March 17th is the big deadline. The 2021 NFL league year begins at 4:00 PM Eastern Time on that date, which is when free agents can begin officially signing contracts and when teams must be under the salary cap (when totaling their top 51 players).
However, the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole will be making plenty of news in the 14 days between now and then. With free agent tenders to assign, contracts to restructure, and probably players to cut to get below the salary cap, the Packers will have plenty of headlines coming. The league does as well, with the final cap number and compensatory draft pick announcements set to be released before St. Patrick’s Day.
Therefore, Acme Packing Company has looked back at the last few years’ trends to help prepare you for when to expect the various important bits of news to drop. Some of these items are highly predictable — for example, the Packers like to issue their exclusive rights free agent tenders within 24 hours of the new league year beginning — while others are less so for various reasons. Thus, keep this as a primer for when to monitor APC and your Twitter feed for news about the offseason’s changes.
Additionally, keep in mind that unrestricted free agents and teams can begin negotiating new contracts starting on March 15th, and many deals get agreed to in principle in the 48 hours before the start of the league year.
Finally, as we look back at past years, note that the league year has started on the following days in the past three seasons:
- 2020: Wednesday, March 18
- 2019: Wednesday, March 13
- 2018: Wednesday, March 14
NFL Announces Final Salary Cap
In 2020, the NFL announced the official salary cap of $198.2 million on March 15th, just in time for the negotiation (aka “legal tampering”) period to begin the following day. The announcement was delayed in part because of the NFL and NFLPA’s negotiations involving the COVID-19 pandemic, however; previous years’ caps were announced earlier.
For example, the 2019 cap was announced on March 1st, almost two weeks prior to the start of the league year, while 2018 saw the number come down on March 5th, nine days early. So in a normal year,
When to expect in 2021: Sunday, March 14
Teams must know how much money they have to deal with before starting negotiations with free agents. Yes, the rough number is out there, but to finalize plans for RFAs and ERFAs, for example, teams must know the final number before the negotiation period starts. Thus, with the league and NFLPA seemingly still discussing the final number — and with the slight possibility that new TV contracts could come into play — expect the two sides to take that negotiation out as long as possible and out until a day before negotiations can begin.
Compensatory Draft Pick Announcements
This one in theory might be pretty easy to identify — after all, why wouldn’t the league be able to process all the comp pick calculations and announce at the same time each year? From 2017 through 2019, the league made the announcement about compensatory picks in late February, doing so on the Friday before the Scouting Combine.
However, in 2020, the comp picks came down on Wednesday, March 11th, after the Combine and exactly one week before the start of the league year.
When to expect in 2021: Wednesday, March 10th
We’re already past that late February time frame, so we think the NFL will probably go with the precedent it set last year, giving us comp pick announcements one week from today. The Packers should get one extra pick in each of the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds, thanks to losing Blake Martinez, Bryan Bulaga, and Kyler Fackrell in free agency last offseason.
Contract Restructures or Extensions
Green Bay needs to free up some cap space by shifting some money around or extending a few key players. Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and Za’Darius Smith are all key candidates. If they are going to use this method to get under the cap for 2021, they’ll need to have pen to paper no later than March 17th.
In 2020, the Packers made one notable contract decision. However, that was to re-sign kicker Mason Crosby, whose contract expired after 2019, making him eligible for free agency. As such, this was the Packers re-signing Crosby rather than extending him for cap purposes. Likewise, the Packers did not restructure or extend any existing contracts in February or March of 2018 or 2019.
Instead, they tended to do that late in the previous season, taking advantage of the ability to use the nearly-finished season to further spread out cap hits. They did that by converting roster bonus money to a signing bonus for Aaron Rodgers in December of 2019, and they signed Davante Adams and Corey Linsley to their current contracts in December of 2017, as Ted Thompson’s final efforts for the team.
When to expect in 2021: any time between now and March 17
Since the Packers haven’t needed to free up cap space this way in recent years, it’s tough to tell when these types of moves may come. It could be this afternoon or it could be the morning of March 17th; there’s really no precedent for them doing this so late in the process under Brian Gutekunst.
Salary Cap-Related Cuts
In 2020, the Packers made one big cap cut, releasing tight end Jimmy Graham. That cut came on March 12th, or six days before the start of the 2020 league year.
2019 saw the Packers release outside linebacker Nick Perry on the same date, March 12th. However, the league year started earlier that season, and Perry’s release took place one day before the league year began — and it was announced during the legal tampering period. In fact, it came down on the same day that the team agreed to terms with Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, though the Perry cut was reportedly planned regardless of whether the Packers had landed any big free agents.
March 13, 2018 was when Brian Gutekunst made his first notable cap-related cut, letting go of Jordy Nelson to save nearly $10 million in cap space. Like with Perry, the Packers made that move one day before the league year began on March 14th.
When to expect in 2021: Probably on March 16
The Packers tend to wait until almost the last possible moment to move on from players for cap reasons. Although the team already made a few moves here in 2021, parting ways with Christian Kirksey and Rick Wagner, those were effectively no-brainer moves; decisions on players like Preston Smith and Dean Lowry will be tougher, and will almost certainly come down to the wire.
The Packers haven’t used a tag since 2010, so it’s tough to project here. When they did, they made the decision well in advance of that league year beginning, tagging Ryan Pickett back on February 24th. But given Brian Gutekunst’s comments on Tuesday, they will take all the time available to them to make a decision on tagging Aaron Jones.
When to expect in 2021: 4 PM ET on March 9th
That is a specific time and date because that’s the hard deadline for teams to designate their Franchise or Transition players. Expect to know whether Jones gets tagged next Tuesday, and no sooner.
Restricted Free Agent Tenders
In 2021, the Packers have several tough RFA decisions to make. Robert Tonyan, Chandon Sullivan, and Raven Greene all are possible tender candidates, with Tim Boyle in the mix as well.
In Gutekunst’s three seasons in charge of the Packers, the team has placed a tender on a restricted free agent only once, using the “low” tender on Geronimo Allison in 2019. That decision came down on the morning of March 13th, hours before the new league year began. Allison, interestingly, signed a one-year contract two days later to keep him in Green Bay and off the market.
When to expect in 2021: sometime on March 17th
The Packers will probably take these decisions down to the wire, with tender decisions being dependent on how much cap space they can free up through cuts and contract restructures.
Exclusive-Rights Free Agent Tenders
Similarly to RFA tenders, the ERFAs need to be tendered by the start of the league year on March 17th. Unlike RFAs, Gutekunst has plenty of history in terms of tendering his ERFA players.
In 2018, the Packers announced their ERFA tenders right at the 4:00 PM deadline on the start of the league year. That group included names like Geronimo Allison, Justin McCray, and Lucas Patrick. 2019 saw Tonyan get his tender on the Friday before the league year, while the remainder of the group (including Jake Kumerow, Reggie Gilbert, McCray, and Patrick) got theirs on the afternoon of the league year start date.
2020 saw the Packers make their ERFA decisions one day early, with tenders being reported in the media on March 17, a day before the 3/18 league start date and two days after the cap number was announced.
When to expect in 2021: One or two trickling out after about March 11, the rest on March 16 or 17
Most ERFA decisions are no-brainers. If you think the player has even a chance of helping your team in the upcoming season, he gets a one-year tender at the league minimum. Allen Lazard will get a tender no matter what, but other potential tenders might be subject to the whims of the final cap numbers. Therefore, expect the Packers to take most of these pretty far down to the wire once again, with the bulk of the tenders being announced just before the league year begins.