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2020 NFL free agency: Explaining the legal tampering period and what it means for the Patriots

Related: Patriots free agency tracker: News, rumors, signings, instant analysis

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the 2020 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 18, 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 52 hours later.

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 can be made official and every club needs to be under the $198.2 million salary cap with its combined top-51 contracts.

What does legal tampering mean for the Patriots?

With the Patriots not expected to use the franchise tag to keep one of their unrestricted free agents from hitting the open market, the following 14 members of their 2019 roster are set to become available for all other teams 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:

QB Tom Brady: Profile

LB Shilique Calhoun: Profile

LB Jamie Collins Sr: Profile

WR Phillip Dorsett II: Profile

SS Nate Ebner: Profile

OG James Ferentz: Profile

K Nick Folk: Profile

OC Ted Karras: Profile

OT Marshall Newhouse: Profile

LB Elandon Roberts: Profile

DT Danny Shelton: Profile

OG Joe Thuney: Profile

LB Kyle Van Noy: Profile

TE Benjamin Watson: Profile

Quarterback Tom Brady is obviously the biggest name on the list, but he is far from the only core member of the Patriots’ offensive roster to hit the open market this year. Two starters along the 2019 offensive line — left guard Joe Thuney and center Ted Karras — project to be popular this week, while backup offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse might be let go despite starting nine games for New England last season. Furthermore, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and depth interior offensive lineman James Ferentz are also no locks to return. Tight end Benjamin Watson, meanwhile, will likely retire at the age of 39.

Defensively, the biggest names remaining after the Patriots re-signed Devin McCourty are linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. Both served as starting members on the NFL’s number one scoring defense last year, and project to have active markets. Meanwhile, the team also is facing an uncertain future in regards to a member of its top-three defensive tackle rotation (Danny Shelton), a situational depth pass rusher (Shilique Calhoun) and a team captain that also saw considerable snaps at fullback in 2019 (Elandon Roberts).

New England’s special teams units, meanwhile, will have two members up for new contracts after the team re-signed Matthew Slater over the course of the weekend. Place kicker Nick Folk is entering free agency after joining the Patriots mid-season last year to help fill in for an injured Stephen Gostkowski, while Nate Ebner has been a core member of all four kick coverage units. While Folk’s status might hinge on Gostkowski’s future, Ebner appears to be a possible candidate to return.

They and the rest of the Patriots’ free agency class will all get a feel for their potential market over the next few 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 14 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 remaining in this category after already placing the original fifth-round tender on guard Jermaine Eluemunor:

Restricted free agent DT Adam Butler: Profile

Exclusive rights free agent DE Keionta Davis: Profile

Adam Butler can be tendered at one of three levels: the first-round tender worth an estimated $4.7 million, the $3.3 million second-round tender or the $2.1 million original round tender. In case another team then signs the 25-year-old to an offer sheet, New England would have five days to match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation. The expectation is that the Patriots will use the second-round tender on the former undrafted free agent.

Keionta Davis, meanwhile, can only get a tender-sheet offer by the Patriots (hence the “exclusive” tag). If they do not tender the rotational defensive end who missed two of his first three seasons in the NFL because of injury until Wednesday’s deadline, a trip to unrestricted free agency awaits.