How key dates will impact Patriots

Breaking down key upcoming dates on the NFL schedule and how they affect the New England Patriots:

Monday, July 25

What happens: Clubs may begin negotiating with draft picks and undrafted free agents.

What it means for the Patriots: The Patriots have nine draft choices and project to sign 10-15 rookie free agents. The team annually has one rookie free agent emerge as a surprise to make the roster and there is often competition among teams to sign players (e.g. the Patriots scooped linebacker Gary Guyton away from the 49ers in 2008). In New England, interest is high on the possibility of Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich joining the team.

Tuesday, July 26

What happens: At 10 a.m. ET, club facilities open and players may report for physicals and voluntary strength and conditioning; trading begins; rosters are expanded to a 90-player limit; clubs may sign draft picks; teams can negotiate with all free agents.

What it means for the Patriots: A lot of moving parts. This is where the team finds out if there are similar situations to that of outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who underwent surgery on his abdomen Friday. Discussions could heat up with veteran left tackle Matt Light, franchise-tagged left guard Logan Mankins, as well as other free agents who were on the team last year. If the Patriots are targeting a free agent from another team, this is the time to strike. The Patriots also invited media members to the facility.

Wednesday, July 27

What happens: The official start of training camp for 10 teams whose first preseason game is Aug. 11.

What it means for the Patriots: With their preseason opener Aug. 11 against the Jaguars, the Patriots are in this group. All players are required to report and will take the team's conditioning test. This will determine whether players open the year on the active roster or on the physically unable to perform/non-football injury lists. Unlike past years, when players could stay in condition in the team's offseason program, the shape players are in will reflect how professional they were while working out on their own.

Thursday, July 28

What happens: The Patriots' first public practice (time TBA).

What it means for the Patriots: In traditional years, the first practice would be in full pads. This practice can not be in full pads, per the 2011 transition rules.

Friday, July 29

What happens: Teams can officially sign free agents from other teams.

What it means for the Patriots: If the team looks elsewhere for pass-rush help or a veteran presence along the offensive line, it won't be able to finalize any deals until three days into training camp. Those players won't be able to participate in on-field activities, workouts, weight training or other physical activities until Aug. 4, but will be required to attend meetings and other non-physical activities during training camp until that date.

Thursday, Aug. 4

What happens: The first official day of the 2011 league year, assuming the NFLPA recertifies and ratifies the collective bargaining agreement, as expected.

What it means for the Patriots: By 4 p.m. ET, the team must be in compliance with the $120 million salary cap (top 51 players).

Sept. 20

What happens: Deadline for any player who has been assigned the franchise tag to sign a multiyear contract or extension.

What it means for the Patriots: This projects as a marker for Mankins' future with the club. He has been assigned the franchise tag, which will pay him approximately $10 million for a one-year deal. If Mankins strikes an extension with the team this year, it would have to happen before the second day following the second game of the season.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.