OK, I'm officially confused. The nfl site makes it seem that it is free agency business as usual unless of course the owners collude and decide to lock out the players and not talk to them.
As others are pointing out, teams are currently in the process of signing extensions of players which should continue at least until the official date when contracts expire. I believe that date is March 1st the last day of the combine, as it has been in the past. It seems that we should exclusively be able to extend our own players until that date.
The OPEN question is what happens on March 1st if there is no lockout. Most have suggested a lockout by the owners (followed closely by a player suit and an injunction I would presume). Obviously that would stop all contact, but I think that there will be much action through March 1st and possibly even beyond.
It would seem to be that unless there is a lockout on March 1st, we would be able to sign free agents from other teams. This is NOT critical to the patriots. What is critical to us is that we sign/extend some of our own before March 1st as some other teams are already doing.
From the nfl site (a pdf of the CBA is also there)
NFLLabor.com NFL Calendar
January 3 Clubs may begin signing free agent players for the 2011 season.
January 8-9 Wild Card Playoff Games.
January 9 Assistant coaches under contract to playoff clubs that have byes in the Wild Card weekend may be interviewed for head coaching positions through the conclusion of the Wild Card games.
January 15-16 Divisional Playoff Games.
January 23 AFC and NFC Championship Games.
January 29 Senior Bowl, Mobile, Alabama.
January 30 AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, Honolulu, Hawaii.
February 6 Super Bowl XLV, North Texas.
February 7 Waiver system begins for 2011. A 24-hour claiming period will be in effect through the Friday prior to the last regular season game (waivers requests made on Friday and Saturday of each week will expire at 4:00 p.m., New York time, on the following Monday.) Players with at least four previous pension-credited seasons that a club desires to terminate are not subject to the waiver system until after the trading deadline.
Feb. 23- March 1 Combine Timing and Testing, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Indiana.