Everything You Need To Know About NFL Free Agents
This material will come in handy for those who have recently joined the American football fans by hitting the opening of the free agent market for the first time.
What kind of agents are there? What is the difference between them? What is the mechanism of contracts and statuses? There are a lot of questions, and the negotiation window between players and franchises is opening today; as of March 15, the parties will be able to officially sign contracts. This is probably one of the most interesting times of any offseason when you, fueled by rumors and insider knowledge, begin to speculate on what your favorite team's roster will look like in the new season. In order to understand what's going to happen in general right now, this is what we suggest we do with these agents.
The agreement between the players' union and the NFL calls for five types of agents or players to be eligible to sign contracts:
Unrestricted Free Agent [UFA]
It is necessary to clarify at once what is counted season. A player will have a professional season if he played in at least 6 games during the regular season or did not play, but was on the active roster or injured (IR) list for at least 6 weeks. A player is not credited for a season if he is on the practice squad, commission list or injured list for reasons unrelated to football activity. In addition, the player must report to summer training camp no later than the set reporting date.
So, an unrestricted free agent is a player with an expired contract who has played four seasons or more. Such players have the right to sign a new deal with their former team before the official opening of the free agent market, and with any other team after the opening.
If a team loses more unrestricted free agents in the offseason than it signs, the NFL compensates for that loss with additional or compensatory picks in next year's draft. Their number and value (rounds, picks) are determined by the monetary difference between the contracts of the players who left and the players signed.
Every unrestricted free agent may receive a franchise tag or transient tag from his team within the time limit set by the league, as long as his agreement does not prohibit their use. In the case of an exclusive tag, the player is not allowed to negotiate with other teams; in the case of a non-exclusive or transient tag, there is no such restriction.
This is the most common and interesting type of free agent. They are the ones who headline the market. They are signed in several waves that have no officially accepted names:
- The first wave are players with big names and players who played brightly last season. If they don't get the franchise tag, they break the bank in the first 2-3 days of the market. They're the ones who get the maximum amount guaranteed. They are often the ones around whom the team is built.
- The second wave are players on more modest contracts at the expense of fewer guarantees, although the duration of transactions may not differ from the first wave. Some teams purposely wait for other franchises with huge cap space to spend money in the first three days, self-selecting out of the roster to avoid overpaying. In this wave lasting the first 5-7 days of the market, serious and qualified players are also signed for the starter position.
- The third wave are players who have something to prove. We are talking about ageing veterans who can still perform at a high level, as well as players who are gaining form after serious injuries, or returning after disqualification. These agents are among the last to be signed by teams for the shortest contract duration (1-2 years) with minimal guarantees. These players are used to fill the starting positions left vacant after the first two waves or the backups. They will compete with the drafted prospect in the first two days. The third wave lasts until the rookie draft.
- The fourth wave are players who were not drafted. They will continue to look for work through the fall, hoping to be replaced by someone who is injured or dropped from camp. They will have to compete with low-round draft picks and undrafted prospects.
Related: How Does NFL Free Agency Work?
Restricted Free Agent [RFA]
A football player with an expired contract who played 3 seasons in the professionals. Since the opening of the free agent window, the former team has the right to extend it for one year, for which it is necessary to make a tender offer. Through a tender offer, the franchise has the ability to control the price of the player. The higher the quality of the player, the higher the tender price is set.
There are three types of bids in the NFL. The price of a one-year contract on each is set by a collective bargaining agreement between the union and the league, and changes each season. It depends on the player's position on the field, rising annually in tandem with payroll increases.
- The first-round tender is the most expensive by a year's salary. It costs $6.0 million in 2023. If another team signs a player to a full contract, the current team gets its first round pick. Good compensation for the loss of a player.
- The second round tender is less valuable. The salary is lower at $4.3 million. It also makes sense that the compensation, in the case of a player moving to another team, is equal to the second round pick. But that's not bad either.
- The original tender is the cheapest option. The cost of a one-year deal is $2.6 million. In this case, the compensation pick is equal to the pick under which this player was once selected in the draft.
Note that if a franchise does not have the right pick in the current draft (the pick was traded or the team lost it as punishment), it is prohibited from participating in the corresponding tender.
After receiving a tender offer, the player can communicate with other teams and sign multi-year deals with them. This is the essence of the tender: if the market is not interested in this player, he will get a one-year salary set by the league from the current team and that will be the end of it, but if the market is interested, he can sign a bigger deal for any amount and any duration.
The current team that wants to keep a player who has already received a contract offer, must offer him similar terms or better. The franchisees have 5 days to do so. If the team refuses the contract, it gets a corresponding compensation peak from the new team.
If a player has not signed an agreement with another franchise before the league deadline, he will only be allowed to play for the team that made the tender offer in the upcoming season.
If the current team decides not to make a tender offer, the player instantly becomes an unrestricted free agent, and can sign with any franchise without regard to the past. In doing so, his former team does not receive any compensation picks, as the initiative to refuse to sign came from his own team.
Teams are not prohibited from trading restricted free agents, but only after issuing them any of the tender offers.
Exclusive Rights Free Agent [ERFA]
A player with an expired contract who has played in the league 2 seasons or less. He is the sole property of the franchise. The team where his contract has just expired has the right to offer the player a one-year deal at the minimum salary negotiated and set for the new season by the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the NFL.
The value of a one-year tender offer depends on the number of years counted by the NFL. If it's a rookie underdog (0 years), the collective bargaining agreement guarantees him a minimum salary of $750,000 in 2023. If it's a one-year old, the minimum goes up to $870,000. Well, a sophomore can earn $940,000. These are all non-guaranteed payments, pre-specified in the collective bargaining agreement.
The player either signs a one-year contract or misses the next season.
After receiving a tender offer, the player is not allowed to negotiate with other teams. However, if the current team does not make an offer, the player immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent; he can sign a contract with any of the league franchises without restrictions.
Related: How Does The NFL Draft Work?
Undrafted Free Agent [UDFA]
A rookie football player who was drafted but not selected by either team. Such a player has the right to sign with any franchise immediately after the end of the draft process. Understandably, the price of such an agreement would be symbolic and not guaranteed. In 2023 it will be $750,000.
Street Free Agent [SFA]
A player whose contract was extended to next season but whose team terminated the contract during the previous season, before the free agent market opens, or the player was absent from the active roster before the playoffs began. Such players do not have to wait for the March market window to open - they have the right to sign with any team at any time. The franchise does not receive any compensation picks, since the initiative to terminate the agreement came from the franchise itself.
This happens most often with players who are signed for 4-5 seasons and parted with after 2-3 years, when it is more profitable for the team to kick the player out the door with a reasonable amount in deadmani than to pay him his full salary.
Read Also: NFL Salary Cap Explained