Five (mostly) Patriots-related thoughts as the NFL’s tagging period came to an end Monday afternoon:
1. The Patriots didn’t use their franchise tag for the first time since 2008, declining to hit Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer or Aqib Talib -- the three most likely candidates -- with the tag. Here’s my quick take on a case-by-case basis:
Welker: The fact that Welker wasn’t hit with the tag should be considered a good sign for the Patriots, who figure to be able to lock him down between now and March 12, when free agency opens. Tom Brady’s restructured deal will almost certainly set the stage for a Welker contract that should be in the three-year range. His resume speaks for itself -- he needs one more 100-catch season to enter into the Hall of Fame discussion -- and as we stated here at the start of tagging season, the Brady influence (and we’re not even talking about the financial part of things), as well as the fact that 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 (because of the injuries to the two young tight ends) likely means he’ll be back.
Vollmer: Vollmer is an interesting case. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the best in the league, an elite right tackle who is a legitimate All-Pro. Of course, he’s been dogged by injury for a stretch -- one that limited him to six games in 2011 -- and with the news that he underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his knee likely drove down his value on the market. (As a result, unless someone makes a Godfather-type offer on Vollmer, the Patriots probably feel pretty good about signing him for a rate lower than the $9.7 million he would have received if he had gotten the tag.) As a result, if he does get to free agency on March 12, he should draw interest, but no one will break the bank for him. I still believe that the deal Eric Winston signed with the Chiefs last offseason -- four years, $22 million, $8.4 million in bonus money -- would likely serve as a good starting point, but with some language built into the deal that guards against the Patriots losing him for an extended stretch because of injury.
Talib: I’ve been pretty consistent with this since the beginning of the offseason -- while Talib was a very good corner who was able to bring some stability to the secondary over the course of the second half of the season (when he was healthy), he certainly isn’t the kind of cornerback who is worth eight figures annually. The Patriots have never paid a cornerback more than $10 million a year (not even Ty Law), and with the franchise tag figure at $10.7 million, New England wasn’t going to go all in on Talib to that extent, regardless of the future surrounding Alfonzo Dennard (which would have been a colossal panic move). Talib could still return on a lesser deal, but the Patriots could get better value with some of the corners who will be on the free agent market. There are also a few intriguing defensive back prospects out there, including this guy and these guys. And you don’t have to pay any of them $10 million a year.
2. In the midst of the Monday afternoon craziness, it was hard not to notice that the Chiefs made some interesting moves. They took Dwayne Bowe off the market with a five-year deal, removing one of the potential high-impact pass catchers from the free agent market. They also franchised tackle Branden Albert. If they hold on to the No. 1 overall pick, you would think that would put them out of the running for one of the elite tackles in the draft -- but then, as an alert Tweeter pointed out, you could always kick one of the tackles into the guard spot. Or maybe they take one of the top defensive linemen. (Sharrif Floyd?) Regardless, there’s still a lot of questions about which directions Kansas City will go if they hold onto the top spot.
One other thing that stood out for me was Kansas City’s decision to sign punter Dustin Colquitt to a five-year, $18.75 million deal, making him the highest-paid punter in NFL history. (The contract has $8.9 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.) Colquitt is an excellent punter -- and it’s important to remember that the economic landscape has changed over the last six years, and the money will be distributed differently -- but it was impossible not to overlook the fact that prior to the start of the 2007 season, wide receiver Wes Welker inked a five-year, $18.1 million deal. I’m not sure if that indicates that it’s good to be a punter, or more about just how bad Welker’s old deal was.
3. Robert Kraft’s comments to Peter King regarding the decision to extend Tom Brady were interesting to read for a couple of reasons. First, Kraft was adamant that this was a “real deal,” saying that there was no wink-and-a-nod agreement to possibly give the quarterback more compensation down the road. The owner added, “Look at our track record. We don’t do fake deals. The contract we have with Tom Brady is a real contract we will both live by.” Second, the language that Kraft used when describing his feelings toward Brady was eerily similar to the same things he said when he gave Drew Bledsoe a colossal deal in 2001 -- almost 12 years to the week -- that was set to make Bledsoe a Patriot for life. “I remember feeling sad when Bobby Orr left,’’ Kraft said in 2001 of Orr, who left Boston for Chicago near the end of his career. ``I saw this as an opportunity to sign one of the great Patriots for the rest of his career.’’ On King’s column, Kraft said “I was probably wearing my fan hat as much as anything else. I just didn’t want to ever see this become like Joe Montana leaving San Francisco, Emmitt Smith leaving Dallas, Brett Favre leaving Green Bay, Peyton Manning leaving Indianapolis.” (To compare for yourself, here’s the story from Bledsoe’s deal in 2001, and here are the quotes from Kraft this week.) Not that this means anything, but it was just interesting to hear the same lines from the owner 12 years later talking about a different quarterback. And it shows how the direction of a franchise can change in a heartbeat.
4. Now that the first part of the free agent process is done, we move on to the next stage, which will take place between now and March 12, where teams have a final window of opportunity to sign their own players before free agency throws the doors wide open. With the understanding that these players can still sign with their own teams between now and next week, there are a few intriguing possibilities out there for the Patriots to consider if those players do hit the open market. On the offensive side of the ball -- specifically to the needs of the Patriots -- there’s Pittsburgh wide receivers Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings. On the other side of the ball, there are a few guys we have already profiled as possible free-agent fits for the Patriots, including defensive lineman Mike DeVito, cornerback Brent Grimes and (if you can look past the recent arrest and possessor of one of the most insane sports-related mug shots of all time) defensive lineman Desmond Bryant.
5. Ed Reed is nothing if not wicked smart. The safety appeared on the NFL Network on Monday and was asked about the Patriots. First, he was asked if New England would have won a Super Bowl with Reed on their roster. After saying it would “win two,” he expanded on the question he received at the Super Bowl about him playing with New England. And while he was clear about where he was coming from, he left the door open the tiniest crack when it came to the possibility of him playing elsewhere in 2013.
“At the Super Bowl, I was asked if I would play for Coach Belichick and my answer was: ‘What player wouldn’t play for Coach Belichick?’ He is a good football coach, has a great mind for football,” Reed said. “I met Coach Belichick at a Pro Bowl -- he’s a great guy, great competitor and seems to understand his players. I was just asked the question at the time [but] I am a Raven, plan on being a Raven. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.
“But if it happens, I am a football player. I can adapt to any situation.”