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Salary Cap Nuggets - No. 11 : Free Agency (ERFA, RFA, UFA)

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This series is called Salary Cap Nuggets because ‘nuggets’ is such an interesting word in English. It calls to mind chicken nuggets - tasty, bite sized and easy to eat. But it also calls to mind gold nuggets - small, but valuable.
The salary cap is a product of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which is a 301-page contract between the NFL Owners and the NFL Players Association. In these articles, I try to explore just one or two small parts of the NFL salary cap defined in the massive CBA. Hence, Salary Cap Nuggets - small, bite-sized, easy to digest, yet valuable information for NFL fans.
The goal is to, one bite at a time, get a clear understanding of the salary cap.

Click this link for handy access to all the Salary Cap Nuggets


Note: A player’s eligibility for free agency is dependent on his number of accrued seasons. For details on how a player qualifies for accrued seasons, see Nugget No. 10.

The book Crunching Numbers, gives details about the free agency status of NFL players starting on page 88:

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENT (ERFA)

  • An exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) is any NFL veteran [who reaches the end of his contract] with less than three accrued seasons. A rookie (first year player), second, and third year player each fall into this category.
  • A player with exclusive rights status may only sign a contract with their original team, if the original team placed the minimum salary tender, typically during the first days following the completion of the Super Bowl through the start of the new league year (mid-March).
  • Any player who receives a team’s exclusive rights minimum salary tender will not be able to negotiate with another team, and the player must only re-sign with his original team.
  • If the minimum salary tender is not given or the tender has been withdrawn by the original team to a player with less than three accrued seasons, that player will then be completely free to sign with any team without any penalty or any restrictions.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENT (RFA)

  • A restricted free agent (RFA) is any NFL veteran [that reaches the end of his contract] with three accrued seasons but not four accrued seasons of service. (Under certain restrictions, any NFL player with three accrued seasons shall be free to negotiate and sign a contract with any other NFL club).
  • The RFA has a signing window of roughly one month—typically between mid-March, when free agency starts, and mid-April. The signing period must last a minimum of thirty-five days and cannot end later than five days before the annual NFL Draft.
  • If a RFA player is tendered a Qualifying Offer, his original team has a right of first refusal and may receive a draft selection as compensation if the player signs a contract with a new team.

The original team can give a player one of four Qualifying tenders: Restricted Free Agent (RFA) Tenders

(a) ​right of first refusal only, or

(b)​ right of first refusal + draft selection at the player’s original draft round, (e.g. rounds three through seven) or

(c) ​right of first refusal + one second-round draft selection or

(d) ​right of first refusal + one first-round draft selection.

  • In 2016, the tender amount for (a) right of first refusal only and (b) right of first refusal and draft selection at player’s original draft round was $1.671 million.
  • The tender amount for (c) right of first refusal and one second-round draft selection was $2.553 million, and
  • the tender amount for (d) right of first refusal and one first-round draft selection was $3.635 million.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT

  • An unrestricted free agent (UFA) is any NFL veteran [that reaches the end of his contract] with four or more accrued seasons of service.
  • An unrestricted free agent will be completely free to sign with another team, unless they were given the one-year franchise/transition tag by their team.

A footnote that got some publicity when it was used by the Patriots on Legarette Blount in 2017:

If an UFA with four or more accrued seasons has not signed a player contract with a new team by July 22 or the first scheduled day of training camp (whichever comes later), the player’s rights may revert back to the player’s original team only if that original team gives a written tender by May 12, or whatever date agreed upon by the NFL, stating they would sign that player.

In this case, the original team will be able to re-sign the player to a one-year contract of at least 110% in salary from his previous season. The player’s original team then has until the Tuesday after the tenth week of the season to re-sign the player. If the player does not sign by then, the player must sit out the rest of the season.

Teams rarely apply the June 1st tender.