Last week we asked New England Patriots fans to rank the team’s pending unrestricted free agents and there are pretty distinct tiers of priority. LB Dont’a Hightower is the top free agent in the mind of almost everyone, followed by a group of CB Logan Ryan, TE Martellus Bennett, and DT Alan Branch, and then FS Duron Harmon rounds out the top 5.
The Patriots could reach an extension with any of their free agents, but there’s also a chance for the team to apply the franchise tag since the franchise tag window opened on Wednesday.
MMQB’s Albert Breer just released his projections for the franchise tag based on the currently reported salary cap in 2017 (which is not yet finalized). We can look at these prices to determine whether or not the Patriots would be interested in using the tag on their top free agents.
Franchise tag period opens today. Based on a $168.1M cap projection teams are using, here are estimated tag figures. pic.twitter.com/M74za81rYp— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) February 15, 2017
8. RB LeGarrette Blount: $12.20 million
Blount led the league in rushing touchdowns and is coming off a season where he earned $1.75 million (he reached $750,000 in performance bonuses). $12.20 million would make Blount the second-highest paid running back in the NFL, and possibly the highest paid if/when the Minnesota Vikings cut RB Adrian Peterson. Blount is not going to receive the franchise tag.
7. DE Jabaal Sheard: $17.05 million
Sheard held a lot of potential entering the year, but ended up relegated to third-string behind Trey Flowers and Rob Ninkovich. There’s no way the Patriots would make Sheard the second-highest paid pass rusher in the NFL.
6. FB James Develin: $12.20 million
That’s right, fullbacks are grouped in with the running backs. There’s no way that Develin will sniff the franchise tag.
5. FS Duron Harmon: $10.97 million
Harmon will likely receive starting money somewhere in 2017, but that falls into the $4-$5 million per season range. The Patriots might actually be interested if Harmon will accept a deal in the $3-$4 million range. The franchise tag would make Harmon the second-highest paid safety in the league. This won’t happen.
4. DT Alan Branch: $13.47 million
Branch is the team’s most consistent defensive tackle, but there’s no interest in making him the 8th highest defensive interior player in the league. Branch is 32 years old and will likely settle for a 2-year deal at this stage in his career.
3. TE Martellus Bennett: $9.84 million
Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski is on a deal valued at $9 million per season, so that might be a deal-breaker to pay Bennett more than Gronk. The Patriots offered Bennett an extension valued at $7 million per season prior to 2016, which would make Bennett the 13th highest paid tight end in the league. Bennett’s the best free agent tight end in a really weak market, so he could command a contract around $8 million per season (seventh highest paid). The Patriots would probably avoid using the tag on Bennett at this price, which would make Bennett the second-highest paid tight end, but it’s not out of the question.
2. CB Logan Ryan: $14.31 million
Ryan was an excellent cornerback down the stretch and played a huge role in limiting Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones in the Super Bowl. He has developed into a great complementary cornerback that can defend the best receivers in the league, so long as he gets some safety help. But $14.31 million would make Ryan the second-highest paid cornerback in the league; he would have to be able to cover these receivers on an island to earn this type of money. Look for Ryan to get an contract in the $7 million per season range during free agency.
1. LB Dont’a Hightower: $14.64 million
The linebacker tag includes contracts for 3-4 outside linebackers, which really inflates the value. The franchise tag would make Hightower easily the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league. The Patriots might not even use the tag on Hightower, although it will definitely serve as the starting point for guaranteed money in any extension with Hightower.
In all honesty, I don’t know if the Patriots will use the franchise tag this season, although both Hightower and Bennett have said they would be okay playing under the franchise tag in 2017.
The Patriots probably won’t be at risk of losing any of these key free agents to contracts above the franchise tag price point, or to contracts anywhere near these prices. The closest would be Hightower and Bennett, but they’ll probably see contracts valued at roughly $2 million less per year than the upcoming franchise tag.
Don’t be surprised if the Patriots sit on their hands with the franchise tag, allow their free agents to negotiate with other teams, and have those negotiations set the benchmark and starting point for a contract extension.