The NFL’s prelude to free agency – the two-day negotiation period known as the “legal tampering window” – begins at noon ET on Monday.
From that time up until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, teams can speak to representatives of free agent players and discuss parameters of potential deals, but they cannot sign them to contracts.
But once the league’s 2021 year opens Wednesday afternoon, players can then put pen to paper.
Every free agency is different, but in keeping with the theme of the last calendar year, the NFL is about to see things play out in a manner that differs greatly from the way that teams and their fans have grown accustomed.
Here’s a preview of what to expect as free agency kicks off this week and then continues to play out:
As you may have heard, the salary cap plunged from $198.2 million in 2020 to $182.5 million as a result of the revenue lost to COVID-19 last season. Many teams entered the offseason in bad shape cap-wise, but they have worked feverishly in recent weeks to get below the spending limit byWednesday afternoon.
Entering Monday, six teams (Rams, Bears, Eagles, Falcons, Saints and Packers) still had more salaries to slash, according to Over The Cap. Another six (Buccaneers, Vikings, Bills, Steelers, Lions and Giants) had less than $10 million in cap space; five more (Chiefs, Titans, Texans, Seahawks, Cowboys) were in the $10-20 million surplus range; and another five (Ravens, Raiders, Cardinals, Browns and Panthers) had between $20 and $30 million to work with. The other 10 clubs (49ers, Browns, Dolphins, Washington, Bengals, Colts, Chargers, Jets, Patriots and Jaguars) had $31 million or more available. (These figures don’t take into account the rookie pool of roughly $10 million that teams must set aside.)
Between now and Wednesday, additional cost-saving moves will take place around the league. Teams do have needs to meet, but there won’t likely be a high number of jaw-dropping contracts awarded out of the gates.
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The Jaguars, Patriots and Jets have more than $68 million apiece to spend. They find themselves in position to aggressively attack their roster needs. Washington ($38 million) is another team that is expected to make a strong push to upgrade in free agency. But that doesn’t mean teams with ample cap space will just throw money around.
Highly coveted players like pass rushers Shaq Barrett, Haason Reddick and Matthew Judon, 49ers left tackle Trent Williams, wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kenny Golladay will likely get paid handsomely – and early. Barrett, one of the top pass-rushers with an expiring contract, re-signed with Tampa Bay Monday.
But because of all of the unexpected cuts that teams had to make, the market is more crowded than usual, and that benefits the buyers. Expect second-tier free agents to play the waiting game. They will not get the offers that they originally anticipated, and so, things could play out slower than normal as they try to decide whether to take multi-year deals that are less attractive or consider short-term contracts that position them to return to free agency next year or in 2023 – once the league-wide cap picture returns to a more healthy state.
It’s definitely possible. Because of the lack of abundant high-paying suitors, a number of veterans could opt for those shorter deals, and they may be inclined to sign such contracts with their original teams (especially if those squads are contenders) because they believe that it’s better to bank on continuity and familiarity in the short-term and then re-assess their situations once the market stabilizes.
Bargain bin difference-makers
Because of the limited cap space, teams are going to need to find key contributors at more affordable prices and can’t really afford a lot of swings and misses. More than ever, this is where pro scouting departments will prove their worth. Those which can sift through second- and third-tier ranks for talent, project them into their team’s systems and make signings that produce glue guys this coming season will best position their organizations to overcome cap obstacles and remain in contention.
Other teams will wind up having to pass on an active free agency period and rely more heavily on the draft to plug holes for the coming season.
Follow USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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