Tagging season began Monday for the NFL, and for New England, it began a two-week period of relatively uncertain for the three players who are most likely to get hit with either the franchise tag or transition tag between now and March 4.
The Patriots have three taggable players: wide receiver Wes Welker, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and cornerback Aqib Talib. All three are unrestricted free agents, and in each case, the team has the right to tag them, which would keep them in New England for another season.
The Patriots have freely thrown around the franchise tag in the past -- according to Mike Sando of ESPN, New England has used the franchise tag eight times since it was first instituted in 1993, the fourth-highest total in the league. More often than not, it’s led to some ill will between the player and the franchise. Welker was clearly more than a little peeved to get tagged last season, but gritted his teeth, signed the tender and returned for another 100-plus catch season. Guard Logan Mankins was tagged in 2011, which led to a contentious back-and-forth between the player and the team (one which came to a conclusion when he later signed a six-year. $51 million deal). Vince Wilfork was angry at being tagged in 2010, but later made up with the team to the tune of a five-year. $40 million contract.
And in the case of Matt Cassel (2009), Asante Samuel (2007), Adam Vinatieri (2002 and 2005) and Tebucky Jones (2002), it signaled the beginning of the end of their time with the team, as those players were all traded or left as soon as they got the chance. (Samuel and Vinatieri signed elsewhere, while Cassel and Jones were traded.)
Here’s a player-by-player breakdown of this year’s candidates to be tagged, with our take on how it will play out.
The most notable of the three, Welker faces his second straight season of contractual uncertainty. The 31-year-old, who remains the best slot receiver in the league, has caught at least 100 passes in five of the last six seasons, and has blazed a trail for slot receivers everywhere throughout the league, helping show people that they can be more than just ancillary members of the passing game. (For more on his impact, check out that story here.) He’d probably like a mulligan on how he handled the process last year, complaining publicly about the process and then adding a #leapoffaith hashtag when he Tweeted out the news he signed the tender. It will be interesting to see how he reacts if he’s forced to go through the process again.
Cost if franchised: $11.4 million, or 120 percent of last year’s salary as a two-time tagged player.
Forecast: There are reports that Welker won’t be franchised, as the team apparently feels comfortable with some reasonable facsimile of a deal that would pay him roughly $8 million annually, one he turned down at some point in 2011. A lot of things can change when it comes to free agency and the draft, but as it stands right now, franlkly, it's difficult to envision a scenario where Welker doesn’t return, at least for one more year. At the end of the 2012 season, he was the only part of the passing game that could be counted on to consistently move the chains and produce first downs. Despite the fact that the Patriots are roughly $18 million under the cap -- and the cost of re-upping Welker would prevent them from making a big splash elsewhere in free agency -- it’s our guess that if New England does decide to use the tag, it will be on Welker.
(We wrote this last week when we were taking the measure of Danny Amendola as a possible free agent fit for New England, but I would love to know Brady’s impact on the Welker contract situation. Any quarterback in his mid-30s couldn’t be too enthused about possibly losing his most trusted and valuable target, as well as a good friend -- they go on vacation together, for goodness sakes. I know Brady’s eyes are wide open, especially after losing pals like Lawyer Milloy and Deion Branch over the course of his career, but this is something else entirely.)
It’s difficult to quantify successful offensive line play, but Vollmer has been healthy, it’s pretty clear that he’s been one of the best young tackles in the league. The former collegiate tight end, who was a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2009, has played both left and right tackle over the last four seasons, but has been pretty much locked into the right tackle spot since the start of the 2010 season and has managed to serve as a pretty good bookend (along with Matt Light, and later, Nate Solder) in that stretch.
Cost if franchised: $9.7 million.
Forecast: The Patriots have always been really odd when it comes to their financial dealings with the guys they deem to be important offensive linemen. They overpaid to keep right tackle Nick Kaczur in 2009 (four years, $16 million, a deal he wasn’t around to see the end of), and so the thought of them ponying up to keep Vollmer seems like a no-brainer, whether it’s through a new deal or the franchise tag. Ultimately, I think they have to find some way to keep Vollmer -- his length and versatility (he’s played both left and right tackle) make him important to the success of New England’s offensive line. But his injury history has to be addressed, and any new deal he signs has to include some sort of language that guards against losing him from an extended period of time going forward. (Maybe the team builds playtime incentives into the deal.) One model could be deal the Chiefs gave Eric Winston last offseason a four-year, $22 million deal that included $8.4 million in bonus money.
We covered Talib and his possible future in New England at length here, but it’s worth noting that some of what happens with Talib could be connected to the outcome of Alfonzo Dennard’s trial back in Nebraska. If the Patriots end up losing Dennard for any stretch of time, they could go into the 2013 season without the two starting cornerbacks who closed out the 2012 season. And while Talib wasn’t an All-Pro by any stretch, New England’s lack of depth in the secondary was exposed in the AFC title game loss to the Ravens when Kyle Arrington went from the slot to the outside and Marquice Cole was forced to take significant snaps in the slot against Anquan Boldin. There’s always the possibility that Ras-I Dowling or some other youngster steps forward to assume a larger role, but based on what we know at this point, that appears unlikely.
Cost if franchised: $10.7 million.
Forecast: I could be wrong, but I’m not sure the Patriots have ever paid a defensive back more than $10 million annually. It appears the closest the franchise came was following the 2004 season with Ty Law, but the cornerback and the team parted ways before the start of the 2005 season. (The last time the Patriots were faced with this sort of high-profile decision on a cornerback was Asante Samuel before the start of the 2007 season -- he received a one-year tender for $7.79 million.) While the market for cover corners has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, regardless, I don’t see Talib being the first defensive back to break the $10 million barrier in New England. One NFL insider told us that when it comes to an NFL career, the first contract is where you make your name, the second contract is where you make your money, and the third contract is where you make your legacy. With that in mind, expect Talib to try to cash in somewhere else.