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2021 NFL free agency: 6 big questions for the Patriots heading into the new league year, official start of free agency

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

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at New England Patriots Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency week has been a busy one for the New England Patriots so far. While they have not been allowed to sign any outside free agents to contracts just yet, the 52-hour legal tampering period already saw them come to agreements with eight players and re-sign two others. New England was therefore able to bolster its roster across the board, while also addressing its biggest positions of need.

But even though all of that was necessary for a team aggressively trying to get back into playoff contention, there still are plenty of unanswered questions heading into the official start of free agency and the 2021 league year at 4 pm on Wednesday.

Will the Patriots continue to be active spenders?

The Patriots have already locked up the two biggest names on the tight end market — Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry — while also addressing its defensive line, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back positions. But despite handing out more than $227 million in total contract value over the last two days, New England might not be done just yet.

Bill Belichick and company are reportedly also actively involved in the running back and offensive line markets, and could bring additional depth aboard at wide receiver as well. Given that they still have around $30 million in salary cap space to work with, and how moderately they structured cap hits for the 2021 season, don’t be surprised if more moves follow over the coming hours and days.

How will the market for the priority in-house free agents develop?

As of Wednesday morning, 19 of the Patriots’ 25 total free agents are not accounted for as either re-signings or departures — a group that includes some prominent names in all three phases. Among those are center David Andrews, running back James White as well as defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler: with Joe Thuney taking his talents to Kansas City, those four are the biggest unrestricted free agents the team has left.

All of them are expected to make it to the open market and not be re-signed before the 4 pm deadline, meaning that there is a chance they wear different uniforms next season. While some contingency plans are in place in case that happens, the loss of David Andrews in particular would be a painful one not only because he has proven himself a cornerstone along the offensive line for the past few years.

The Patriots, after all, have no obvious replacement for Andrews currently on their roster. The 28-year-old leaving would furthermore shake up an interior offensive line that already will have to move forward without its starting left guard (Thuney). Add Andrews’ value as a team captain and his departure would be a blow to New England’s offense and locker room.

While it remains to be seen what happens with him — the Patriots are following a familiar script by letting him test the market while keeping an open line of communication — Andrews is expected to have some suitors: the Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons are all believed to have shown interest in him.

Which tender levels will be handed out?

The start of the new league year also marks the end of the tender period for restricted and exclusive-rights free agents. Accordingly, the Patriots have to make decisions on three of their players falling into those categories: cornerback J.C. Jackson (RFA) as well as fullback Jakob Johnson (ERFA) and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo (ERFA).

Johnson is expected to get tendered, while Adeboyejo’s future is more uncertain. The biggest name among the three, however, is undoubtably J.C. Jackson.

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 rookie.

As for Adeboyejo and Johnson, they can only get a tender-sheet offer by the Patriots (hence the “exclusive” tag). As is the case with Jackson they will become unrestricted free agents if not tendered by the 4 pm deadline.

Will we see some cap-relief moves?

While not all of their moves are accounted just yet, the Patriots’ salary cap situation is a comfortable one: they are currently around $31 million under the cap despite an aggressive start to the legal tampering period. Some short-term cap relief is therefore not needed, but that does not mean no moves will be made to provide it.

Parting ways with players such as defensive tackle Beau Allen, tight end Matt LaCosse or fullback Danny Vitale would give the Patriots additional financial flexibility. All three players are no locks to be on the team come the regular season, with Allen and LaCosse in particular under pressure after seeing New England make some heavy investments at their respective positions.

Will there be trades?

The start of the new league year also opens the NFL trading period. We already know that two moves involving New England will become official shortly thereafter: the team acquired Trent Brown from the Las Vegas Raiders, while later sending fellow offensive tackle Marcus Cannon to the Houston Texans.

Will that be it? Nothing can ever be ruled out with the Patriots, especially given that cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver N’Keal Harry have been popular names on the trade market recently.

Will Matthew Slater’s 2021 option bonus get exercised?

New England will have a decision to make about one of its best ever players: special teams captain Matthew Slater has a $400,000 option bonus in his contract that will need to be exercised before the start of free agency, or else he will become an unrestricted free agent. While that move only seems like a formality given Slater’s importance to the team both on and off the field, picking up the option is no certainty.

After all, the 35-year-old has not yet announced his plans for the 2021 season. There is a chance he calls it a career after 13 seasons in the NFL as well as three Super Bowl wins and nine Pro Bowl nominations. Today’s bonus deadline might give an indication whether or not Slater returns for a 14th year as a Patriot.