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NFL free agency rules: Understanding the difference between UFAs, RFAs, and ERFAs

Why are some players restricted or exclusive rights free agents? What difference do these classifications make?

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

March madness preparation, NFL-style

In preparation for the upcoming free agency period in mid-March, this site covered the Detroit Lions players whose contracts have expired with individual profiles over the past month and a half. Our Ryan Mathews gave a rough gauge on how important it was to bring these players back to the team by ranking them within each category of free agent type: exclusive rights free agents, restricted free agents, and unrestricted free agents. At the end of each of Pride of Detroit’s player profiles, we asked everyone to vote on whether they wanted to re-sign them or not.

While on-the-field performance is important, the financial side of the decision also carries a lot of weight. To further equip our readers with the information they need to follow all the free agency action coming soon, we will review the different free agency status types and provide examples from among the (former) Lions seeking new contracts.

2018 Detroit Lions free agents

Player Position Status Accrued Seasons
Player Position Status Accrued Seasons
Dwight Freeney DE UFA 15
Don Muhlbach LS UFA 14
Haloti Ngata DT UFA 12
Nick Bellore LB UFA 7
Don Carey S UFA 7
Tahir Whitehead LB UFA 6
Tavon Wilson S UFA 6
Ezekiel Ansah DE UFA 5
DJ Hayden CB UFA 5
Paul Worrilow LB UFA 5
Nevin Lawson CB UFA 4
Darren Fells TE UFA 4
Don Barclay G UFA 4
Jordan Hill DT UFA 4
Mike James RB UFA 4
Greg Robinson T UFA 4
Travis Swanson C UFA 4
Zach Zenner RB RFA 3
Brandon Copeland LB RFA 3
TJ Jones WR RFA 3
Zac Kerin G RFA 3
Christian Ringo DT ERFA 2
Kerry Hyder DE ERFA 2
Kasey Redfern P ERFA 1
Jake Rudock QB ERFA 1
Rodney Coe DT ERFA 0
Alek Torgersen QB ERFA 0

As a first step to filling in the blanks, we checked the individual player pages on Pro Football Reference to count the number of accrued seasons for each free agent. Players earn an accrued season whenever they are on the 53-man roster, injured reserve (IR), or physically unable to perform (non-NFI PUP) list for at least six regular season weeks. Here we copy details from our practice squad eligibility discussion in 2016 pointing to 8, section 1(a) of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA):

Accrued Seasons Calculation:

(a) For the purposes of calculating Accrued Seasons under this Agreement, a player shall receive one Accrued Season for each season during which he was on, or should have been on, full pay status for a total of six or more regular season games, but which, irrespective of the player’s pay status, shall not include games for which the player was on: (i) the Exempt Commissioner Permission List, (ii) the Reserve PUP List as a result of a nonfootball injury, or (iii) a Club’s Practice Squad.

Here is what we said then: Notice that the language is very specific and requires all of the regular season games to be within the same league year. Thus, a player who was on a 53-man roster (or other eligible list like injured reserve) for only four games in one season and only two games in the next season would not be credited with an accrued season; the league year is what gets flagged as being AS or non-AS for that player. Also notice provision (iii), which explicitly names practice squad duty as not qualifying for AS calculations.

A reminder as to why we need to do this: accrued seasons are how the 2011 CBA determines the free agency status of each player when they are not under contract. From Inside the Pylon’s glossary page:

A player with less than three accrued seasons is considered an Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFA), a player with three accrued seasons but less than four is considered a Restricted Free Agent (RFA), a player with four accrued seasons (a vested veteran) is an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) when their contract expires.

Accrued seasons (AS) are also important for determining practice squad eligibility, but for the moment what we need to know is whether each player whose contract has expired has earned enough AS to reach the free market of unrestricted free agency. Now, for the majority of the “known name” veterans like Haloti Ngata or Don Muhlbach, it is obvious that they easily exceed the minimum requirement of four AS. The UFA eligibility of most veteran players can be easily and quickly verified by looking at a player’s career and counting the number of seasons in which they were credited with 6 or more game appearances.

The tough ones are the RFAs and the ERFAs, which we now examine one at a time.

Zach Zenner - RFA

After joining the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Zenner took a fierce shot to the chest and spent most of his rookie season on IR. Upon returning from injury, he appeared in 14 games for the 2016 regular season, seeing significant offensive snaps in eight of them. For the 2017 season, Zenner appeared in eight games to earn his third AS, making him an RFA.

Brandon Copeland - RFA

An unusual signing from the veteran combine in 2015, Copeland appeared mainly on special teams and spot defensive duty in all 16 regular season games. As an ERFA in 2016, Copeland again appeared in all 16 games for the Lions. Unfortunately for the versatile defensive end/linebacker, an injury against the Colts in the preseason cut his 2017 ERFA season short. Placed on injured waivers for a torn pectoral muscle injury, his time on IR earned a third AS to make Copeland an RFA heading into the 2018 free agency period.

