With the new league year fast approaching (March 5) and no sign of a new labor deal, the free agency rules this offseasoncould change considerably. The biggest difference is to become an unrestricted free agent a player would need six accrued seasons instead of just four, making over 200 NFL players restricted free agents instead.
Such a shift in player designation figures to dramatically change the landscape and approach in free agency for NFL teams as well as players.
Bills players like LB Keith Ellison and CB Ashton Youboty would be unrestricted free agents this offseason under the previous system. Barring a new Collective Bargaining Agreement they're restricted free agents instead with only four seasons in the NFL.
Restricted free agency on the whole remains the same as it has been in terms of procedure. Teams can protect their restricted free agents by way of a qualifying tender, a one-year offer at a set salary, indicating the team's interest in retaining that player's rights.
Other teams in the league that might be interested in said player could sign them to an offer sheet, and the original club would have a week to match the offer or accept the predetermined compensation. What determines that compensation is the level at which a restricted free agent is tendered.
In previous years there has been a draft pick, second round, first-round and first and third-round tender. The lowest, or draft pick, tender secures the team's rights to the player with compensation being the original round in which the player was drafted. The other tenders would provide the original club a second, first or both a first and third round pick as compensation should the player given that tender be signed away by another team.
Tenders offers for restricted free agents must be submitted to the league on or before March 4, otherwise the player becomes an unrestricted free agent.
The difference this year is there are three sets of tender levels based on whether a player has three, four or five years of NFL experience.
Here's the breakdown of tender levels for third, fourth and fifth-year players.