During the weeks leading up to the beginning of the new league year, most of the focus is on unrestricted free agents (UFAs). The majority of big-name “splash” signings are these kinds of players: those with four or more accrued seasons and whose contracts will expire when the new league year begins. Once their current deals conclude — or when the so-called “legal tampering period” begins — they are free to negotiate a new contract with any team.
But there are two other types of free agents: restricted free agents (RFAs) and exclusive rights free agents (ERFAs). These players also have contracts that will expire at when the league year begins, but have fewer than four accrued seasons. But if their current team extends them a contract tender, the team may be able to retain their rights for the coming season.
RFA and EFRA basics
One of the first things to note about RFAs and ERFAs is that in order to retain their rights, a team must offer them a contract (a contract tender) before the player’s current deal ends.
This means that before the new league year begins, a team must get below the salary cap with players already under contract for the coming season — and also with contract tenders they want to make to RFAs and ERFAs. This is because contract tenders count against the salary cap when they are offered — not when the player ultimately signs them.
These contracts are not usually guaranteed; there’s nothing to stop teams from releasing RFAs and ERFAs before the season begins — or even withdrawing tenders before they are signed. If either of those things happens, the player becomes a free agent and the team gets their cap space back.
But as long as the contract tender exists, the player is tied to the team. They aren’t required to sign it and play — but if they don’t before Week 10 of the season, they are prohibited from playing for any other team. Even worse for them, the team could then place another RFA or ERFA tender on them the following year.
Restricted free agents are players with expiring contracts who have three accrued seasons. Like UFAs, they are free to negotiate a new deal with any team. But if their previous team has made them a contract tender, that team can match another team’s contract offer — or let the player move on. If the player signs elsewhere, the new team must hand over a draft pick that is specified in the original team’s contract tender. This is why you see terms like “first-round contract tender” and “original-round contract tender.”
Teams can also make a “right of first refusal” tender. If a player with such a tender signs with a new team, no draft compensation is required.
But don’t let those terms fool you: these tenders are not necessarily tied to the round in which a player was first drafted. Instead, teams make a strategic decision about what kind of tender to make. For example, a very good RFA who might attract interest from other teams might be given a first-round contract tender, making them less attractive as a potential free agent. But that comes with a cost to the original team, too: each season, there is a specified minimum amount for all four types of RFA contract tenders.
2021 RFA Minimum Tenders
|Right of first refusual||$2.13 million|
|Original draft round||$2.18 million*|
|Second round||$3.38 million*|
|First round||$4.77 million*|
* or 110% of the player’s previous salary, whichever is greater
Generally, these minimum figures are tied to each season’s salary cap — that is, they increase by the same percentage that the salary cap goes up each season. But if the salary cap doesn’t increase from the previous season, they stay the same as the year before. In addition, rules provide that in both 2021 and 2022, RFA tenders will automatically increase from the previous season by specified amounts. These figures reflect that uptick.
While they can be longer, RFA contracts typically run for only a single season. There’s a simple reason for this: at a time when they will be eligible to become a UFA in a year’s time, players are less likely to commit to a longer contract.
These are players with fewer than three accrued seasons and an expired contract. There aren’t a lot of complications for ERFAs: if a player’s current team offers them a contract at the league minimum (based on their accrued seasons), they cannot negotiate with other teams.
In theory, these deals could also be longer than a year — but there is little incentive for a team to make such an offer; they hold all the leverage.
And here’s the best part: since these are league-minimum deals, they have very little immediate effect on the salary cap. From the start of the league year to the beginning of the season, only the largest 51 contracts count against the cap. This means that when an ERFA tender is made (which will be no more than $850,000 in 2021) it will very likely be replacing a contract with a cap hit of $660,000 — meaning that the ERFA tender it will have a cap impact of no more than $190,000.
The same math applies to RFA contracts, too. An original-round tender ($2.18 million in 2021) has a likely cap impact of around $1.5 million, while a second-round tender of $3.38 million would reduce available cap space by about $2.7 million.