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2022 NFL free agency: Explaining the legal tampering period and what it means for the Patriots

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New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The NFL’s 2022 league year will officially begin on Wednesday afternoon. There will be a lot of action up until that point already, however: as has been the case every season since 2013, the start of that new year as well as free agency are preceded by the so-called “legal tampering period.”

But what is it exactly? And how does legal tampering impact the New England Patriots and the league as a whole? Let’s find out.

What is the legal tampering window?

In 2013, the NFL wanted to crack down on its team’s pre-free agency tampering by introducing the legal tampering period. In its essence, it is a 52-hour window during which all pending unrestricted free agents are allowed to enter preliminary negotiations with all the clubs in the league, not just the ones still holding their rights until the official start of free agency on March 16 at 4 p.m. ET.

The legal tampering window opens today at 12 p.m. ET 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 can be made official. Furthermore, every club needs to be under the $208.2 million salary cap. Only the top 51 contracts on the payroll are counted, though.

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. Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown is a good example of that: back in 2019, when he first entered free agency off a successful season in New England, 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 p.m. when clubs are permitted to start negotiating with free agents to be.

For years, the Scouting Combine was therefore seen as the unofficial start of free agency: team officials and agents all gather in Indianapolis for one week, and to think that no business will be discussed is naive. Preliminary discussions are still common practice — one the league apparently does tolerate, to a degree.

Gross cases of tampering are still punished from time to time, however. 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 $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, a total of 18 players were set to become available for all other teams on Wednesday. With safety Devin McCourty and quarterback Brian Hoyer re-signed, and with restricted free agent wide receiver Jakobi Meyers tendered at the second-round level, 15 players remain.

13 of them are subject to legal tampering, 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 McCourty and Hoyer, as well as Meyers and fellow restricted free agents Gunner Olszewski and Jakob Johnson — looks as follows:

The Patriots have some prominent members of their team headed for the open market. On offense, starting linemen Trent Brown and Ted Karras will soon see their contracts expire, as will long-time team captain James White.

Defensively, three linebackers — Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Jamie Collins — will be subject to legal tampering this year. The same goes for arguably the biggest name on New England’s pending free agents list: Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is expected to join the ranks of the highest-paid players at his position this year.

The Patriots’ kicking game operation could also face some changes this year. Neither kicker Nick Folk nor core coverage players Matthew Slater and Brandon King are guaranteed to be retained.

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 those listed 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 p.m. ET. At that point, they would join the open market as well and thus fall into the same category as the UFAs.

New England has three players carrying the restricted free agents tag, and no exclusive-rights players. Two of those, wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and fullback Jakob Johnson, already know their fate: while Meyers received the second-round tender, Johnson has not been tendered.

This leaves one RFA left standing:

Restricted free agents can be tendered at one of three levels: the first-round tender worth around $5.56 million, the $3.99 million second-round tender or the $2.43 million original-round tender. In case another team signs a tendered restricted free agent to an offer sheet, New England would have five days to match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation.