On Thursday, the 2017 NFL league year officially begins. As has been the case every season since 2013, the start of the new year and free agency is preceded by the "legal tampering period", which will open today, 12:00 p.m. ET: Pending unrestricted free agents are allowed to enter negotiations with all 32 teams.
What does this mean for the league's franchises?
Basically, "legal tampering period" refers to the time frame during which a team's unrestricted free agents can start negotiating with other clubs before free agency begins on Thursday, 4:00 p.m. ET. Per a league office memo sent to the clubs in March 2013, teams can enter talks with upcoming free agents within the window but are only allowed to outline the parameters of a potential contract and not make any official offers or host any player visits.
What does this mean for the New England Patriots in particular?
The following Patriots are set to become unrestricted free agents on Wednesday and are subject to the "legal tampering period". Today is the first day they can start negotiating with other clubs.
TE Martellus Bennett
RB LeGarrette Blount
RB Brandon Bolden
DT Alan Branch
WR Michael Floyd
FS Duron Harmon
LB Dont’a Hightower
DE Chris Long
DE Barkevious Mingo
CB Logan Ryan
TE Greg Scruggs
DE Jabaal Sheard
Fullback James Develin, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Patriots yesterday. While the deal has not yet been made official, it will prevent him from reaching the open market – and from being subject to the "legal tampering window".
Because he has been released prior to the start of free agency, veteran free agent tackle Sebastian Vollmer is free to negotiate even before the new league year begins. Because he is currently under no contract with a team, he already qualifies as an unrestricted free agents and is free to sign at any time.
As opposed to Vollmer, who has already been released from his contract, defensive end Chris Long is still subject to the tampering period. Even though he has published a statement that he will not return to New England next year, he cannot sign a new deal until his old one officially expires on Thursday.
Restricted and exclusive rights free agents, on the other hand, are still only eligible to negotiate with the Patriots. They can start talking to other teams after the Wednesday, 4:00 p.m. ET deadline and only if New England did not tender them prior to that date. Even if the team has already made it clear that it won't retain a player, he cannot start talking to other clubs before the official start of free agency.