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2021 NFL free agency FAQs: Time, deadlines, tampering period rules, more

A refresher on everything you need to know about NFL free agency, the legal tampering period and how it relates to the Lions.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

With the start of free agency just around the corner, now is a good time to brush up on the rules and regulations of the free agency period. It seems like every year there is a new wrinkle to learn or sometimes we just easily forget the basic rules.

So as a refresher to get you ready for a big week in the NFL, here is a full explainer of free agency, the legal tampering period, and everything else you need to know.

When does free agency start?

The “legal tampering period” begins at 12 p.m. ET on Monday, March, 15. That’s typically when you see players “agree to terms” with a new team.

Free agency doesn’t officially begin until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 17. That is the start of the new league year, and it’s when all of the signings and trades can be done officially. So, for example, the Detroit Lions’ trade of Matthew Stafford will officially go through on Wednesday.

What is the legal tampering period? How does it work?

During the legal tampering period, teams can talk to the agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents on Wednesday. They are NOT allowed to have direct contact with the players, only their agents. If a player is representing themselves, they must wait until Wednesday to negotiate with other teams. For the first time ever, players who represent themselves WILL be able to talk to teams directly during the tampering period, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

During this period, agents are able to work out the parameters of a deal with a new team, but the deal will not be official until Wednesday. It doesn’t happen often, but there is a precedent of a team reaching an agreement with a player during the legal tampering period but the player backs out before it becomes official on the new league year.

It’s worth noting that during this period, teams are able to officially sign their own free agents. For example, if Romeo Okwara tests the waters on Monday and doesn’t like the offers he is getting, he can go back to the Lions and sign an official deal on Tuesday with Detroit before the new league year starts.

How have teams already signed players before the new league year?

Teams are permitted to officially sign two types of players before the new league year on Wednesday: players who were released by a team and therefore have had their contract terminated, or teams can re-sign any of their own players before Wednesday. The Lions have already officially signed TE Josh Hill and WR Tyrell Williams because those players were released by their teams.

What about restricted free agents?

Because teams have until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday to tender their restricted free agents an offer, these players cannot negotiate with other teams during the legal tampering period.

For the Lions, this is irrelevant, as they’ve already re-signed their one restricted free agent (Mike Ford), and they’ve already tendered offers to their three exclusive-rights free agents (Jason Cabinda, Matt Nelson, Jack Fox), meaning they are not permitted to negotiate with other teams. All four players will be back in 2021.

How much cap space do the Lions have right now?

Per the NFLPA official salary cap report, the Lions have about $13.5 million in cap space, but that doesn’t include several unofficial moves that haven’t happened yet, including the Stafford trade (net: costs $13.8 million in cap space) and the expected Desmond Trufant release (frees up nearly $6.2 million). It’s unclear if it includes the Josh Hill signing, as the terms of that deal have yet to be released.

So it appears as of Monday morning they’re barely under the cap. Expect more salary cap saving moves before the Lions can officially sign any free agents.