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NFL free agency opens this week. Here’s a complete guide

Whether Jimmy Garoppolo remains with the Patriots will likely be a story line during free agency.
Whether Jimmy Garoppolo remains with the Patriots will likely be a story line during free agency.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File 2016

NFL free agency gets underway Thursday at 4 p.m. In the meantime, however, teams and reps for unrestricted free agents are allowed to begin talking potential deals, a stretch known as the “legal tampering” period.

The Patriots have their work cut out for them. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower is an unrestricted free agent, as are tight end Martellus Bennett, defensive tackle Alan Branch, running back LeGarrette Blount, cornerback Logan Ryan, and safety Duron Harmon, to name a few. And they are on the market for pass rushers and defensive back depth.

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 story lines, key league dates, and a breakdown of the different types of free agents.

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What is the ‘legal tampering’ period?

This is a stretch leading up to the new league year when agents of pending unrestricted free agents can start contacting other teams. This year, that period starts Tuesday, March 7.

Anything and everything regarding a prospective deal can be discussed between agents and teams, 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 $12 million again, to $167 million per team from about $155 million. 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 start with $167 million, carry over $5,292,335 from last year, and don’t have any adjustments as of now. That makes their adjusted cap number $172,292,335.

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.

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As of Monday, the Patriots have a little more than $59.7 million in cap space, the sixth-most in the NFL, according to the NFL Players Association. But the Patriots also have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks. They have only 50 players under contract for 2017, tied for second-fewest in the NFL, and their cash commitment of $76,077,129 is the lowest.

Tip of the cap A look at each team's carryover, cap, and cap room for 2017.
Team Carryover Team cap Cap room
Arizona Cardinals $4,405,068 $154,433,745 $16,971,323
Atlanta Falcons $926,541 $149,929,518 $17,997,023
Baltimore Ravens $2,553,126 $155,751,169 $13,801,957
Buffalo Bills $2,837,222 $151,569,389 $18,267,833
Carolina Panthers $13,208,020 $147,551,257 $32,656,763
Chicago Bears $8,103,197 $123,657,508 $51,445,689
Cincinnati Bengals $6,578,866 $131,705,526 $41,873,340
Cleveland Browns $50,123,269 $113,498,347 $103,624,922
Dallas Cowboys $2,401,553 $166,121,782 $3,279,771
Denver Broncos $7,243,248 $132,137,449 $42,105,799
Detroit Lions $4,725,644 $140,225,402 $31,500,242
Green Bay Packers $7,984,687 $134,908,870 $40,075,817
Houston Texans $4,935,924 $148,465,383 $23,470,541
Indianapolis Colts $6,614,106 $120,587,627 $53,026,479
Jacksonville Jaguars $39,314,310 $138,589,267 $67,725,043
Kansas City Chiefs $5,002,168 $167,154,461 $4,847,707
Los Angeles Chargers $113,693 $162,038,218 $5,075,475
Los Angeles Rams $304,311 $147,441,530 $19,862,781
Miami Dolphins $8,363,708 $134,313,420 $41,050,288
Minnesota Vikings $400,184 $129,347,011 $38,053,173
New England Patriots $5,292,335 $112,576,992 $59,715,343
New Orleans Saints $5,754,000 $145,329,546 $27,424,454
New York Giants $1,800,000 $155,679,995 $13,120,005
New York Jets $371,487 $149,906,332 $17,465,155
Oakland Raiders $8,000,000 $131,951,512 $43,048,488
Philadelphia Eagles $7,933,869 $166,476,645 $8,457,224
Pittsburgh Steelers $3,269,367 $151,605,364 $18,664,003
San Francisco 49ers $38,708,916 $115,073,027 $90,635,889
Seattle Seahawks $2,065,865 $143,067,613 $25,998,252
Tampa Bay Buccaneers $5,330,779 $106,159,726 $66,171,053
Tennessee Titans $24,046,522 $129,549,758 $61,496,764
Washington Redskins $15,055,131 $147,636,587 $34,418,544
Average per term $9,180,222 $140,763,749 $35,416,473
Total $293,767,116 $4,504,439,976 $1,133,327,140
SOURCE: NFLPA

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?

Jimmy Garoppolo. Will the quarterback remain a Patriot, like Bill Belichick & Co. have reportedly claimed in conversations with other teams over the last week or so? Or is that to drive up the potential trade value of Tom Brady’s backup? As the Globe’s Ben Volin wrote last week, “No matter how many reports emerge in the next days and weeks about Garoppolo staying with the Patriots, it will be tough to take them at face value until we actually see Garoppolo standing on the Patriots sideline in Week 1.”

