The 2021 NFL league year begins at 4:00 PM Eastern Time on March 17th, which is when free agents can begin officially signing contracts and teams must be under the salary cap — when totaling their top 51 players.
However, the Atlanta Falcons will be making plenty of transactions in the 13 days between now and then. With contracts to restructure, free-agent tenders to assign, and surprise cuts to get below the salary cap, Terry Fontenot is set to be one of the busiest men in America. The league will also be releasing the final cap number, and compensatory draft picks are set to be announced before St. Patrick’s Day.
The shrinking salary cap will obviously hurt some more than others, which I’m predicting will cause many more substantial names to hit free agency as general managers try to maximize their cap room for 2021. Additionally, keep in mind that unrestricted free agents and teams can begin negotiating new contracts starting on March 15th, and many deals will be agreed to in principle in the 48 hours before the start of the league year.
I would expect the NFL to announce the final salary cap just in time for the legal tampering period to begin the following day. For example, the league announced the 2020 salary cap of $198.2 million on March 15th — the 2020 league year started on March 18th. Usually, in previous years, caps were announced earlier, but because of the NFL and NFLPA’s negotiations involving the COVID-19 pandemic, it was delayed. Expect a similar timeframe from the league this year — Sunday, March 14th.
Everything is going to be down to the wire, similar to last year. Compensatory picks were given out by the league one week before the league year started in 2020; that’s my best guess of when to expect them in 2021 — Wednesday, March 10th. Losing Austin Hooper, Vic Beasley, De’Vondre Campbell, Wes Schweitzer, and Adrian Clayborn will likely net two fifth-round, a sixth-round, and a seventh-round compensatory pick — remember, signing Dante Fowler in free agency last year results in a comp pick being awarded to Los Angeles, which likely cancels out the Hooper loss.
Atlanta needs to free up some cap space by restructuring money around or extending a few players. Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Jake Matthews are all candidates for restructures, and the first two could be extended as well. Ryan, Jones, and Matthews being restructured make moving off any or all of them in the future increasingly difficult, but it’s the most conducive way to get under this year’s cap. If Fontenot is going to use this method, he’ll need to have pen to paper no later than March 17th.
The Falcons will likely wait until the last possible moment to cut players as cap casualties. Although Fontenot has already released Ricardo Allen and Allen Bailey, those were obvious moves; decisions like Dante Fowler will be tougher and likely come in the late hours of March 16th.
I can’t really vouch for tagging any free agents this year; Keanu Neal is about the only candidate. If Fontenot does tag anyone, it’ll happen on March 9th at 4 PM ET. That is a specific time and date because it is the hard deadline for teams to designate their Franchise or Transition players.
The last notable date is for restricted free agent tenders and exclusive-rights free agent tenders. Matt Gono and Brandon Powell are the only RFA and will likely be brought back for their specific services — Gono a swing tackle and Powell a special teams ace. The ERFA tenders are Younghoe Koo, Jacob Tuitoti-Mariner, Jaden Graham, Christian Blake, and Tyler Hall. All of these are players Fontenot will likely bring back due to the economics behind an ERFA tender, making their services cost-effective. Expect the RFA tenders to be released closer to March 16th or 17th, while the ERFA tenders could trickle out the week before.