Your guide to 2019 NFL free agency

Free agency begins March 13 at 4 p.m. for the Patriots and the NFL.

Trey Flowers Patriots NFL
Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers during the AFC Championship game on Jan. 20, 2019. Flowers is one of the team’s top free agents. (Jim Davis / The Boston Globe) –Jim Davis / The Boston Globe

NFL free agency gets underway at 4 p.m. next Wednesday, which is also the start of the new year for the league. Teams and representatives for unrestricted free agents are allowed to begin talking about potential deals Monday, a stretch known as the legal tampering period.

The Patriots have work to do, with some glaring positional holes to fill (receiver, defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end, offensive line) and valuable players (left tackle Trent Brown and defensive end Trey Flowers) who will be unrestricted free agents.

So to help keep track of the ins and outs of NFL free agency, here’s an explanation of the legal tampering period, the new salary cap, Patriots free agency needs and storylines, key league dates, and a breakdown of the different types of free agents.

What is the legal tampering period?

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This is a stretch leading up to the new league year in which agents of unrestricted free agents can start contacting other teams. This year, that period starts Monday.

Anything and everything regarding a prospective deal can be discussed, but nothing can be finalized until the new league year. A player cannot negotiate himself, nor can he visit a team. A violation of these rules falls under the conduct detrimental and anti-tampering policies. Teams could be fined or docked draft picks.

How does the new salary cap work?

The cap went up about $11 million, to $188.2 million per team. To calculate a team’s specific cap, add unused cap money the team carried over from last year and then add or subtract any incentives that were or were not earned from last year.

The Patriots currently have 55 players under contract for next year, with their top 51 accounting for approximately $172 million in cap commitments. They will carry over about $3.1 million in cap space from last year and are expected to add about $5.5 million in adjustments, giving them about $24 million in cap space as of this writing.

All teams have to be compliant with the salary cap when the league’s new year starts. Teams can have up to 90 players on the offseason roster, but only the top 51 contracts are counted against the salary cap.

Salary cap A look at each team's carryover, cap, and cap room for 2019, according to the NFLPA.
Team Current Contracts Previous Year Carryover Team Cap Cap room
Arizona Cardinals 60 $6,405,131 $156,288,428 $37,614,625
Atlanta Falcons 54 $1,139,791 $182,327,335 $7,164,182
Baltimore Ravens 54 $4,504,955 $169,811,985 $18,637,947
Buffalo Bills 55 $8,726,270 $123,610,234 $76,001,583
Carolina Panthers 61 $2,597,139 $176,228,306 $16,684,065
Chicago Bears 54 $3,693,213 $177,127,572 $17,427,041
Cincinnati Bengals 60 $7,483,742 $145,720,502 $50,831,867
Cleveland Browns 61 $56,581,986 $174,043,106 $72,644,465
Dallas Cowboys 58 $11,777,592 $173,501,222 $27,553,751
Denver Broncos 54 $8,006,116 $160,487,041 $34,578,450
Detroit Lions 59 $6,460,868 $162,616,174 $31,914,589
Green Bay Packers 60 $7,885,426 $162,680,832 $34,467,094
Houston Texans 52 $18,867,251 $137,414,284 $74,015,467
Indianapolis Colts 61 $49,146,053 $136,079,627 $102,067,086
Jacksonville Jaguars 56 $11,608,733 $197,777,660 $3,938,573
Kansas City Chiefs 62 $715,502 $181,040,517 $9,107,167
Los Angeles Chargers 57 $1,016,504 $164,984,417 $22,658,599
Los Angeles Rams 48 $466,566 $159,294,377 $159,294,377
Miami Dolphins 58 $5,938,494 $186,765,577 $8,993,917
Minnesota Vikings 52 $4,172,170 $187,019,654 $5,240,898
New England Patriots 55 $3,173,423 $173,115,577 $23,898,521
New Orleans Saints 52 $1,804,665 $200,850,468 $10,300,288
New York Giants 54 $5,904,991 $171,641,905 $23,748,527
New York Jets 42 $12,289,854 $100,636,045 $101,432,783
Oakland Raiders 59 $1,924,523 $130,421,493 $63,184,280
Philadelphia Eagles 65 $6,101,096 $178,422,156 $19,762,690
Pittsburgh Steelers 64 $18,248,920 $194,701,729 $12,108,662
San Francisco 49ers 65 $35,031,574 $166,859,693 $65,036,340
Seattle Seahawks 48 $2,585,161 $157,862,557 $32,591,354
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 59 $4,508,998 $191,029,273 $3,350,607
Tennessee Titans 62 $25,676,137 $174,636,011 $43,473,647
Washington Redskins 66 $5,001,035 $176,959,640 $17,291,395
SOURCE: NFLPA
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See where the Patriots stand now with their salary cap at Over The Cap. If you want to read more about the salary cap, Over The Cap also has an excellent and detailed explainer.