Not so secondary. Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon are both free agents. If both defensive backs walk, how will New England fill those voids? The Patriots will almost certainly place a first-round restricted free agent tender on cornerback Malcolm Butler. That would increase Butler’s pay to $3.91 million for 2017.

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“This tender guarantees Butler his salary but allows him to still test the open market, with the Patriots holding the right to match any offer and receive a first-round pick in return should Butler sign elsewhere,” Volin wrote. “If Butler wants a long-term extension from the Patriots, the negotiation starts with the assumption that he plays for $3.91 million this year and the franchise tag next year of about $15 million — so two years and $19 million. Anything over that is a bonus for Butler, and anything under that is value for the Patriots.”

A new contract for Brady? New England has reworked his contract four of the last five years, the most recent of which was to lessen the blow of his four-game Deflategate suspension. That resulted in a $28 million signing bonus, half of which was deferred to this year and will be paid out on March 31. His 2017 salary of $1 million will be guaranteed if he’s still on the 90-man roster Saturday.

Run it back? LeGarrette Blount is a free agent. James White and Dion Lewis are under contract until 2018. The Patriots re-signed James Develin on Monday. Do the Patriots re-sign Blount, who rushed for career highs in touchdowns (18) and yards (1,161) last season? Do they mix up this successful and versatile combination of running backs by bringing in a free agent or adding through the draft? Don’t count out the effectiveness of mixing it up as a form of staving off complacency.

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

Defensive end. Chris Long is not returning. Jabaal Sheard is likely to follow him out the door. And the Patriots are coming off a regular season in which they ranked 16th in sacks (34). They need a pass-rush boost. They’ve already brought in Jared Odrick, who can play every position on the defensive line, for a visit, and this year’s draft class is talented and deep.

Tight end. With Rob Gronkowski’s injury history and Bennett being a free agent, this might be the time for the Patriots to turn to the draft for another tight end. An AFC executive said that this year’s tight end class is one of the best and deepest he’s ever seen, with legitimate first-round talents in O.J. Howard and David Njoku.

Receivers. The Patriots reportedly have interest in Saints receiver Brandin Cooks. They could also target Markus Wheaton, Russell Shepard, Quinton Patton, Marquess Wilson, and Justin Hunter.

Running backs. If Blount leaves New England, it would leave the team in need of a big back, of which there are plenty on the market, including Adrian Peterson, Latavius Murray, and Eddie Lacy.

Which teams are eyeing the Patriots’ free agents?

Hightower is waiting to see what kind of offers he gets in free agency. But he has interest in returning to New England. Whether the Patriots will come close to matching any offers he gets remains to be seen. The Dolphins could reportedly encourage the former Alabama star to jump ship from Bill Belichick’s VII Rings to welcome him aboard in South Beach. The Titans and Lions could also be landing spots for Hightower.

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Ryan may call for more than the Patriots are willing to pay. The Lions need a cornerback and are run by GM Bob Quinn, a former longtime Patriots scout.

The interest between the Patriots and Bennett is real and a return for the right price is a possibility. However, the Raiders and Jaguars also have expressed serious interest in Bennett.

What are the key league dates this year?

March 7: Agents of UFAs can start reaching out to other teams prior to the start of the new league year.

March 9: Teams must be under the salary cap by 4 p.m.. At 4 p.m., the start of the new league year and free agency begin.

March 26-29: Annual league meeting in Phoenix.

April 3: Teams with new head coaches can start offseason workouts.

April 17: Teams with returning head coaches can start offseason workouts.

April 21: The end of the RFA period.

April 27-29: NFL Draft in Philadelphia.

May 5-8 or May 12-15: Teams can hold one three-day rookie minicamp the first or second weekend after the draft.

May 15: Rookie football development programs begin.

May 18-21: NFLPA Rookie Premiere.

May 22-24: The league’s spring meetings in Chicago.

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

July 15: Teams that used the franchise tag have until this day to sign a multi-year 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 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 9 — 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, which is March 7 this year.

Patriots UFAs: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount, Logan Ryan, Alan Branch, Duron Harmon, Michael Floyd, Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, Brandon Bolden, Barkevious Mingo, Greg Scruggs.

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 21 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 of match another other 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:

First-round compensation tender
$3,910,000
Second-round compensation tender
$2,746,000
Original round and ROFR
$1,797,000
SOURCE: OverTheCap

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

Patriots RFAs: Malcolm Butler, Cameron Fleming.

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

Patriots ERFAs: Justin Coleman, Brandon King, Matt Lengel.

Street: 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.


Ben Volin of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Follow Rachel G. Bowers on Twitter @RachelGBowers.