to an offer sheet.

Ryan Neal, S, Seattle Seahawks

Neal was excellent in 2022, but the Seahawks already have $36.2 million in cap space devoted to fellow safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs next season. While Neal could be a semi-starter in Seattle’s three-safety looks, general manager John Schneider will have to decide how much he wants to invest in one position.

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, WR, Tennessee Titans

Westbrook-Ikhine has become a solid role player for the Titans, who — thanks to Tennesee’s lack of receivers — ended up playing 75% of the team’s offensive snaps in 2022. He still only managed 397 yards, so the right-of-first-refusal tender will probably work.

James Robinson, RB, New York Jets

The Jets acquired Robinson from the Jaguars at last year’s trade deadline, but he was a healthy scratch by the end of the season. Although he’s only 24 years old, Robinson looks like a non-tender candidate.

Dane Jackson, CB, Buffalo Bills

Historically a depth piece for the Bills, Jackson stepped in as a starter while Tre’Davious White was rehabbing from his torn ACL and rookie Kaiir Elam was working through growing pains. Jackson is better served as a backup and will likely receive the low tender.

Sam Mustipher, C, Chicago Bears

Mustipher was supposed to lose his starting center job in 2022, but injuries along the Bears’ offensive line led to him starting 16 games. Chicago needs to upgrade at center, but Mustipher could return as a backup on a ROFR tender.

Aaron Brewer, G, Tennessee Titans

Brewer became a solidly league-average guard by the end of last season, his first go-round as a full-time starter. He should be back next season, but there shouldn’t be enough league-wide interest to force the Titans to use anything above the low tender.

Tommy Townsend, P, Kansas City Chiefs

Townsend was a first-team All-Pro and graded as the NFL’s best punter via the metrics at Puntalytics. He could garner legitimate interest on the low tender, so the Chiefs will likely have to deploy the second-round tender to keep Townsend around.

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