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2020 NFL free agency: Explaining the start of the new league year and what it means for the Patriots

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

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

Happy new year! Today at 4:00 p.m. ET, the NFL calendar turns another page and the 2020 league year will officially begins. For the 32 teams, this means the following:

Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must exercise options for 2020 on all players who have option clauses in their 2019 contracts.

Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must submit qualifying offers to their Restricted Free Agents with expiring contracts to retain a Right of First Refusal/Compensation.

Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must submit a minimum salary tender to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with expiring 2019 contracts who have fewer than three accrued seasons of free agency credit.

Top 51 Rule begins. All clubs must be under the 2020 Salary Cap prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time.

All 2019 player contracts will expire at 4:00 p.m., New York time.

The 2020 league year and free agency period begin at 4:00 p.m., New York time.

Trading period for 2020 begins at 4:00 p.m., New York time, after expiration of all 2019 contracts.

What specifically does this all mean for the New England Patriots, though? Let’s go through it step by step.

Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must exercise options for 2020 on all players who have option clauses in their 2019 contracts.

The Patriots entered the offseason with one veteran player under contract who had an option clause in his deal for the 2020 season:

CB Jason McCourty

New England would have until today’s deadline to pick up the option on McCourty’s deal in order to ensure he will be on the roster in 2020. They did not waste any time and already exercised it last week, however, meaning that the veteran defensive back will return to offer quality depth and starter upside as a perimeter cornerback in the Patriots’ already deep secondary.

The option rule is also relevant to first-round draft picks: according to the old Collective Bargaining Agreement that was signed into effect in 2011, teams can trigger the fifth year to keep players from entering unrestricted free agency after a contract’s fourth season. With the Patriots not having any former first-rounders from the 2016 draft on their current roster, however, this stipulation is irrelevant for them.

Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must submit qualifying offers to their Restricted Free Agents with expiring contracts to retain a Right of First Refusal/Compensation.

The following Patriots players entered the offseason headed towards restricted free agency:

DT Adam Butler

OG Jermaine Eluemunor

The Patriots took care of both of their restricted free agents over the last few days. While Butler received the second-round tender sheet worth $3.26 million, Eluemunor was tagged at the $2.13 million original level. In case other teams opt to sign one for both of the two tendered players to an offer sheet, New England has five days to either match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation: the Patriots would get a second-rounder in Butler’s case and a fifth-rounder in Eluemunor’s.

Prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must submit a minimum salary tender to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their players with expiring 2019 contracts who have fewer than three accrued seasons of free agency credit.

The Patriots have one exclusive rights free agent this year:

DE Keionta Davis

New England already re-signed Davis on Tuesday, keeping him from the open market and in the fold for the 2020 season despite his limited contributions over the last three years.

Top-51 Begins. All clubs must be under the 2020 salary cap prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time.

The 2020 salary cap has been set at $198.2 million. All clubs have to be under this number by the start of the new league year. Right now, according to salary cap expert Miguel Benzan, the Patriots are under the cap by about $7.14 million — a number that already includes the restricted free agency tenders for Butler and Eluemunor, as well as the franchise tag for guard Joe Thuney and any (re-)signings already reported.

Top-51 means that only a team’s 51 most expensive contracts count against the salary cap.

All 2019 player contracts will expire at 4:00 p.m., New York time.

Entering the offseason, the Patriots had 16 players scheduled to hit the open market today. The following will leave the club after agreeing in principle to sign contracts offered by other teams:

QB Tom Brady: Expected to sign with Tampa Bay

LB Jamie Collins Sr: Signed by Detroit Lions (3-year, $30MM)

OC Ted Karras: Signed by Miami Dolphins (1-year, $4MM)

DT Danny Shelton: Signed by Detroit Lions (2-year, $8MM)

LB Kyle Van Noy: Signed by Miami Dolphins (4-year, $51MM)

All five men will factor into the compensatory draft picks calculation for 2021, with Brady’s departure expected to give New England the highest possible selection — pick number 97 in the third round.

New England also was able to keep three members of its unrestricted free agency class so far:

FS Devin McCourty: Signed to 2-year, $23MM extension

WR Matthew Slater: Signed to 2-year, $5.3MM extension

OG Joe Thuney: Franchise-tagged

With free agent tight end Benjamin Watson announcing his retirement earlier this week, the following seven players remain unaccounted for at this point in time:

LB Shilique Calhoun

WR Phillip Dorsett II

SS Nate Ebner

OG James Ferentz

K Nick Folk

OT Marshall Newhouse

LB Elandon Roberts

The 2020 league year and free agency period begin at 4:00 p.m., New York time.

The free agency frenzy begins which means that teams can officially offer contracts to players who are officially allowed to sign them; something both parties were prohibited to do during the so-called legal tampering period — at least in theory. As numerous deals show, however, those rules are not exactly taken 100% seriously by clubs: former Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown, for example, agreed to an offer last year only nine minutes into the legal tampering window.

The Patriots, of course, have made two outside additions so far:

CB Lenzy Pipkins: Signed to 1-year, $665K free agency contract

WR Damiere Byrd: Signed to 1-year, $2.5MM free agency contract

While Pipkins was already brought on board in February — he was already available at that point after getting released back in 2019 — Byrd and the Patriots agreed to join forced on Tuesday. The wide receiver will officially sign after the clock strikes 4:00 p.m. today.

Trading period for 2020 begins at 4:00 p.m., New York time, after expiration of all 2019 contracts.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Patriots agreed to trade safety Duron Harmon to the Detroit Lions for yet to be reported compensation. The trade will become official once the new league year starts. It remains to be seen whether or not this will remain New England’s lone trade to happen this week, but judged by the club’s track record it would not be a surprise to see the team make additional moves in the coming hours and days.

Today will be a busy day. Make sure to check Pats Pulpit — and particularly our free agency tracker — regularly to stay up to date on the latest news and rumors.