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Explaining the NFL Free Agency terms and terminology

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It is officially the NFL offseason, and that measn you will hear a lot of talk about free agents, etc. Time to get familiar with the terminology to help better understand the Steelers’ situation.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL’s free agency season is less than two months away — with the NFL there really is no offseason. The offseason leads to terms that can be confusing when dealing with free agency. Pittsburgh has 14 players headed to free agency in one form or another. The designation of these players is complicated. The issue with the terms is that they are laid out in the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which is written by lawyers to be able to stand up against other lawyers’ challenges. The main point of this article is to lay the terms out to a more fan friendly environment that hopefully brings clarity to a sometimes confusing aspect.

Credited Season (CS)

This term is used to describe the benefit level a player will receive once they retire from the NFL. CS is any season in which an NFL player has been on a team’s roster for at least three games. It includes both active and inactive roster, injured reserve (IR), and physically unable to perform (PUP). Suspended players do not accrue time toward CS.

Accrued season (AS)

AS is used to determine a player’s free-agent (FA) eligibility when his contract expires. A player must be on a team’s active or inactive roster, PUP or IR list for a minimum of six games to gain an AS. Players on a team’s practice squad, or who are suspended or on the non-football injury list (NFI), do not accrue an NFL season. Unfortunately, the two terms often get confused even though they have completely different ramifications.

The three designations of free agents.

Unrestricted free agents (UFA)

This term is the most familiar to fans. These players are not under contract with any NFL team and can freely sign with any team. Bud Dupree will become a UFA when the new league year starts March 18. He will be eligible to negotiate a contract with any other team. The only thing that could prevent this from happening would be Pittsburgh’s use of a franchise tag or transition tag.

Restricted free agent (RFA)

The thing that makes RFA players unique is that they have less than three years of AS when their contracts expire. In these cases, the player’s current NFL team holds his rights. They are tendered a one-year contract by their current team at one of three levels, first, second or original draft status (also referred to as low original.). Matt Feiler is an RFA in 2019. As he was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2014, the Steelers could designate him as an original round tender. If another team came along and offered him a contract and the Steelers decided not to match it within five days — Pitt would not receive any compensation due to him not being drafted. (The team would not be eligible to make the offer if they did not have a corresponding pick in that round if that was the case.) The more likely scenario is that the Steelers tender Feiler a second round offer, which means the Steelers would receive a team’s highest second round pick as compensation if they did not match the other team’s offer to Feiler. If a player is not tendered, he automatically becomes an UFA. Once a player is tendered, he immediately counts against the salary cap and the contract becomes fully guaranteed.

Exclusive rights free agents (ERFA)

This tag has such a ridiculous name. They are not free to do anything. These players have less than two AS. Unlike RFA players, there is no concern about other teams vulturing these players. They are generally tendered at the league minimum with no bonus. Lavon Hooks is the Steelers only ERFA who has not signed an extension. Hooks is still rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered in August.

ERFA and RFA players are generally plucked from another team’s scrapheap and in some cases, turned into very lucrative players. Alejandro Villanueva one notable ERFA the Steelers had who turned out to be a gem.

The three different tags that can be applied to a player.

Once any of these tags are placed on a player that player’s salary immediately counts against the salary cap. In a normal league year only one tag can be applied per team per year — 2020 is not a normal league year and teams can use both tags at the same time. If a team does not have the salary cap space to absorb the hit, they are unable to place the tag on a player.

Non-exclusive franchise tag

The non-exclusive franchise tag is a one-year contract that pays the player no less than the average of the top five cap hits in the past five years, at his position, or 120 percent of the player’s current salary, whichever is greater. The salary of the player is fully guaranteed. There is one condition to this. The player must “establish or maintain his excellent physical condition”. If that condition isn’t met, the contract can be terminated, and at that point, the player is able to negotiate a contract with other teams. If the current team declines to match the offer it receives two first-rounders as compensation. The non-exclusive franchise tag is the most commonly used franchise tag because it is generally not as expensive as the exclusive franchise tag. A player has until July 15 to work out a long-term deal or no further negotiations can happen except for a one year contract. The contract tag can be pulled at any time, at which time the player becomes an UFA.

Exclusive franchise tag

This tag is a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average salary of the top five players at a given player’s position during the current league year or 120 percent of the player’s current salary, whichever is higher. Exclusive franchise tagged players are not eligible to negotiate with other teams. A team may only use one of the tags on one player per season. A tag can be used multiple years, but doing so is very costly. If a player is tagged a second year, he would make 120 percent of his previous salary. If tagged for a third season, the increase would be to 144 percent of his previous salary or the franchise tag value for quarterbacks, whichever is greater. Bell was tagged twice with the tag.

Transition tag

The transition tag pays a player the average of the top ten salaries of players in the league in that position or 120 percent of the players current salary, whichever is greater. As with the non-exclusive tag, a transition-tagged player is free to negotiate with other teams. If an offer sheet is extended to the player his current team has seven days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, there is no compensation. Emmanuel Sanders left the Steelers under the transition tag.


Steelers GM Kevin Colbert has a monumental task ahead of him deciding which free agents to try to sign and which ones to let test the market or let them walk. The Steelers appear to have locked up their ERFA players they want. Five players are eligible for the RFA tag, but as I pointed out before, the team has serious salary cap issues. The team will be making cap space but $16.2 million may be eaten up by franchise tagging Bud Dupree. Could the Steelers be forced to let integral pieces to their playoff hopes walk in 2020 because of the lack of cap space? The next six weeks will be an exciting time in the offseason watching the myriad of transactions.