When Does NFL Free Agency Start? Dates, Rumors and 10 Teams With Biggest Cap Space

Twelve months ago, NFL free agency took center stage as the U.S. began shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic. With sports suspended because of the outbreak and Tom Brady bringing down the curtain on his two decades in New England, free agency enjoyed an almost unprecedented level of attention.

There's considerably less fanfare accompanying the opening of free agency this year, partly because of the impact of COVID-19. While the NFL successfully completed its regular season and playoffs as scheduled, the pandemic hit the league's bottom line and last week the NFL set the salary cap at $182.5 million, a $16 million drop from last year.

While the lower cap had long been pencilled in, it will almost certainly have an impact on how teams approach this offseason. Financial constraints aside, there's no Brady-like figure in this year's free agent class, which is heavily stacked on the defensive side of the ball but is rather scarce of options at quarterback.

Here's all you need to know about the 2021 NFL free agency.

When does NFL free agency begin?

Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 17, when the new league year gets underway. The actual start of free agency, however, falls on March 15, when the legal tampering period begins.

What is the NFL legal tampering period?

As per NFL rules, the legal tampering period is a two-day window during which teams are allowed to enter contract negotiations with players who are due to become free agents. Terms can be discussed and agreed, but any deals can only be made official at the start of the new league year on March 17.

Who are the top free agents?

If this year's free agent class is light on quarterbacks, the same cannot be said about defensive players. Edge rushers should dominate the market in the coming weeks, with Shaquil Barrett, Bud Dupree, Yannick Ngakoue, Carl Lawson and Trey Hendrickson among the likeliest candidates to get paid.

Barrett, who led the league in sacks in 2019, played under the franchise tag last season and was dominant in the playoffs as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV.

Shaquil Barrett of the Tampa Bay Bucs
Shaquil Barrett #58 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers celebrates sacking Aaron Rodgers in the first quarter of the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on January 24 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Lawson and Hendrickson, meanwhile, enjoyed breakthrough seasons last year and will look to be financially rewarded. Elsewhere, there are intriguing options at both safety and wide receiver, with Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller, JuJu Smith Schuster and Curtis Samuel.

San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams, meanwhile, should also be in line for a major payday and could become the highest-paid player at the position.

Which teams have the most cap available?

The Jacksonville Jaguars are the enviable situation of having both the biggest salary cap space available and the first overall pick in the NFL Draft next month, giving Urban Meyer the perfect platform to kickstart a major overhaul in Florida.

The New England Patriots have the second-most cap space and need significant retooling after missing the playoffs for the first time in 11 years as the first season of the post-Brady era delivered some uncomfortable truths.

Another AFC East team, the New York Jets, could also be busy this offseason under new head coach Robert Saleh. The Jets have the third-most cap space and the third overall pick in the draft.

According to figures from overthecap.com, these are the teams with the most salary cap available as of March 15.

  • Jacksonville Jaguars—$72.9 million
  • New England Patriots—$69.3 million
  • New York Jets—$68.4 million
  • Los Angeles Chargers—$46.3 million
  • Indianapolis Colts—$45.9 million
  • Cincinnati Bengals—$41.3 million
  • Washington Football Team—$38.1 million
  • Miami Dolphins—$32.7 million
  • Denver Broncos—$31.5 million
  • San Francisco 49ers—$30.7 million