TJ Jones - RFA

Drafted in the sixth-round of the 2014 draft by Detroit, TJ Jones spent his entire rookie season on the PUP (non-NFI) list. Appearing in 10 games for the 2015 season, things were looking up for the former Notre Dame product, but then he was shockingly waived at the start of the 2016 season. Subsequently signed to the practice squad and re-activated only at the very end of the season for three games, Jones did not earn an AS for that year. Appearing in 14 games in his final ERFA season in 2017 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury against Chicago, the wideout earned his third AS to become an RFA in 2018.

Zac Kerin - RFA

Following the 2014 draft, this Toledo product signed as an undrafted free agent with the Minnesota Vikings but did not make the regular 53-man roster that year. After spending his rookie season on the Minnesota practice squad, Kerin saw action in six games of the 2015 season as an injury replacement and nine games in 2016. Waived prior to the start of his final ERFA season, Kerin was claimed by the Lions off waivers but moved to IR after an injury against the Falcons. The two credited AS with Minnesota plus the time spent on IR mean Kerin is an RFA for the 2018 free agency period.

Christian Ringo - ERFA

A former sixth-round draft pick for the Green Bay Packers in 2015, Ringo spent his rookie season on the practice squad and then appeared in eight games in 2016 for one earned AS. Waived by the Packers before the start of the 2017 season, claimed by the Cincinnati Bengals, and then waived a week later by the Bengals, Ringo arrived on the Detroit practice squad in mid-September. The loss of Khyri Thornton to injury in November pushed Ringo onto the 53-man roster, where he appeared in six games to earn his second AS.

Why it matters: RFA and ERFA tenders

While any team can offer anything they want to any unrestricted free agent, the options for restricted free agents and their agents are limited by what the team controlling the player’s negotiating rights decides to do. The team that controls the rights of a player who is an ERFA or RFA can make (“tender”) a minimum qualifying offer according to a schedule set by the league each offseason. From the 2017 SBNation.com free agency explainer article:

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

1. First-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a first-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.

2. Second-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal and will receive a second-round selection if it opts not to match the deal.

3. Original-round tender: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has 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.

4. Right of first refusal: Free agent can negotiate with other teams, but original team has option to match any deal. The team will not receive any compensation if it opts not to match another deal.

While the exact amounts in the various restricted free agency tender offers are not yet set for the 2018 period, we can get a good idea of what they will be from last year:

If a player is an ERFA, then no other team can even negotiate with that player for a contract if the team chooses to offer the league-designated qualifying ERFA tender. In that case, the player either accepts and signs the offer or must sit out the season and not play. For an idea of how high those go, last offseason in 2017 Kerry Hyder’s ERFA tender was $540,000, TJ Jones’ ERFA tender was $690,000, and Brandon Copeland’s ERFA tender was $615,000.

The curious case of Mike James

Before we finish, there is one UFA who merits some examination: HB Mike James. Another former sixth-round draft pick, James began his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013 but had his rookie season shortened by a fractured ankle in November of that year. Returning from injury in 2014, he played sparingly in 11 games and then was waived in 2015 (clearing waivers to the Tampa Bay practice squad until the end of December). Again in 2016, the running back was waived at the start of the season and signed by the Lions to replace George Winn on the practice squad.

That move (waived on September 15 then cut September 30, 2016) by the Buccaneers came with an injury settlement that prevented James from re-signing to their active roster for at least six weeks (which he did on November 1, 2016). The injured weeks at the start of the season plus four appearances in November were enough to count as a third AS with Tampa Bay. After bouncing between the Lions’ practice squad and Bucs’ active roster during 2016, James came back to compete for a spot with the Lions in 2017. A concussion in August sent James to IR, making it his fourth AS and qualifying him for unrestricted free agency.

How the heck is Kerry Hyder STILL an ERFA?

After going undrafted in 2014 out of Texas Tech, Kerry Hyder signed with the New York Jets and spent his rookie year on the practice squad for no AS credit. For whatever reason, he did not return to the Jets but instead signed a futures contract with the Lions in 2015 and spent that season on the practice squad in Detroit. Again, no AS credit for a practice squad season.

Now we come to the 2016 season, where Hyder was a beast in preseason action and exploded for eight sacks in the regular season. Amazingly, that breakout season was his first earned AS. Back on the team for 2017 as an ERFA, Hyder was set for heavy use in the defensive line rotation before going down to injury against the Colts in the preseason. The full year on IR for Hyder was credited as his second earned AS, so it will take one more full pay status year for him to even reach RFA status.