2021 NFL offseason schedule and key dates

Get your calendars ready! It’s time to mark off some key dates…

With Super Bowl LV now concluded, the focus of NFL media coverage shifts entirely to the offseason. There are a number of dates of interest between now and the NFL Draft, and we will cover them all in detail below.

Feb. 23 – March 9: Franchise/Transition Player Designation Period

The window to assign the franchise or transition tag to a player opens on February 23rd and ends at 4 o’clock p.m. ET on March 9th.

The most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for each NFL team to use either the franchise tag or transition tag on any player who would otherwise become an Unrestricted Free Agent. Teams can only use one tag, so they have to be mindful of which tag they decide to use and why.

It helps to understand the difference between the franchise and the transition tag. Both tags allow a team to maintain control of an impending free agent by offering a fully guaranteed one-year salary, once the player signs their tender offered by the team.

Franchise Tag

The franchise tag has two designations: exclusive and non-exclusive. With the exclusive franchise tag, the player can either sign the tender, locking him into a one-year deal with the same team, or attempt to hold out. They cannot negotiate with another team during the free agency period (though they can still be traded).

The non-exclusive tag allows the player to test the open market and negotiate with other teams, but the player’s original team maintains the right to match any competing offer the player receives from an outside club within five days of that offer. If the team decides not to match an outside offer, the new team must send two first-round picks to the original team as compensation. Because of the high price of two first-round picks plus presumably a big-money contract, you’ll rarely (if ever) see this scenario play out.

The one-year salary under the exclusive franchise tag is based on the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position at the conclusion of the free agent signing period (which is April 23 for 2021), or 120 percent of the player’s salary cap number from the prior year (whichever is greater).

The one-year salary under the non-exclusive franchise tag is calculated based on the average of the top five salaries at the player’s respective position in the prior year and dividing that by the sum of the salary caps from the previous five seasons. Then that number — called the Cap Percentage Average in the CBA — is multiplied by the actual salary cap for the upcoming league year. The exception is if that final number is below 120 percent of the prior year’s salary of the player.

…Yeah, it’s pretty confusing.

Transition Tag

Meanwhile, the transition tag is similar to the non-exclusive franchise tag, minus the draft compensation. If a transition tagged player signs with a new team after his original team declines to match an offer, the original team receives no compensation. The transition tag salary is calculated using the same formula as the non-exclusive franchise tag, but with the top ten salaries at the player’s position rather than the top five.

Tagged players are required to either sign their tender or negotiate a long-term contract before the deadline, usually sometime in mid July (to be determined for 2021).

We saw this scenario play out in Nashville last season, when the Titans used the non-exclusive franchise tag on Derrick Henry in mid-March, guaranteeing him a $10.278 million salary for 2020. However, the Titans worked out a long-term deal with Henry prior to the deadline and thus lowered his 2020 cap hit significantly.

Titans Tag Candidates

The Titans have a couple of possible tag candidates this offseason given the 29 players set to hit the market either as Unrestricted, Restricted, or Exclusive Rights Free Agents.

Wide receiver Corey Davis, linebacker Jayon Brown, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and tight end Jonnu Smith are all candidates to receive one of these tags, although I’m not sure any is a particularly likely candidate.

For the sake of argument though, here are the currently projected franchise tag figures for these positions, courtesy of Over The Cap, assuming the final cap figure comes in at the expected $180-181M as recently reported by Adam Schefter (and keep in mind the transition tag numbers would be slightly lower):

2021 Projected Franchise Tag Tenders
PositionFranchise Tag
WR$15.808M
LB$14.630M
DE$14.530M
DT$13.736M
TE$8.496M

Considering that Davis, Brown, Jones, and even Clowney would see a pay raise under this scenario, I imagine the only player who has a realistic shot at being tagged is Smith. Similar to Henry last year, you could see the Titans tagging Smith as a bargaining chip as they look to negotiate a longer deal with the ascending tight end.

The Titans have until March 9th to use either the franchise or transition tag, should they decide to do so.

March 15 – 17: Free Agent Negotiating Window

Also known as the “legal tampering” period, starting on March 15, NFL teams will be permitted to contact and negotiate with players who will become Unrestricted Free Agents upon the expiration of their 2020 player contracts at 4 o’clock p.m. ET on March 17.

During this time, a flurry of reported interests between teams and players will flood the NFL media market. Most of the “Tier 1” free agents will have their big new deals announced during these two days.

March 17: 2021 League Year Begins

At 4 o’clock p.m. ET on March 17, the new league year begins. This means all players set to hit free agency will officially become free agents upon the expiration of all 2020 player contracts, at which point the 2021 trading period also begins.

Additionally at this time, the “Top 51 Rule” goes into effect, whereby the 51 highest contracts for every team must be under the 2021 Salary Cap.

