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 new 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 four RFA tenders.

What is a restricted free agent in the NFL?

Restricted free agents are players with three years of accredited NFL seasons. Unlike unrestricted free agents, restricted FAs can have their markets limited due to four different tenders. A team placing 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 chooses to let the player walk.

Essentially, like the franchise tag, a restricted tender protects a team from losing internal talent. Teams can place first-round, second-round, original-round, and right of first refusal tenders on players. Each tender comes with 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.

Restricted free agents are typically players who have been cut or injured during their rookie deals, so most players are former late-round picks or undrafted free agents. For players who are former late-round picks, the original-round tender is typically a smart avenue for teams. For former undrafted players, a right of first refusal tender is the logical move, unless that player is seen as a rapidly ascending standout. In that case, a team would probably place a second-round tender on them.

If a restricted free agent isn’t tendered by the start of the new league year (March 16), 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 pricy, as they compensate the player for having the inability to move freely. They also create leverage against the incumbent team making a decision 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.

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

  • Right of First Refusal: $2.433 million
  • Original-Round Tender: $2.54 million
  • Second-Round Tender: $3.986 million
  • First-Round Tender: $5.432 million

The values of each tag can hinder a team from placing a higher tender on a player. If a team really likes a running back who is expected to enter restricted free agency, the GM might be more inclined to reach a long-term team ahead of the new league year instead of paying them the value of the second-round tender. The average running back salary in the NFL is $2.34 million, so placing a second-round tender on a restricted free agent running back would put their salary roughly $1.64 million over the norm. That could be an expense that is hard to justify.

Is there a limit to the value of RFA tenders that 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 in regards to a player tendered at a higher value than they were drafted.

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.

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 does not become an unrestricted free agent by doing so. Instead, his rights remain with his original team. Consequently, if he chooses not to play, he does not receive an accrued season in the following year.

The only leverage that 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 would also become an unrestricted free agent.

Can you trade a restricted free agent in the NFL?

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.

Notable names eligible to become restricted free agents in 2022

Boston Scott, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: The former sixth-round pick could receive an original-round tender after leading the team’s running backs with 7 rushing touchdowns.

Dwayne Haskins, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: The former first-round pick isn’t likely to receive a tender beyond the original-round level, which would actually be a logical move for the Steelers to make, given his draft pedigree.

Jakob Johnson, FB, New England Patriots: Johnson has served as a special-teams ace and the team’s starting fullback for the past three seasons. A right of first refusal tag would make sense.

Matt Gay, K, Los Angeles Rams: The Super Bowl champions relied heavily on Gay during their impressive run, so he should be back on his original-round tender. Gay was a fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019.

Allen Lazard, WR, Green Bay Packers: Lazard has developed into a reliable target for Aaron Rodgers after entering the league as an undrafted free agent. The Packers would be smart to place a right of first refusal tender on him as insurance for Davante Adams.

Deonte Harris (recently changed his name to Deonte Harty), WR/KR, New Orleans Saints: A former All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection as a punt and kickoff returner, Harris (Harty) is a young receiver who the rebuilding Saints need to retain. But will the Saints’ unenviable cap situation force them to let him walk free?

Troy Reeder, LB, Los Angeles Rams: A starting linebacker for the Super Bowl champions, Reeder should definitely be in the Rams’ plans for the future. He might even nab a second-round tender.

Jakobi Meyers, WR, New England Patriots: Meyers has led New England’s receivers in receiving yards over the past two seasons. He could receive a second-round tender.

Alex Singleton, LB, Philadelphia Eagles: A starting linebacker and special-teams captain for the Eagles, Singleton is likely to receive a right of first refusal tender.

Nate Herbig, G, Philadelphia Eagles: At just 24, Herbig has been a key reserve guard and center for the Eagles. Like Singleton, he should receive a right of first refusal tender.

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