NFL rules: What's the difference between restricted and unrestricted free agency?

Super Bowl LVIII
Super Bowl LVIII / Ryan Kang/GettyImages

The start of NFL free agency is fast approaching with the league new year, so it might help to know some terms like restricted and unrestricted free agents.

Diehard football fans who know the miniscule details of every NFL rule probably don't need to read any further.

Unless they want to fact-check our own description.

For many fans, however, NFL free agency is much more complicated than it seems on the surface. On that surface level, it'd seem that free agents are just that: players who are free to sign anywhere once the league new year begins.

That's true for a certain class of players classified as free agents. But it doesn't apply to all of them.

While we're at it, let's take a look at the kind of free agents the NFL classifies:

  • Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
  • Restricted free agent (RFA)
  • Exclusive rights free agent (ERFA)

Unrestricted free agency

Unrestricted free agents are players who have accrued at least four seasons and whose contracts have expired with their respective teams.

By definition, an accrued season is one in which a player was on a team's active/inactive list for at least six regular-season games during the year.

When these players' contracts expire at the beginning of the league new year (typically in March), they are free to sign with any other team. Free agency essentially continues throughout the rest of the NFL calendar, although waiver processes are applied to players who are cut from rosters with less than four years accrued or players cut after the NFL trade deadline through the end of the regular season.

Teams can stop UFAs from signing elsewhere by either re-signing them to new deals or by applying a franchise tag or transition tag, the likes of which are explained here.

Restricted free agency

These are players who have less than three years of accrued service and have contracts that are expiring, often undrafted free agents or drafted players who were waived from their initial four-year rookie deals.

RFAs can sign with any team at the start of free agency. But if the player's original team applies one of three tenders, the signing team often has to offer up compensation to the original team by the way of NFL Draft capital.

  • First-round tender
  • Second-round tender
  • Original-round tender
  • Right of first refusal

First-round tenders cost the original team $6.464 million, according to Over the Cap, while second-round tenders will cost $4.633 million. If a new team signs an RFA on a first-round tender, that team would have to surrender a first-round draft pick, while a second-round tender would command a second-round pick in return. The original-round tender would compensate the original team with a pick in the same round the player was drafted in.

Seeing how much teams value their draft picks, it's rare for RFAs to sign outright with other teams after a tender has been applied.

Related story: List of 49ers free agents in 2024 (some pretty important names)

However, there are instances where teams elect to work out separate trades for a player on an RFA tender.

Exclusive rights free agency

Exclusive-rights free agents (ERFAs) aren't free agents at all.

Like RFAs, these players have less than three accrued seasons and are also typically undrafted free agents or draftees waived from their original rookie deals.

ERFAs can only negotiate new deals with the team holding their contractual rights, assuming that team has tendered them a one-year deal.

If no tender is offered, though, the ERFA no longer applies. The player is then free to sign anywhere.

Read more from Niner Noise