What are the Patriots’ story lines heading into free agency?

Rob Gronkowski: Will the star tight end retire or won’t he? He said after the Super Bowl he would think about it. His agent said recently that Gronkowski was still thinking and would make an announcement in a couple weeks. This decision will have a big impact on the Patriots either way.

Wide receivers: Julian Edelman is the only receiver under contract with the Patriots who has proven NFL experience. There are no other ways to say it than they need help at this position. A few names they could go after in free agency: Golden Tate, Tyrell Williams, Jamison Crowder, and Adam Humphries.

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Trey Flowers: He has developed into a key player on the defense. But if he has a robust free agent market, the Patriots should let another team pay him top dollar. Flowers is not a dominant one-on-one pass rusher, and the Patriots have a well-established history of letting star defensive players go — Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler — and being just fine the next year.

Trent Brown: The offensive tackle was a great find last year who cost the Patriots only $1.9 million, but now he’s the top offensive tackle on the free agent market and is looking at a big payday. Isaiah Wynn, who is recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon, is available to step in at left tackle, so the Patriots don’t need to break the bank for Brown.

What are the Patriots’ needs and who could potentially fill them?

WIDE RECEIVER

Julian Edelman is the only receiver on the roster who has an NFL catch. The Patriots need to add multiple receivers, and at least one should be a proven veteran. They also will control Josh Gordon’s rights as a restricted free agent when he comes off suspension, and likely will keep him.

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High-end options: Tyrell Williams, Adam Humphries, Devin Funchess, Randall Cobb, Jamison Crowder, Golden Tate, John Brown.

Value options: Phillip Dorsett, Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Donte Moncrief, Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley, Kevin White, T.J. Jones, Rishard Matthews, Michael Crabtree, Pierre Garcon, Tommylee Lewis.

TIGHT END

The Patriots released Dwayne Allen, and Gronkowski is not long for the NFL, so they definitely need to add one if not two tight ends. There isn’t a No. 1 tight end in this crop of free agents, but there are a few decent options for the role of Gronk’s sidekick.

High-end options: Tyler Eifert, Jared Cook, Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Value options: Jesse James, C.J. Uzomah, Luke Willson, Tyler Kroft, Lance Kendricks, Jake Fisher.

DEFENSIVE END

The Patriots need to sign at least one defensive end, possibly two if they end up making Adrian Clayborn a salary-cap casualty. If they do spend money in free agency, it likely would be on Flowers, who has developed into a solid anchor on the line.

High-end options: Flowers, Ezekiel Ansah, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Dante Fowler, Shane Ray, Bruce Irvin.

Value options: John Simon, Markus Golden, Shaq Barrett, Aaron Lynch.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

The Patriots have two defensive tackles as free agents, and it wouldn’t be shocking if neither returned. Malcom Brown was OK as a two-down run-stopper, but should only be back on a short-term, cheap deal. Danny Shelton made one big play in the Super Bowl, but otherwise was a bust last year.

High-end options: Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Pierce (RFA).

Value options: Henry Anderson, Darius Philon, Malcom Brown, Timmy Jernigan, Allen Bailey, Christian Covington, Bennie Logan, Mario Edwards, Danny Shelton.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

Brown is the top left tackle in free agency and could be looking at $14-plus million per year. There’s no question he was an important piece for the Patriots, but if they weren’t going to pay big money for Nate Solder, the probably won’t for Brown.

The Patriots could certainly plug in last year’s first-round pick, Wynn. He was getting work at left tackle during training camp, and they obviously were high on him. Of course, Wynn is coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon and has never taken an NFL snap, so the Patriots had better sign good depth at the position. This seems like a good year to invest in another left tackle in the draft.

High-end options: Brown, Jared Veldheer (RT), Ja’Whaun James (RT), Daryl Williams (RT).

Value options: LaAdrian Waddle, Cam Fleming, Kendall Lamm (RT), Joe Barksdale (RT).

What are the key league dates this year?

March 11-13: Legal tampering period.

March 13, 4 p.m.: The start of the new league year and free agency. Teams also must be under the salary cap and submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents to retain right of first refusal by 4 p.m.

