Every NFL team begins the year with hopes set on raising the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. Over the course of the next 11 months, the reality of whether or not they can achieve that dream will become very clear. But if they're going to have a fighting chance at contending for a title, they need to build a team that can compete with the top of the league week in and week out.
The first stop on the journey to dethroning Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begins this week with the start of free agency. It's time for teams to get down to business and decide who can take them all the way and who they're better off without.
Here are the key dates and figures to know for NFL free agency:
When is the franchise tag deadline?
March 9. Each team has between February 23 and March 9 to designate one player with a franchise or transition tag -- one-year contract offers that secure the player's rights for the upcoming season and set the stage for a potential long-term agreement or possible trade.
How much will the franchise tag cost this season?
Each position ranges from $24.112 million for quarterbacks to $4.792 million for special-teamers.
When does free agency start?
March 17. The 2021 NFL free agency period will open when the new league year starts at 4 p.m. ET on March 17.
What can teams do before free agency begins?
On March 15, the legal tampering window starts for unrestricted NFL free agents. During this 48-hour window, teams can begin negotiations with players who are set to enter unrestricted free agency.
What is the 2021 NFL salary cap?
The cap for the 2021-22 NFL season reportedly is $182.5 million.
The San Francisco 49ers have little money to work with at the moment, as they currently are just under $11 million below the salary cap. The team could create space by dealing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, though GM John Lynch has stood by him. After the 49ers traded for Trent Williams during the 2020 NFL Draft, the veteran left tackle will be among the team’s top priorities in free agency. Here are some of the top players on the market as the 49ers eye a return to the Super Bowl:
Trent Williams, OT: The San Francisco 49ers did not place the franchise tag on their veteran tackle this offseason despite his desire to play long-term in the Bay Area. Williams will definitely see action on the free-agent market as he's expected to be the top-paid player at his position. He could even be the top-paid free agent this year, courting offers from the teams with big money to spend this spring.
Shaquil Barrett, EDGE: Barrett sat behind receiver Chris Godwin on Tampa Bay’s list of in-house free agents, and he's still a top target on the market. He's the most coveted edge rusher from this year's class of defensive linemen. With only $15 million in cap space, the Bucs might have to let Barrett’s supreme pass-rushing talent shine in another locker room next season.
Kenny Golladay, WR: Despite battling injuries last season, the 2019 Pro Bowler can dominate defenses down the field when he’s healthy.
Yannick Ngakoue, EDGE: Ngakoue is now a free agent after being traded from the Minnesota Vikings to the Baltimore Ravens midseason in 2020. He collected eight sacks in 15 games between the two teams last season.
Joe Thuney, G: The New England Patriots have decided to let Thuney test the waters outside of Foxboro. Wherever he lands, the left guard will bring consistent offensive line play -- and a major price tag. He earned $14.78 million playing on the franchise tag last season.
Hunter Henry, TE: Henry will draw attention from any team seeking a tight end upgrade this offseason. He finished 12th among NFL tight ends with 613 receiving yards for the Los Angeles Chargers last season.
Aaron Jones, RB: Jones is the undisputed top running back in this free-agent class. He rushed for over 1,100 yards and found the end zone 11 times last season as the Green Bay Packers earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC last season.
Jadeveon Clowney, EDGE: Clowney is entering the open market for the second straight offseason. The pass rusher struggled last season, as he failed to register a single sack in his first season with the Tennessee Titans.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR: Though he caught some heat for his pregame TikTok dances on the field this past season, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver also caught 97 passes for nine touchdowns and could boost an offense’s aerial attack.
Jameis Winston, QB: After sitting behind Drew Brees in New Orleans last season, the former Heisman Trophy winner will be looking for a starting role.
Andy Dalton, QB: Dalton got to audition for his next job after Prescott suffered his season-ending leg injury. Could a rival NFC East team bring in Dalton to be their starting quarterback after watching his nine starts in Dallas?