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2019 NFL free agency: Explaining the legal tampering period and what it means for the Patriots

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For the next three days, unrestricted free agents are allowed to assess their market.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the 2019 NFL league year officially begins. As has been the case every season since 2013, the start of the new year and free agency are preceded by the so-called “legal tampering period.” But what is it exactly? And how does legal tampering impact the New England Patriots and the league as a whole? Let’s dig into the matter to find out.


What is the legal tampering window?

In 2013, the NFL wanted to crack down on pre-free agency tampering by clubs via the introduction of the legal tampering period — a three day window during which all pending unrestricted free agents are allowed to enter preliminary negotiations with the other organizations in the league, not just the ones that still hold their rights until the start of free agency on March 13, 4:00 p.m. ET. The window opens today at 12:00 p.m. ET and closes again when free agency and the new NFL league year start.


What does legal tampering mean for the NFL?

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. Contracts agreed upon during the legal tampering period can not be officially signed until Wednesday, when free agency begins. That is also when trades — like the one for new Patriots defender Michael Bennett — can be made official and every club needs to be under the $188.2 million salary cap with its combined top-51 contracts.


What does legal tampering mean for the Patriots?

With the Patriots not using the franchise tag to keep one of their unrestricted free agents from hitting the open market, the following 17 members of their 2018 championship roster are set to become available on Wednesday. They are thus also subject to the legal tampering period, which means that today is the first day they can start negotiating with clubs other than New England:

P Ryan Allen: Profile

DT Malcom Brown: Profile

OT Trent Brown: Profile

WR Phillip Dorsett: Profile

DE Trey Flowers: Profile

K Stephen Gostkowski: Profile

RB Jeremy Hill: Profile

WR Chris Hogan: Profile

LB Ramon Humber: Profile

OT Ulrick John: Profile

LB Albert McClellan: Profile

CB Jason McCourty: Profile

WR Cordarrelle Patterson: Profile

CB Eric Rowe: Profile

DT Danny Shelton: Profile

DE John Simon: Profile

OT LaAdrian Waddle: Profile

On offense, starting left tackle Trent Brown will hit the open market as will a substantial part of the team’s 2018 wide receiver group: Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson all will see their contracts expire in a few days. Furthermore, top backup tackle LaAdrian Waddle is set to hit free agency for the second year in a row, while week one’s starting running back Jeremy Hill will do the same coming off a torn ACL.

Defensively, the biggest name is undoubtably Trey Flowers: the star pass rusher is one of the top players to hit free agency this year and will be a highly coveted option — especially with four other edge defenders getting franchise-tagged by their respective clubs. Other than him, the Patriots will see starting cornerback Jason McCourty and rotational defensive linemen Malcom Brown, Danny Shelton and John Simon become free agents.

The special teams unit, meanwhile, will also have some of its core members up for new contracts: kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen are prime candidates to get re-signed, as are coverage players Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Patterson and Hogan are also core members of New England’s kicking game operation.

They and the rest of the Patriots’ free agency class will all get a feel for their potential market over the next three days — and as a result, negotiations with New England might intensify as well.


What does legal tampering mean for non-unrestricted free agents?

While unrestricted free agents like the 17 Patriots outlined above are allowed to enter early negotiations today, restricted and exclusive rights players are still only eligible to talk to the teams currently holding their rights. They can start meeting other teams after the Wednesday, 4:00 p.m. ET deadline if they did not get tendered until this date.

New England has two players in this category:

Restricted free agent CB Jonathan Jones: Profile

Exclusive rights free agent WR Cody Hollister: Profile

Jonathan Jones can be tendered at one of three levels, each including the right of first refusal. The Patriots can either use the first round tender worth $4.407 million, the $3.095 million second round tender or the $2.025 million original round tender. In case another team signs Jones to an offer sheet, the Patriots would then have five days to match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation.

Cody Hollister, meanwhile, can only get a tender-sheet offer by the Patriots (hence the “exclusive” tag). If they do not tender him or Jones until Wednesday’s deadline, a trip to unrestricted free agency awaits.