The New England Patriots opted to stay away from their franchise tag this year, marking the third-straight season without using it and the fifth time in six seasons without designating a franchise player.
The franchise tag means the player receives a contract offer basically valued at the average of the top 5 prior year salaries at their position (adjusted for the salary cap increase), or a 120% bump in pay.
Five teams used the franchise tag on a free agent this year and only the Pittsburgh Steelers used the exclusive tag, on RB Le’Veon Bell, so no one can negotiate with their player. The Dallas Cowboys (DE Demarcus Lawrence), Detroit Lions (DE Ezekiel Ansah), Los Angeles Ram (S Lamarcus Joyner), and Miami Dolphins (WR Jarvis Landry) were the other teams.
Franchised players can start signing their offer at 4:00 PM ET on March 14th and must sign prior to November 13th, the Tuesday after week 10 of the regular season, or else they will not accrue a season.
The Chicago Bears used the transition tag on CB Kyle Fuller, which is a lower distinction with a contract value being the average of the top 10 at the position. Fuller has to sign before July 23rd or else the Bears will have exclusive negotiating rights.
The Patriots haven’t been afraid to use the franchise tag under head coach Bill Belichick, but it seems to have falled out of fashion. They last used the franchise tag on K Stephen Gostkowski back in 2015, but that’s after using it eight times in 11 seasons between 2002-12. Other recent franchised players include QB Matt Cassel (2009), DT Vince Wilfork (2010), LG Logan Mankins (2011), and WR Wes Welker (2012).
New England didn’t have a player worth tagging this year, especially since LT Nate Solder’s contract prevented him from being tagged for $14,077,000. RB Dion Lewis is the best free agent, but the franchise tag for running backs is $11,866,000, which is way outside the Patriots price range.
There’s also no way that the Patriots would tag CB Malcolm Butler for $14,975,000.
It the lack of tags makes sense, too. Rarely will the Patriots allow a player that is at the top five or 10 of their position (or a starting quarterback, valued at a surprisingly cheap $23,189,000) to reach free agency and never would the team use the tag on someone that wasn’t worth every penny.
So New England won’t use the tag in 2018. Looking at 2019, there’s a slight chance they could use it on K Stephen Gostkowski (2018 tag: $4,939,000), currently the highest-paid kicker in the NFL, and potentially stronger chances they use it on DE Trey Flowers ($17,143,000),RG Shaq Mason ($14,077,000), or WR Brandin Cooks ($15,982,000). None seem overly likely.
Neither Flowers nor Mason can sign a contract extension until March 14th, the start of the 2018 NFL Calendar, so we will see if the Patriots want to retain them prior to the next free agency period.