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2021 NFL free agency: Explaining the start of the new league year and what it means for the Patriots

Related: Six big questions for the Patriots before the official start of free agency

San Francisco 49ers v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Happy new year! Today at 4 pm ET, the NFL calendar turns another page and the 2021 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 2021 on all players who have option clauses in their 2020 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 2020 contracts who have fewer than three accrued seasons of free agency credit.

Top 51 Rule begins. All clubs must be under the 2021 Salary Cap prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time.

All 2020 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 2021 begins at 4:00 p.m., New York time, after expiration of all 2020 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 2021 on all players who have option clauses in their 2020 contracts.

The Patriots entered the offseason with one veteran player under contract who had an option clause in his deal for the 2021 season:

  • WR Matthew Slater

New England has until today’s deadline to pick up the $400,000 team option in Slater’s deal in order to ensure he will be on the roster in 2021. If that does not happen, he will become an unrestricted free agent.

While the Patriots exercising the option 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 and there is a chance he calls it a career after 13 highly successful seasons in the NFL. The option deadline might give an indication whether or not Slater returns for a 14th year as a Patriot.

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 Patriots have one player who entered the offseason headed towards restricted free agency, and he has already been tendered:

The Patriots took care of Jackson earlier on Wednesday by placing the second-round tender worth $3.384 million on him. In case other teams opt to sign him 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 if Jackson left to sign with another team.

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 2020 contracts who have fewer than three accrued seasons of free agency credit.

The Patriots have two exclusive-rights free agents this year:

  • WR Quincy Adeboyejo: Profile | Status: TBD
  • FB Jakob Johnson: Profile | Status: TBD

Quincy Adeboyejo and Jakob Johnson can only get a tender-sheet offer by the Patriots, hence the “exclusive” tag. If the team does not tender the two until Wednesday’s deadline, a trip to unrestricted free agency awaits them. The expectation is that Johnson will get tagged on a one-year, $850,000 contract, while Adeboyejo’s future is more uncertain.

Top-51 Begins. All clubs must be under the 2021 salary cap prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time.

The 2020 salary cap has been set at $185.2 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 $30.5 million — a number that already includes the restricted free agency tender for J.C. Jackson, but not yet the reported contracts for trade acquisition Trent Brown, free agency addition Ted Karras, and re-signings Justin Bethel and Cody Davis.

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

All 2020 player contracts will expire at 4:00 p.m., New York time.

Entering the offseason, the Patriots had 22 players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. The following will leave the club after agreeing in principle to sign contracts offered by other teams:

All three men will factor into the compensatory draft picks calculation for 2022. Given New England’s spending spree early in the legal tampering period, however, the Patriots are currently not projected to receive any compensatory selections next year.

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

With eight of the Patriots’ free agents accounted four, 14 remain and will enter the open market at 4 pm:

  • C David Andrews: Profile | Status: TBD
  • RB Rex Burkhead: Profile | Status: TBD
  • WR Damiere Byrd: Profile | Status: TBD
  • LB Shilique Calhoun: Profile | Status: TBD
  • LB Brandon Copeland: Profile | Status: TBD
  • OT Jermaine Eluemunor: Profile | Status: TBD
  • C James Ferentz: Profile | Status: TBD
  • K Nick Folk: Profile | Status: TBD
  • DT Lawrence Guy: Profile | Status: TBD
  • QB Brian Hoyer: Profile | Status: TBD
  • CB Jason McCourty: Profile | Status: TBD
  • WR Donte Moncrief: Profile | Status: TBD
  • LB John Simon: Profile | Status: TBD
  • RB James White: Profile | Status: TBD

The 2021 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 percent seriously by clubs: former Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown, for example, agreed to an offer two years ago only nine minutes into the legal tampering window.

The Patriots, of course, have multiple two outside additions so far, bringing in nine players from outside the organization:

All players will officially be allowed to sign their contracts with the Patriots after the clock strikes 4 pm.

Trading period for 2021 begins at 4:00 p.m., New York time, after expiration of all 2020 contracts.

The Patriots have made two reported trades so far this offseason, both involving the offensive tackle position:

Both trades will become official on Wednesday, while other moves can also be made. The trading window will close again in late October or early November.

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