FRISCO, Texas – It's that special time of year.
Yes, the new league year is about to begin, bringing the annual chaos of free agency with it. The 2021 NFL calendar officially begins on Wednesday at 3 p.m., central time, allowing clubs to officially begin navigating this salary cap-crunched season and signing new players.
Before that, though, the league has already entered the much-discussed "legal tampering" window.
If that sounds like a bit of a contradiction, that's because it is. Essentially, the NFL got tired of watching teams and players bend the rules several years ago and enacted a 52-hour window in which negotiations are allowed, although they can't be finalized.
What that basically means is, starting Monday and running until Wednesday afternoon, NFL teams can reach agreements with the agents of impending free agents, and those deals can be signed as soon as the league year begins two days from now.
Dominoes already started falling around the NFL on Monday morning – albeit, not in dramatic fashion.
Several of the biggest names on the market locked up deals with their current teams. Tampa Bay hero Shaquil Barrett re-signed with the Buccaneers after posting 31.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Detroit's standout pass rusher, Romeo Okwara, also reached a new deal with the Lions after notching a 10-sack season in 2020.
It hasn't all been re-signings, though. Former Vikings and Jets offensive lineman Pat Elflein reached a three-year, $13.5 million deal with Carolina on Monday morning. Shortly after that, former Titans tight end Jonnu Smith – arguably the best available tight end on the market this year – reached a four-year, $50 million deal with New England.
The Cowboys also seem to be losing their first free agent of this league year.
Reports also surfaced Monday that Cameron Erving was finalizing a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers.
Erving signed a one-year deal to be the Cowboys' swing tackle last spring, but he was hampered by injury for much of the year. He appeared in just six games and made five starts. It wasn't widely expected that he'd wind up back in Dallas, but the deal does underscore the value of experienced offensive line depth.
The Cowboys do still have Brandon Knight and Terence Steele under contract behind their starting duo of Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, but it'll be interesting to see how they address the depth chart.
That's obviously just one position of many. The Cowboys will assuredly seek to re-sign some of their free agents, in addition to adding some new ones. But who and when just might be determined by the next few days.
With Dak Prescott finally under contract, the Cowboys are in the fortunate position of not employing many marquee free agents. The vast majority of their 20-plus free agents are mid-tier signing and role players.
But there will be an interesting exception or two. After signing as a backup and starting nine games when Prescott got hurt, Andy Dalton is once again eligible to pursue a deal. The Cowboys supposedly have interest in bringing him back at that right price, but that's going to depend on whether Dalton can find an opportunity at a starting job in 2021.
Aldon Smith is another curious name. The former All-Pro revived his career last season after a five-year absence from the sport. Smith signed a one-year deal last April, and he finished the season with 48 tackles and five sacks. It was an impressive turnaround for a guy who had missed four full seasons, and it prompts plenty of questions about what his market might be.
That's just a couple names. Chidobe Awuzie should have an interesting market of his own. And what will become of Cowboy mainstays like Sean Lee and L.P. Ladouceur?
It's impossible to answer those questions right now. But with free agency finally kicking into gear, the picture should start getting much clearer – much quicker.