Prior to the 4 o’clock deadline, clubs must exercise options for 2021 on all players who have option clauses in their 2020 contracts, submit qualifying offers to their Restricted Free Agents with expiring contracts to retain a Right of First Refusal/Compensation, and submit a minimum salary tender to retain exclusive negotiating rights to their Exclusive Rights Free Agents.

Titans Restricted Free Agents

Restricted Free Agents are players with expiring contracts that have earned exactly three accrued seasons in the NFL. To re-sign a Restricted Free Agent, the team must tender a qualifying offer on a one-year contract. Essentially, the team designates the player they intend to re-sign with one of the following “round tenders,” which correlates to a one-year salary figure. If a team does not tender a qualifying offer by 4 o’clock p.m. ET on March 17, the player will become an Unrestricted Free Agent.

If another team wants to sign a Restricted Free Agent, the original team has a chance to match the offer. This is where the tender level comes in. A team interested in poaching a player with a first-round tender would have to give a first-round pick to the original team, a second-round tender would cost a second-round pick, and a “right of first refusal” tender simply means the original team has a chance to match the outside offer with no draft pick compensation.

Here are the projected amounts for the 2021 RFA Tenders from Over The Cap, which are likely to go down if the cap comes in at $180-181M as expected:

2021 Projected RFA Tenders
TypeAmount
First Round$4,766,000
Second Round$3,384,000
Right of First Refusal$2,133,000

The Titans have a handful of Restricted Free Agents: tight end Anthony Firkser, running back D’Onta Foreman, guard Jamil Douglas, defensive end Matt Dickerson, and cornerback/special teamer Joshua Kalu.

I expect Firkser is the only candidate who might be tendered at the lowest designation, which would tie him to a $2.13M salary for 2021 (or possibly slightly lower depending on the final 2021 Salary Cap).

It’s also possible the Titans do not tender Firkser at all. If they feel the $2M+ figure is too high, they could let Firkser hit free agency and try to sign him to a less expensive deal. However, if they do so, they’d be at risk of losing him, as Firkser could see a bigger deal on the open market. Alternatively, the Titans could tender Firkser just to maintain control and then try to lower his 2021 cap hit by negotiating a longer deal.

I can’t imagine they tender any of the other four Restricted Free Agents; they simply aren’t worth the salary even at the lowest tender level.

Titans Exclusive Rights Free Agents

While a player with exactly three accrued seasons becomes a Restricted Free Agent, players who have fewer than three accrued seasons are designated as Exclusive Rights Free Agents. As these players are still early in their careers, teams mostly retain control unless the team does not want them back. All the team has to do is offer a one-year deal at the league minimum salary and the player cannot negotiate with other teams.

Last year, the Titans re-signed Anthony Firkser as an ERFA. This year, the Titans have four guys set to become ERFAs: fullback Khari Blasingame, defensive end Wyatt Ray, wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and cornerback Breon Borders.

I’d expect Blasingame, Westbrook-Ikhine, and Borders to all sign ERFA tenders over the next few months. Getting three guys back who know the system and provide depth and special teams prowess at league minimum contracts is a no-brainer decision for Jon Robinson, especially in a year where the cap will be tighter than ever. Ray could be brought back as well, even if it’s just as a training camp body. There’s no guarantee any ERFA the Titans sign now will end up making the final 53-man roster in September.

Again, the March 17 at 4 o’clock p.m. ET deadline applies for any ERFA offers the Titans might care to submit.

April 5: Start of offseason workouts for teams with new head coaches

This won’t apply to the Titans, but on April 5th, teams who have hired new head coaches can begin their offseason programs.

April 19: Start of offseason workouts for teams with incumbent coaches

For all other teams, including the Titans, offseason workouts will begin on April 19th. Typically these begin with optional conditioning workouts where teams aren’t even allowed to practice together on the field in any kind of team settings for a handful of weeks.

This will be a good chance to see if Isaiah Wilson is serious about continuing his football career. Will the Titans’ most recent first-round pick report for optional workouts in April? If I had to guess right now, I’d say no.

April 29 – May 1: 2021 NFL Draft

The NFL Draft is set to begin on Thursday, April 29th, just 80 short days from the time of this writing.

The NFL still has a lot of details to work out before then, with the unknown impacts COVID-19 will have on any plans looming large.

As of now, there will be no gathering for the NFL Combine in February. There will be no private workouts or meetings between teams and players, only virtual interactions and larger school Pro Day events.

And the NFL’s schedule beyond the draft has yet to be determined.

There’s no real offseason when it comes to NFL media coverage, and the next few months will be chock-full of exciting news and information as we patiently wait for the NFL Draft to arrive.

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