The New England Patriots’ dramatic Super Bowl LI victory is in the rear-view mirror and the end of the 2016 league year is fast approaching. On March 9th, the 2017 season will officially start and so will free agency. The Patriots are projected to be busy given that 13 players are currently scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.
To keep a player headed for free agency in the fold, the team has two options: Either re-sign him to a new contract or place the franchise or transition tag on him. While the former can basically be done at any point in time, the latter has to be done within a two-week window – and the window opened today.
There are basically three types of tags from which a team can chose:
Exclusive franchise tag: Average of top five position salaries on April 21 or 120% of last season’s salary, whichever is higher. Player can not negotiate with other teams.
Non-exclusive franchise tag: Average of top five position salaries of last season or 120% of last season’s salary, whichever is higher. Player can negotiate with other teams. Original team has right of first refusal; team gets two first round picks as compensation if he leaves.
Transition tag: Average of top 10 position salaries of last season or 120% of last season’s salary, whichever is higher. Player can negotiate with other teams. Original team has right of first refusal; team gets no compensation if he leaves.
The tag, no matter its type, can only be used once a year by a club. While all free agents are eligible to receive the tag, only two Patriots are realistic candidates: linebacker Dont’a Hightower and tight end Martellus Bennett. The question is, though, if New England would be willing to pay roughly $14 million or $9 million, respectively, for one year of service.
In Hightower’s case, it would make sense especially if the team plans on signing him to a long-term deal. In this scenario, the franchise tag seems like a good choice. It would buy the Patriots additional time to come to an agreement with the 26-year old team captain while almost certainly guaranteeing that he will be with the squad for the 2017 season. While the cap hit ultimately depends on the type of tag, New England has the money to afford either and making Hightower the highest paid player on the team for one year.
Will the team be open to making Bennett one of the highest paid players on the team by placing a tag on him? That is the $9 million dollar question. Just like in Hightower’s case, the team could use the tag to buy additional time – until July 15, when the tags go in effect – to come to an agreement with the tight end. However, if Hightower is still an option to be tagged, it seems less likely the team will prioritize Bennett by using one of the tags on him.
It will be interesting to see what the team ultimately opts to do and whether or not it will use the tag. The chances do look good, though, especially in Hightower’s case.