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2022 NFL free agency: Explaining the start of the new league year and what it means for the Patriots

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

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

More than a month after the Super Bowl, the NFL will officially close the book on its 2021 season today. At 4 p.m. ET, the calendar will flip over to 2022 in what is one of the biggest dates on the offseason calendar.

After all, the beginning of the new league year has a major impact on all 32 teams, including the New England Patriots. Contracts will expire and free agency officially begin, while the trading window also is set to open.

Needless to say that at a lot will happen in what has already been a busy week. To best prepare you for what lies ahead, let’s go through the start of the 2022 league year step by step and find out what it means from a Patriots point of view.

Prior to 4 p.m. ET clubs must exercise options for 2022 on all players who have option clauses in their 2021 contracts

The Patriots entered the offseason with no players under contract who had option clauses in their deal for the 2022 season. This aspect of the new league year starting dose therefore not apply to them.

That said, New England had one player under contract whose deal was set to void at that point:

New England had until the start of the 2022 league year to make a decision on their long-time team captain, but the club did not wait that long. McCourty was re-signed to a one-year deal over the weekend, keeping him in the fold for an additional season while preventing his previous signing bonus of $6.45 million from hitting the cap in its entirety.

All 2021 player contracts will expire at 4 p.m. ET

Entering the offseason, the Patriots had 18 players scheduled to hit free agency. That group included 15 players carrying the “unrestricted” label.

Of those 15, the following five have already been re-signed by the team — including the aforementioned Devin McCourty, whose deal was set to void:

Meanwhile, two members of the unrestricted free agents group will leave the club. They have agreed to sign contracts offered by other teams during the so-called legal tampering period that began on Monday:

Both J.C. Jackson and Ted Karras will factor into the compensatory draft picks calculation for 2023. Given that the team has not yet added any qualifying outside free agents so far, two selections — one in the third round and one in the sixth — are currently projected to come the Patriots’ way.

With seven of the Patriots’ unrestricted free agents accounted four, the following eight remain and will officially enter the open market at 4 p.m. ET:

  • LB Ja’Whaun Bentley: Profile | Status: TBD
  • RB Brandon Bolden: Profile | Status: TBD
  • OT Trent Brown: Profile | Status: TBD
  • LB Jamie Collins Sr.: Profile | Status: TBD
  • DT Carl Davis: Profile | Status: TBD
  • TE Troy Fumagalli: Profile | Status: TBD
  • LB Dont’a Hightower: Profile | Status: TBD
  • LB Brandon King: Profile | Status: TBD

The 2022 league year and free agency period begin at 4 p.m. ET

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 examples throughout the years show, however, those rules are not exactly taken 100 percent seriously by anyone involved.

The Patriots, of course, have brought in only two players via free agency thus far. One of them spent the 2021 season on New England’s practice squad, so he does not count as an outside acquisition:

Since both James Ferentz and Terrance Mitchell were already on the open market — Ferentz’ practice squad deal expired, Mitchell was cut by the Houston Texans — they are already free to sign contracts with the Patriots. Other players, meanwhile, will only be allowed to do so after the clock has struck 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday afternoon. At that point, their previous deals have expired.

Prior to 4 p.m. ET clubs must submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents with expiring contracts to retain a right of first refusal/compensation

The Patriots have three players who entered the offseason as restricted free agents. Of those three, only one has been tendered so far:

The Patriots took care of Meyers over the weekend by placing the second-round tender at a cost of $3.986 million on him. In case another team opts to sign him to an offer sheet, New England will now have five days to either match or receive the draft pick appropriate for the tender as compensation: the Patriots would get a second-rounder if Meyers was to leave for another club.

The status of the other two RFAs, meanwhile, remains up in the air with the start of the new league year approaching fast:

The Patriots are reportedly not planning to use one of the three restricted free agent tenders on fullback Jakob Johnson, while wide receiver Gunner Olszewski also appears to be a long-shot to be tendered ahead of the 4 p.m. ET deadline.

Prior to 4 p.m. ET 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.

Despite some outlets listing linebacker Terez Hall as an exclusive-rights free agent, he is under contract with the Patriots for the 2022 season. His deal tolled into next year when he spent his entire 2021 campaign on the physically unable to perform list.

As a result, New England does not have any exclusive-rights free agents to take care of this year.

Trading period for 2022 begins at 4 p.m. ET, after expiration of all 2021 contracts

The Patriots have made two reported trades so far this offseason, sending away two of their players in the process

Both moves will become official on Wednesday afternoon, and additional trades can also be made from that point on. The trading window will remain open until the NFL trade deadline in late October or early November.

Top-51 Begins. All clubs must be under the 2021 salary cap prior to 4 p.m. ET

The NFL set the 2021 salary cap at $208.2 million, and 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 $13 million — a number that already includes the restricted free agency tender for Jakobi Meyers as well as the majority of moves made by New England over the last few days.

Top-51 means that only a team’s 51 most expensive contracts count against the salary cap. This will not change until the start of the regular season.

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