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NFL may not set final 2021 salary cap number until shortly before the start of free agency

Related: Salary cap reduction will also impact franchise tag figures, and what this means for the Patriots

In this photo illustration a 1 dollar bill with various... Photo Illustration by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The New England Patriots have plenty of work ahead during the 2021 offseason, but they at least are projected to be in a comfortable financial situation. Even before any potential follow-up moves — releasing offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, for example — the Patriots could have up to around $60 million to work with depending on where the NFL eventually sets the salary cap.

That process of agreeing on a cap number for the 2021 season, however, is not as easy as it appeared to be in year’s past. The Coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on the league’s revenue during the 2020 campaign, after all, and is therefore expected to lead to a cap number lower than last year’s $198.2 million.

Just how low it will go remains to be seen, with the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreeing on a spending floor of $175 million. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, there is some belief within the league that it eventually ends up closer to $185 million but the league’s 32 teams will have to take a wait-and-see approach until an official announcement is made.

When will that happen? According to Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, the final cap number may not be set until “hours before the start of the league year” on March 17.

Clark, who is also serving as the chairman of the NFL’s financing committee, spoke with reporters earlier this week and acknowledged the difficult process of finding a new number considering the circumstances.

“There are so many uncertainties as we look at the 2021 season, which of course is now seven or eight months away, that answering those questions is very challenging,” he said according to Ben Fischer of the Sports Business Journal. “It’s going to be difficult to set the cap this year because we don’t know as many of the answers to those questions as we’d like. But that’ll be a collaborative process that happens with the union over the next two or three months.

“Certainly from a team perspective, we all hope to have something higher than the floor of $175 million, but we just don’t know the answer at this point.”

Whereas the Patriots are in a comparatively comfortable position regarding their cap situation — only three other teams are projected to have more money available at this point in time — others are headed towards some major challenges. If the salary cap ends up being set at $180 million, for example, 13 teams would currently be over it when using Over The Cap’s effective cap space calculations.

That said, New England would still be in a challenging spot when it comes to setting a timeline heading into the new league year. Head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick pointed this out during his season-ending media conference call in January.

“We’ll see how things go in terms of scouting, the combine, the salary cap and so forth,” he said when speaking about the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 offseason. “There are really a lot of unknowns, a lot of question marks at this time, where normally I would say I’ve been able to plan out a schedule that’s pretty accurate that we can stick to through the course of the spring.

“At this point, a lot of those questions have yet to be answered, so we can’t definitely provide direction as to what we’ll do, how we’ll do it or what our opportunities will be. So, we’ll take that as it comes and in the meantime, do things that we can do in terms of self-evaluation, self-scouting and things like that.”

While the situation is a tricky one for all involved, it is not entirely unprecedented. The cap has gone up in 10 straight years, for example, but did not do so between 2009 and 2011: it went from $123 million to an uncapped year in 2010 down to $120 million by 2011. And as for waiting to receive final word, last year’s cap was not announced until three days before the start of free agency.

Circumstances were different in all of those cases and 2021 is still an outlier when it comes to projections, but it still shows that uncertainty surrounding the salary cap is nothing new.