What is an NFL restricted free agent, and how do they affect free agency?

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?

An NFL player becomes a restricted free agent when his contract expires and he has just three accrued NFL seasons. An accrued season is acquired when a player has been on a team’s roster for six or more regular season games during that year. The player does not need to be active for games to accrue a season. Additionally, players on injured reserve and the physically unable to perform list also get credit towards an accrued season.

However, a player on a practice squad, non-football injury, or the commissioner’s exempt list do not get credit for an accrued season if they are not on the full roster for six or more games. Moreover, a player under a contract must report to his team’s training camp on his mandatory reporting date in order to earn an accrued season.

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A restricted free agent is free to negotiate and sign with other teams during the free agency period. However, their original team can offer them an RFA tender. That tender gives the original team the first right of refusal to match any offer made to an RFA. If the original team declines to match the offer, the new team must send a draft pick as compensation. If the original team withdraws a tender, the RFA becomes an unrestricted free agent.

What is an RFA tender?

A restricted free agent tender in the NFL is a qualifying offer that sets the value of compensation for a player. Each RFA tender is assigned a set salary for the following year. That salary is fixed unless the team and player agree to a new contract or the original team decides to match any offer sheet given to the player.

There are four levels of RFA tenders that can be offered to a player. The salaries for each tender are currently projected numbers by Over the Cap.

  • First-round tender: The greater of $4.766 million or 110 percent of the player’s 2020 salary. If the offer sheet is not matched, the original team receives the new team’s first-round selection in the upcoming draft.
  • Second-round tender: The greater of $3.384 million or 110 percent of the player’s 2020 salary. If the offer sheet is not matched, the original team receives the new team’s second-round selection in the upcoming draft.
  • Original-round tender: The greater of $2.33 million or 110 percent of the player’s 2020 salary. If the offer sheet is not matched, the original team receives a draft pick equivalent to where the player was originally selected.
  • Right of first refusal tender: $2.33 million. If the original team declines to match the offer sheet, then there is no draft pick compensation in association.

Is there a limit to the value of RFA tenders that can be offered?

There is no limit to the number of RFA tenders that can be offered 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 — his rights remain with his original team. Consequently, if he chooses not to play, then 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.

Related | 2021 NFL Free Agents: Top available at each position

If his NFL team does not offer a restricted free agent an RFA tender, then 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 (UFA).

Can you trade a restricted free agent in the NFL?

A restricted free agent can still be traded between NFL teams after he receives 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 a second and seventh-round pick to the Dolphins in return for Welker.

Who are the notable RFAs in 2021?

According to Over the Cap, there are 17 NFL players that expect to become restricted free agents after playing more than 50 percent of their team’s snaps in 2020. Alexander Johnson (LB, Denver Broncos) and Tre Herndon (CB, Jacksonville Jaguars) played over 90 percent of their team’s snaps last season.

Here are some of the other notable NFL players that expect to become restricted free agents in 2021:

  • Andrew Wylie, OL, Kansas City Chiefs: Started 35 games at multiple positions across the OL in his three-year career.
  • Gus Edwards, RB, Baltimore Ravens: Scored 6 touchdowns in 2020 and has 400 carries in his career.
  • J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots: 17 interceptions in his three-year career, including nine in 2020.
  • Nick Mullens, QB, San Francisco 49ers: Started eight games in 2020, throwing 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
  • Phillip Lindsay, RB, Denver Broncos: 2,550 career rushing yards, 465 receiving yards, and 18 touchdowns.
  • Robert Tonyan, TE, Green Bay Packers: Caught 11 touchdowns in 2020.

Want more NFL news and analysis?

Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay up to date with all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2020 season and beyond.

Ben Rolfe is a Senior Managing Editor at Pro Football Network and is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can find him on Twitter @BenRolfePFN.

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