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2021 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

Denver Broncos v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the NFL’s 2021 league year will officially begin. As has been the case every season since 2013, the start of that new season as well as free agency are preceded by the so-called “legal tampering period” — a three-day window that is often mentioned but does spark plenty of questions.

So, what is its 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 52-hour 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 official start of free agency on March 17 at 4 pm ET.

The legal tampering window opens today at 12 pm and closes again when free agency and the new NFL league year start on Wednesday.

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. The NFL memo explained all that as follows:

[P]rior to the beginning of the new League Year it is impermissible for a club to enter into an agreement of any kind, express or implied, oral or written, or promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent or understandings of any kind concerning the terms or conditions of employment offered to, or to be offered to, any prospective Unrestricted Free Agent for inclusion in a Player Contract after the start of the new League Year.

Contracts agreed upon during the legal tampering period cannot officially be signed until Wednesday, when free agency begins.

The start of the new league year also is the time when trades — such as the ones sending Trent Brown to the Patriots and Marcus Cannon from New England to Houston — can be made official. Furthermore, every club needs to be under the $182.5 million salary cap with its combined top-51 contracts.

Does the league really enforce those rules?

While teams are not allowed to talk with other teams’ upcoming free agents before the legal tampering window, there are some questions about how strictly the NFL enforces its own rules. Trent Brown is a good example of that: back in 2019, when he entered free agency off a successful season with the Patriots, he agreed to a record-breaking deal with the Las Vegas Raiders just nine minutes into the tampering period.

Considering that NFL contracts have dozens of pages that cover everything from signing bonuses to injury stipulations, this would have been an impressive feature. However, it seems more likely that the contract was already worked on and basically finalized before the legal tampering window opened.

While the NFL’s legal tampering period is a fine theoretical idea, it also is one that appears to have little actual meaning to the clubs. While contracts still cannot be officially signed until the start of the new league year, the scramble for the best players about to hit the market does not suddenly start at 12 pm when clubs are permitted to start negotiating with free agents to be.

For years, the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis was seen as the unofficial start of free agency. Even with no Combine taking place this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic, clubs and agents already entering preliminary discussions still is common practice — one the league apparently does tolerate

That being said, the league does penalize gross cases of tampering from time to time. One recent example came in 2015, when the New York Jets were found guilty of tampering with Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis before signing him. They were fined a measly $100,000.

What does legal tampering mean for the Patriots?

With the Patriots not having used the franchise tag to keep one of their unrestricted free agents from hitting the open market, 20 members of their 2020 roster are set to become available for all other teams on Wednesday. They are therefore also subject to the legal tampering period, which means that today is the first official day they can start negotiating with clubs other than New England.

The full list of the Patriots’ unrestricted free agents class — not including quarterback Cam Newton and special teamer Justin Bethel, who already re-signed with the team last week — looks as follows:

On the offensive side of the ball, linemen Joe Thuney and David Andrews are the Patriots’ most noteworthy unrestricted free agents. While Thuney is one of the best guards in football and as such expected to sign a near-record contract most likely with another team, Andrews has been New England’s starting center since 2016 and as such an integral member of the organization. Keeping both would be ideal, but with Thuney likely gone Andrews should become the priority.

Defensively, three interior linemen stand out. Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr. led the position in playing time in 2020, but are obviously not guaranteed to return. Butler in particular should have a healthy market given his consistent contributions as a pass rusher and improvements as a run defender. Regardless of his status, the Patriots should try to at least bring Lawrence Guy back into the fold: a long-time team captain, Guy has been New England’s best defensive tackle since first joining the club in 2017.

The Patriots’ kicking game operation could also face some changes this year. While keeping Justin Bethel in the fold via a three-year contract extension is obviously a good move, place kicker Nick Folk is no lock to return. Coming off an impressive season that saw him win two AFC Special Teams Player of the Week awards, Folk could be a popular target for teams looking to improve their kicking game.

All of the players listed here will all get a feel for their potential market over the next few days. 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 20 Patriots mentioned 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 only can start meeting other teams if not tendered by Wednesday 3:59 pm: at that point, they would become unrestricted free agents as well and thus fall into the same category.

New England has a total of three players in those two categories:

J.C. Jackson can be tendered at one of three levels: the first-round tender worth around $4.8 million, the $3.4 million second-round tender or the $2.2 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 either the first- or the second-round tender on the former undrafted free agent.

Quincy Adeboyejo and Jakob Johnson, meanwhile, can only get a tender-sheet offer by the Patriots (hence the “exclusive” tag). If they do not tender the two until Wednesday’s deadline, a trip to unrestricted free agency awaits. The expectation is that Johnson will get tagged, while Adeboyejo’s future is more uncertain.