A free agent who's not really "free."
In a sentence, that's the best way to describe what an "exclusive rights" free agent is in the NFL. The Buffalo Bills have four players who fall into that category this offseason – tight ends Nick O'Leary and Logan Thomas, cornerback Lafayette Pitts and defensive end Eddie Yarbrough.
An exclusive rights free agent is a player who has two or fewer years of NFL experience. By making a contract offer – typically the third-year veteran minimum – teams can secure the rights of that player, because they are not permitted to negotiate with other teams. The only option they have is signing the contract offer – or sitting out the season. Players with three years of experience who reach the end of their contract are considered restricted free agents. The Bills do not have any of those this year. Once a player has four years of experience, he is an unrestricted free agent when his contract expires. Buffalo has 18 of those on its roster.
The deadline this season to submit contract offers to exclusive rights free agents is 4 p.m. March 14 – the start of the 2018 NFL league year. Here's a closer look at each of the Bills who fall into the category:
• O'Leary: The No. 2 tight end all season, he finished with 22 catches for 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns, playing 52 percent of the offensive snaps. O'Leary took part in 549 offensive plays, which was just 28 fewer than starter Charles Clay (who missed three games because of injury).
• Thomas: He bounced between being the third and fourth tight end, finishing with seven catches for 67 yards and one touchdown. Thomas was a healthy inactive for four games over the second half of the season as the team elected to use Khari Lee in a blocking role.
• Pitts: Added to the 53-man roster before the Week 8 game against Oakland, he took just 30 defensive snaps but became a key contributor on special teams, playing 138 snaps there – 32 percent of the season total. Pitts was active ahead of veteran Shareece Wright for a three-game stretch, which shows that the team's coaching staff had trust to use him defensively if the need arose.
• Yarbrough: A breakout player at training camp, Yarbrough played in all 16 games, with six starts. He finished with 34 tackles, one sack and two passes defensed. He played 464 defensive snaps, 42 percent of the team's total, as a member of the defensive line rotation.
Given the contributions made by each of the above, it would be a surprise if the Bills didn't tender all of them contracts for 2018.