The first important date on the NFL offseason calendar is upon us.
Tuesday marks the start of a 15-day period where teams can elect to use the franchise tag on one of its players. As a reminder, the franchise tag is essentially a one-year contract based on the average of the top five salaries from the player's position or 120 percent of his previous salary, whichever number is higher. Long-term deals can still get negotiated, but only up until a certain date.
The Patriots were once huge fans of using the tag, as from 2009-12 they used it every single season. But, that hasn’t been the case of late. Beginning in 2013, it has only been used once and that was in 2015 on Stephen Gostkowski, which led to him signing an extension to make him the highest-paid kicker in the NFL.
With a few big name free agents to be, will the Patriots break the trend and use the tag in the coming weeks?
Don’t count on it.
For starters, most teams simply have gone away from it. Last year, only four teams ended up by tagging players, and that came following the 2017 offseason when seven teams did.
Relating to the Patriots for this offseason, there are a few players who will likely be considered, but in the end it doesn’t really make financial sense for the team. As of now, the Patriots have roughly $20 million in cap space, and while that number will likely go up in the coming weeks with restructures and potential retirements, they will need to be careful with their spending.
Option No. 1 for players who could get tagged is defensive end Trey Flowers.
The 25-year-old is likely priority No. 1 this offseason. Flowers is a valuable piece for the defense as he plays the system extremely well. Playing in 15 games this season, his numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, but it’s because he’s playing the scheme of the Patriots defense which isn’t designed for players to tally a ton of sacks. In 2018, he finished with 7.5 sacks, 57 tackles, 20 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles.
The franchise tag figure for defensive ends is just over $17 million, which is a crazy number for the Patriots to allocate to one player (it would make Flowers the highest-paid player on the team besides Tom Brady). They likely could negotiate a long-term deal with him worth less per year than that, which seems like the likeliest of scenarios.
Flowers seems to be a in similar position as Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty were in years past. The Patriots have allowed those players to test the market, see what their worth is to other teams, and then come back with their offers. New England has matched in the past, and that appears likely to happen again with Flowers, unless his value is out of this world high. The only scenario where Flowers could get tagged is it's a placeholder to show good faith before a long-term deal gets worked out, but that doesn’t seen necessary given his relationship with the franchise.
Then, there’s offensive tackle Trent Brown.
The 25-year-old did extremely well for himself this past season. In his first year in New England, which was also a contract year, Brown did a tremendous job protecting Brady’s blindside and got a ton of attention as the Patriots had a ton of national TV games and obviously went all the way to the Super Bowl. Nate Solder got a four-year, $62 million deal last year and Brown figures to get even more than that considering he’s five years younger and performed better in a contract year.
Offensive tackles who get tagged will be paid around $14 million, and that also feels like a number the Patriots probably will not be willing to go. It’s also worth mentioning the team has Isaiah Wynn, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, on the roster. Last summer many believed he was the left tackle of the future, which makes it a little easier to move on from Brown, especially considering Wynn will come at roughly one-tenth of the cost.
And option No. 3? Gostkowski.
For as much as people get on him for his misses in big games — missed kicks in the Patriots’ final game of the year for four straight years — he’s still arguably one of the top five kickers in the league. In the regular season, Gostkowski was 27-for-32 overall on field goals, but was 25-for-27 on kicks under 50 yards. This doesn’t account for how good he is on kickoffs, either placing it where Bill Belichick says or just kicking it out of the end zone.
It feels like if the Patriots are going to use the tag, they would likely use it on Gostkowski since it would be for $5 million, and he’s 35 years old. But at the same time, if they are going to commit to him for one season, why not do it for multiple, and the team likely would be able to get a deal done worth less than $5 million a year over a few years.
As is the case with the franchise tag in most years, it feels like there’s a lot of chatter involving a few players, but in the end things will go like they have in recent years and that’s with the 15 days going by without it actually being used.