March 24-27: Annual league meeting in Phoenix.

April 1: Teams with new head coaches can start offseason workouts.

April 15: Teams with returning head coaches can start offseason workouts.

April 19: Deadline for RFAs to sign offer sheets.

April 25-27: NFL Draft in Nashville.

May 3-6 or May 11-13: Teams may hold a three-day post-draft rookie minicamp.

May 13: Rookie football development programs begin.

May 16-19: NFLPA Rookie Premiere.

May 20-22: League meeting in Key Biscayne, Fla.

Late June: Rookie Transition Program to be held by individual teams.

July 15: Deadline for teams that used the franchise tag to sign a multiyear deal with the player. Otherwise the player has to play out the year on the franchise tag.

Mid-July: Teams can open training camp for rookies and first-year players seven days prior to the earliest mandatory reporting date for veteran players. Veteran players other than quarterbacks or injured players can’t report to training camp earlier than 15 days prior to the first scheduled exhibition game or July 15, whichever is later.

Here is an extensive list of key dates from NFL.com.

What are the different classifications of free agents?

Unrestricted: A player becomes a UFA after four years in the league when his contract expires. In each of those four years, he must have spent at least six weeks on a roster (injured reserve counts). He can negotiate and re-sign with his current team at any point until the league’s new year begins — this year it’s March 13 — but cannot do the same with any other teams before that date. However, his agent may begin reaching out to other teams on his behalf two days before the league’s new year.

Patriots UFAs: Flowers, Brown, K Stephen Gostkowski, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, WR Chris Hogan, DT Danny Shelton, CB Jason McCourty, P Ryan Allen, DT Malcom Brown, OL LaAdrian Waddle, RB Jeremy Hill, WR Phillip Dorsett, CB Eric Rowe, DE John Simon, LB Ramon Humber, LB Albert McClellan, OL Ulrick John.

Volin’s take: Bring back Dorsett, Patterson, Waddle, Brown, McCourty, Simon, Gostkowski, and Allen. Let Hogan, Shelton, Hill, and Rowe walk. Set firm prices for Flowers and Brown, and be prepared to let them walk.

Restricted: A player becomes an RFA after three years in the league. The majority of RFAs are undrafted free agents, since contracts for draftees must be at least four years. A team has until the new league year begins to offer an RFA a one-year tender, which means that team can match any offer the player receives from another club.

Even if a tender is used, an RFA can negotiate with other teams after the league’s new year begins, but only until April 19, when the RFA period ends. After that date, the player can negotiate only with the team he most recently played for. A team has five days to match another club’s offer.

There are four types of tenders: first-round compensation, second-round compensation, original-round compensation, and right of first refusal.

A first-round compensation tender results in the RFA signing with another club if his old team declined to match the offer. That new club then sends a first-round draft pick to his old team. The same principle applies for the other three types of tenders, though the compensation level changes. A second-round tender sends a second-round pick to the old team; an original-round tender sends a pick equal to the RFA’s draft round; right of refusal results in no compensation.

The pay scale for each of these tenders changes, according to Over The Cap:

■  First round: $4.442 million

■  Second round: $3.110 million

■  Right of first refusal and original round: $2.035 million

If an RFA is not tendered, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Patriots RFAs: WR Josh Gordon, CB Jonathan Jones.

Volin’s take: The speedster Jones has developed into a special teams stalwart in his three years, and was a crucial cornerback in the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl, playing all but one snap. An original-round tender for Jones would cost the Patriots approximately $2 million for 2019, which seems like money well spent for a quality depth player.

Gordon also will be a restricted free agent if/when he returns from suspension. The Patriots don’t really have to worry about another team signing Gordon — who could trust him to stay clean at this point? — and don’t need to spend $2 million on an RFA tender to keep him. They should non-tender Gordon, bring him back on a minimum $805,000 salary, and hope he can contribute. But they should not count on Gordon being a big part of their offense.

Exclusive rights: An ERFA has usually spent less than two years in the league when a team offers a one-year tender based on the minimum salary correlated with the player’s experience level. An ERFA can also be a player who has been in the league longer, but has not spent the required amount of time on a roster to become a UFA. An ERFA may not negotiate with any other teams after he has been tendered. If an ERFA is not tendered, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Patriots ERFAs: WR Cody Hollister.

Street free agent: An SFA was under contract for the upcoming season, but was released by his team. As soon as he is released, he is free to sign with another team.