What Does It Mean to Be a Restricted Free Agent in the NFL

Reggie Wells of the Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals offensive guard Reggie Wells was a restricted free agent in the 2006 offseason. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

A restricted free agent in the NFL is a player who is signed to one team but is free to solicit contract offers from other teams. Such players have special restrictions on the terms under which they can retain or change employment status with their team.

Eligibility for Restricted Free Agency

A player becomes a restricted free agent upon completing three accrued seasons, has an expiring contract and has received a qualifying offer from the player's current team.

A qualifying offer is a salary level predetermined by the collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players, known as a tender, from the player's team. 

An accrued season is defined as a player being on a team for at least six regular-season games and practice squad designation does not count. Also, being on the reserve physically unable to perform list for non-football injuries also does not count as an accrued season.

Negotiations Begin

If the player accepts an offer sheet from a new team, his current team has right of first refusal, a five-day period when the current team can decide to match the offer and retain the player, or not match the offer and possibly receive draft-choice compensation depending on the amount of the player's qualifying offer.

If an offer sheet is not executed, the player’s rights revert to his current team after the free agent signing period ends.

The restricted free agency period occurs in the off-season.

Difference Between Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agent

Unlike an unrestricted free agent who can negotiate to re-sign with their current team or test the open market and go elsewhere, restricted free agents are tied down unless a team allows them to become an unrestricted free agent.

Unrestricted free agents are essentially players without a team. They have either been released from their team, had the term of their contract expire without a renewal or were not chosen in the draft. These players, generally speaking, are free to entertain offers from all teams and to decide with whom to sign a contract.

How About a Little Tender

Teams have several different tender options they can place on their restricted free agent that usually keeps those players from leaving.

There is the first-round tender option, where a free agent can negotiate with other teams, but the current team has the option to match any deal and will receive a first-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.

In a second-round tender option, the free agent can negotiate with other teams, but the current team has the option to match any deal and will receive a second-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.  

An original-round tender allows a free agent to negotiate with other teams, but the current team has the option to match any deal and will receive a selection equal to the round the player was originally selected in if it opts not to match the deal.

There are not that many restricted free agents that are so valuable that a team would ever even consider giving up a first- or second-round pick to acquire them.

It is a waste for a team to apply a more expensive tender on a player when a cheaper one can ward off prospective teams.

Average Tender Amounts

First-round tenders were valued at $3.91 million in 2017. Second-round tenders were valued at $2.746 million. And original-round and low-level tenders were valued at $1.797 million.