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Salary Cap Countdown to Free Agency

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2021 NFL Calendar

With the Super Bowl now behind us, NFL teams (and their fans!) will finally turn their full attention to the new league year.  While the 2021 league year does not technically begin until March 17th, there are many key NFL calendar dates that actually begin starting today.  The following are the key dates on the league calendar between now and late July when training camp begins.

FEBRUARY 8th – As of Monday, teams are allowed to start releasing players without having to worry about any repercussion on last year’s (2020) Salary Cap, which still technically applies until March 17. So, teams are now able to start making moves with the aim of improving their Salary Cap for 2021.  All players released between February 8th and the start of the new league year on March 17th are subject to waivers.  If they clear waivers, they immediately become free agents and are free to sign a contract at any time (even if before March 17th).

With the new league year set to commence on March 17th, expect the Ravens (and most teams) to start making moves at some point in early March.

LATE FEBRUARY – Over the last few years, the NFL has announced the Compensatory Draft picks on the Friday before the Scouting Combine.  With the Combine being virtual this year, it remains to be seen when the League will announce Comp picks.  The Ravens are expected to receive a 5th Round Comp pick for the loss of DT Michael Pierce.

FEBRUARY 23rd – MARCH 9th – As of February 23rd, teams can start designating a soon-to-be free agent player with the Franchise or Transition Tag.  If a team wants to use either Tag, they must do so by 4:00 pm on March 9th

The Ravens only have two (2) candidates for the Franchise Tag, but with a tight Cap due to the rolling back of the Cap due to COVID, it seems unlikely that the Ravens will use the Tag.  The Franchise Tag for DE Yannick Ngakoue would be $14.530M.  This is the CBA prescribed Franchise Tag for Defensive Ends. The Tag for LB Matthew Judon would be $20.170M, since the tag is the greater of the CBA prescribed amount for Linebackers ($14.630M) or 120% of the player’s prior year’s Cap number, which for Judon was $16.808M in 2020.

MARCH 15th – The “legal tampering” window opens.  As of March 15th, other teams can start discussing contract offers and terms with potential free agents, though a contract cannot be agreed upon (*wink-wink*) until March 17th.

MARCH 17th – At 4:00 pm on Wednesday, March 17th, the 2021 league year begins:

  1. Teams must have submitted tender offers to all of their Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) and Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFAs) who they want to retain.
  2. Teams must exercise all 2021 contract options tied to the first day of the league year.
  3. Free agency begins for veteran players and the trading period begins.
  4. All teams must be under the Salary Cap and the Rule of 51 Cap computation begins.

[Related: What is the Rule of 51?]

Recent reports have suggested that the league Salary Cap is projected to be in the $180-181M range.  Using the midpoint of that range – $180.5M – as the Cap, the Ravens presently have $19.679M in Cap space. Once RFAs and ERFAs are tendered and other adjustments are applied, the Ravens’ Cap space is presently projected to be a little over $15M.  This number will obviously change as the Ravens make other moves – signing, re-signings, restructures and/or contract extensions.

MARCH 22nd – On the 5th Day of the league year, DT Brandon Williams’ $4.5M Base Salary and his $3M Roster Bonus become fully guaranteed if Williams is on the Ravens’ roster at 4:00 on March 22nd.  If he’s cut before then, the release would create $7.5M in Cap space.

APRIL 23rd – The deadline for teams to sign RFAs to an offer sheet.  If another team signs a RFA to an offer sheet, the player’s present team has five days to match that offer or potentially (depending on the tender given to the play) receive draft pick compensation if they decline to match.  With the draft starting on April 29th, the deadline to sign a player to an offer sheet and allow for the required five-day match period is April 23rd.

ARPIL 29th-May 1st – The NFL Draft, to be held in Cleveland this year.

MAY 4th – May 4th is the CBA-mandated date by which 5th Year Options must be exercised for 4th year players who were drafted in the 1st round.  For the Ravens, this would be the deadline to exercise the 5th Year Option for QB Lamar Jackson.  As they did last year with CB Marlon Humphrey, it’s obviously a no-brainer that the Ravens will exercise Jackson’s option (unless, of course, he’s signed to a long-term extension prior to that date).

MAY 5th – The “May 5th Tender” date.  This date, which was moved forward from June 1st a couple of years ago, is essentially the last date that the signing or losing of a free agent will count toward the Compensatory Draft pick calculation. The May 5th Tender – which rarely happens – is a way a team can potentially obtain exclusive negotiating rights with a player later in the summer.  It also provides extended Comp pick eligibility if the player is tendered a contract of at least 110% of his prior year’s compensation by May 5th.  Otherwise, if the player is not given the May 5th Tender, he no longer counts toward the Comp pick formula and the team cannot gain any special negotiating advantage later in the off season. As a practical matter, very few free agents who remain unsigned by May 5th are worth such a tender.

JUNE 1st – In past years this is the last day that teams can release a player and have all of the dead money from that release count against the present year’s Salary Cap. If released after June 1st, only the present year’s bonus prorations counts against the Cap in that year and all future bonus prorations would count against the following year’s Cap.

JULY 15th – This is the deadline for signing a player who has received the Franchise or Transition tag to a long-term deal. If no long-term deal can be reached by this date, the player must play that year under the one-year contract provided under the Franchise/Transaction Tender and cannot sign a long-term deal until after the season is over.

LATE JULY – NFL training camps start opening.

SEPTEMBER 4th – Final cutdown date, all teams must cutdown to 53 players.

SEPTEMBER 9th – At 12:00 a.m., the Rule of 51 ends and all teams must be fully under the 2021 Salary Cap. This includes all of the players on the 53-man roster, the Practice Squad and all players on any of the reserve lists (IR, PUP, etc.).

SEPTEMBER 9th, 12th-13th – Week 1 of 2021 NFL regular season.

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About Brian McFarland

Known on Ravens Message Boards as "B-more Ravor", Brian is a life-long Baltimorean and an avid fan of the Ravens and all Baltimore sports. A PSL holder since 1998, Brian has garnered a reputation as a cap-guru because of his strange (actually warped) desire to wade through the intricacies of the NFL's salary cap and actually make sense of it for those of us who view it as inviting as IRS Tax Code. Brian, who hails from Catonsville, MD and still resides there, is married and has two children. More from Brian McFarland
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