Little more than a week remains until the start of the NFL free agency period at 4 pm New York time on March 13, which also happens to be the deadline for teams to use tender offers on their exclusive rights free agents (ERFAs) and restricted free agents (RFAs). The primary focus during free agency is always on unrestricted free agents (UFAs), as those are the players who command the most money and who are the ones grabbing the headlines.
However, over the next few days there is also likely to be a lot to be read about players who are not UFAs, but who are a free agent in one of the other two groups. How these free agents and handled and approached by the team is determined by their status, and here I’ll go briefly over these two groups. In addition, while these two categories of free agents are less expensive, there are cap ramifications that result, so we’ll go over those as well.
For the Seattle Seahawks, there are several players from each category that the team will address one way or another prior to the tender deadline. As noted in the Saturday article on the 2019 salary cap and RFA tender amounts, the Hawks’ 2019 RFAs are
- Defensive end Quinton Jefferson,
- Tackle George Fant,
- Cornerback Akeem King and
- Fullback Tre Madden.
As for the team’s ERFAs, they are,
- Center Joey Hunt,
- Wide receiver J.D. McKissic,
- Cornerback Kalan Reed,
- Safety T.J. Green,
- Defensive end Branden Jackson,
- Long snapper Tyler Ott,
- Safety Shalom Luani,
- Wide receiver David Moore,
- Defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua,
- Linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbe,
- Safety T.J. Mutcherson,
- Linebacker Austin Calitro and
- Guard Jordan Simmons.
I’ll start with ERFAs because they’re much simpler. ERFAs are players who ended the 2018 season with the team and have zero, one or two accrued seasons. An accrued season is any season in which a player was on the roster (or injured reserve) for at least six games. It is possible for a player to have zero accrued seasons because if they are not added to the roster until late in the season and spend five or fewer games on the roster, then they will not earn an accrued season, in spite of having been on the 53 man roster. That is exactly what happened with J.D. McKissic in 2016 and Tyrone Swoopes in 2017.
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In any case, teams must present to ERFAs a tender offer for at least the league minimum for their experience level, otherwise they become an unrestricted free agent at the ERFA tender deadline. In effect, ERFAs have two choices, either play for the league minimum on a one year contract or not play. They do not have any negotiating leverage, and as such will almost always play on a minimum salary contract. Here are the minimum salaries for NFL players by the number of credited seasons that player has earned.
NFL Minimum Salary by number of credited seasons
|Credited Seasons||Minimum Salary|
|Credited Seasons||Minimum Salary|
Moving to RFAs, the recent Alex Collins situation in Baltimore is a great example to use for the discussion of the mechanics of being a RFA, while also covering the difference between an outright release and waivers.
Prior to Friday Collins was set to be a RFA following the 2019 season. However, after he was involved in a car wreck, and now facing drugs and weapons charges, the Ravens sped up the process of Collins reaching a free agent. Teams have options that fall into two categories when it comes to RFAs, they can either tender the player or they can non-tender the player and allow them to become an UFA.
The non-tender option is fairly straightforward, as the team basically tells the player that they are not worth at least $2.025M for the 2019 season, and allow that player to test free agency. RFAs are often non-tendered, even if they are contributors, because a team may believe that it can sign that player for less money than the lowest tender available. This is exactly what the Seahawks did with running back Mike Davis in 2018, as he was non-tendered initially, before resigning with the team on a one year, $1.35M contract.
Now, should a team decide that it highly values a player, and that it wants to potentially make it harder for another team to sign a player to an offer sheet, it may tender the player at one of three levels - a first round tender, a second round tender or an original round tender. Each tender comes with a pre-determined salary which is dictated by the CBA and the salary cap. For 2019 these salaries are $4.407M, $3.095M and $2.025M for first, second and original round tenders, respectively.
What these tenders do is offer a one year contract for that amount to the player, while also allowing the player to test the free agent market. In free agency the player has the opportunity to shop their services to any other team and sign is what is called an offer sheet. Once a new team has signed a player to an offer sheet, that player’s previous team has a week to decide whether or not to match the terms of the offer sheet. So, for example, Quinton Jefferson is a restricted free agent for the Hawks, and let’s say the team tenders him at the original round level. If another team signs QJeff to an offer sheet and the Hawks decline to match the terms of that offer sheet, since he entered the league as a fifth round pick, the new team would have to send the Seahawks their 2019 fifth round pick.
Now, that is what made the Collins case so intriguing, at least until the part about the drugs and weapons charges made its way out. Collins, had only two accrued seasons when he was cut by the Baltimore Ravens on Friday. That is important because when players are cut there are two different methods in which their separation from the team is processed, immediate release and waivers.
An immediate release is what is granted when a player has four years of service (credited seasons) in the league. Whan a player has fewer than four credited seasons of service, they are subject to waivers. So, Collins is subject to waivers following his release, and all 31 other teams can put in a waiver claim for him.
If a new team were to put in a claim for Collins and he would be awarded to that team, then it would simply take over his soon to be expired contract. Taking over that contract would put the new team in position to potentially put a tender offer on the table to Collins, which could be one of the three tenders mentiones above. Obviously, no team is going to give up a first or a second round pick for Collins, so it would simply be a waste of cap money to put a first or second round tender on the table. However, if a claiming team were to use an original round tender on Collins, because he entered the league as a fifth round draft pick, if yet another new team signed Collins to an offer sheet, the team that had claimed him but never actually employed him, would be entitle to a fifth round draft pick for doing nothing more than submitting a waiver claim and then using an original round tender.
Now, that’s all out the window as a result of the fact that the odds an NFL team giving up a fifth round draft choice for the right to sign Collins were slim to begin with, but add in the weapons and drug charges, and those odds immediately move to zero. However, if the odds of another team signing Collins were slim, then the obvious question is why would an NFL team take that risk? The easiest answer to that is that RFA contracts are not guaranteed. Teams have cut players on RFA tenders in the past, just as the Seahawks did with Patrick Lewis in 2016. Thus, all claiming Collins would do is take up $2.025M in cap space while on the tender, but that money would be freed up if he were waived or signed with another team. Thus, it would have been more of a placeholder rather than an actual contract.
Obviously, again, at this point, it’s no longer a question worth considering due to the complications beyond just getting into a car accident, but it’s certainly an interesting hypothetical that hopefully helps at least one reader remember how free agency works for RFAs.