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NFL Offseason 101: Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agents (and Exclusive Rights)

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The new league year opens at 4 p.m. ET (3 p.m. Central) on March 10th, when unrestricted free agents can sign with any team. On March 7th, clubs are permitted to contact and enter into contract negotiations with players who will be Unrestricted Free Agents three days later. But what are restricted and unrestricted free agents?

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, teams can begin negotiating with players who are set to hit the open market on March 10th.  To help our fans better understand the differences between the three types of free agents, we have provided some definitions below:

RESTRICTED FREE AGENT (RFA):
A player whose contract has expired, and who has fewer than four tenured years in the league.  He may sign an "Offer Sheet" with any other team, but his original team has seven days to match any offer he receives.  If the original team does not match the offer, compensation will be awarded in the form of draft picks from the signing team.  The round and quantity of picks are determined by the "Qualifying Offer" made by the player's original team.  If a RFA is tendered a minimum qualifying offer, the compensation is the equivalent of the round in which that player was originally selected.  If that player was originally a rookie free agent, no compensation is awarded.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT (UFA):
A player whose contract has expired and has four or more tenured years in the league. He may sign with any other team with no restrictions.  If a team loses more (or more valuable) UFAs than it signs, they may be awarded "Compensatory Draft Picks" from the league. The value of the pick is determined by the difference of the contracts signed by the players lost and those acquired.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENT (ERFA):
A player whose contract has expired and has three or fewer tenured years in the league.  His original team must make a contract offer by the league-imposed deadline, or the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.  No compensation is awarded for losing EFAs.

There may be a couple of terms in there with which not every fan is familiar:

QUALIFYING OFFER:
An initial contract offer made to RFAs. This offer determines what type of compensation the player's original team receives if the RFA signs with another team. The original team is awarded draft choices from the signing team. The highest compensation is a package of 1st and 3rd round picks. Players tendered minimum offers carry compensation equivalent to the round in which they were originally drafted. For instance, a RFA was originally a 6th round pick, and is given a minimum tender "Qualifying Offer." If he signs an "Offer Sheet" with another team and the original team declines to match the offer, the original team will receive the signing team's 6th round pick. Players who were originally rookie free agents carry no compensation if a minimum qualifying offer is tendered.

OFFER SHEET
A contract offer from another team signed by a RFA, Transition Player, of Franchise Player.  The player's original team has seven days to match the offer and retain the player.

COMPENSATORY DRAFT PICKS:
Compensation awarded by the league to teams who lost more Unrestricted Free Agents than they signed.  Compensation is in the form of extra draft picks added to the end of rounds three through seven.  The quantity and quality of picks is determined by the difference of UFAs signed to UFAs lost.  For example, if a team loses 4 UFAs and signs 1 UFA, they could receive three Compensatory Selections.  The value of the picks is determined by the difference of the contracts signed by the players lost and those acquired.  The highest possible compensatory pick is the 31st of the third round (91st overall).  Teams that gain and lose the same number of players but lose higher-valued players than they gain also can be awarded a pick, but only in the seventh round, after the other compensatory picks.

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The new league year opens at 4 p.m. ET (3 p.m. Central) on Tuesday, March 10th, when unrestricted free agents can sign with any team.  Here’s a list of the Saints' unrestricted and restricted free agents for the 2015 offseason.  Senio Kelemete is the only exclusive rights free agent from the 2014 squad, and the team has chosen to pick up the option on his contract:

Unrestricted

Brandon Deaderick DL
Moise Fokou LB
Jonathan Goodwin C
Shayne Graham K Signed Feb 12th:  1 year, $970,000
Parys Haralson LB Signed Feb 12th:  1 year, $870,000
Ramon Humber LB
Mark Ingram RB
Luke McCown QB Signed Feb 5th: 1 year, $970,000
Robert Meachem WR
Patrick Robinson CB
Jamarca Sanford S

Restricted

Travaris Cadet RB
Bryce Harris OT
Tyrunn Walker DL

Exclusive Rights

Senio Kelemete G Contract Extension Announced Feb 9th:  1 year, $585,000