NFL teams can start using the franchise or transition tags on one member of their upcoming class of unrestricted free agents today, and the New England Patriots have plenty of players to choose from: a total of 17 Patriots are currently scheduled to hit the market when it opens on March 13. Not all of them are realistic options to be tagged by the club, however, as only Trey Flowers, Trent Brown and Stephen Gostkowski appear to be realistic options.
The question is whether or not the team would be willing to tag one of the three men, and judged by its recent history it appears unlikely: the Patriots used the franchise tag only once in the last six years after applying it eight times between 2002 and 2012. Coincidentally, the last member of the team to get tagged is about to become a free agent again this year: the aforementioned Stephen Gostkowski.
New England’s kicker was tagged in 2015 before signing a four-year, $17.2 million contract with the club in mid-July. Back then, the Patriots simply used the tag to buy themselves more time for negotiating with Gostkowski’s camp — a plan that ultimately turned out well for both sides. A similar approach in 2019 would therefore not be surprising even though the organization generally shied away from tagging players as of late.
In general, however, the Patriots are no strangers to using the franchise tag as a rundown of the Bill Belichick era shows:
2002: Kicker Adam Vinatieri signed to a three-year, $5.4 million contract.
2003: Safety Tebucky Jones was tagged and traded to the New Orleans Saints for third and seventh round draft picks in 2003 and a fourth rounder in 2004.
2005: Kicker Adam Vinatieri played the 2005 season on the $2.51 million franchise tag before signing with the Indianapolis Colts the following offseason.
2007: Cornerback Asante Samuel held out until late August but ultimately played the 2007 season on the $7.79 million tag before signing with the Philadelphia Eagles the following offseason.
2009: Quarterback Matt Cassel was tagged and traded to the Kansas City Chiefs — together with linebacker Mike Vrabel — for a second round draft pick in 2009 (that later turned into safety Patrick Chung).
2010: Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork signed a five-year, $40.0 million contract.
2011: Guard Logan Mankins signed a six-year, $51.0 million contract.
2012: Wide receiver Wes Welker played the 2012 season on the $9.5 million franchise tag before signing with the Denver Broncos the following offseason.
2015: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski signed a four-year, $17.2 million contract.
As can be seen, the Patriots used the franchise tag in different ways in the past: from tagging-and-trading (Jones, Cassel) to seeing players leave after one year on the tag (Vinatieri II, Samuel, Welker) to working out contract extensions (Vinatieri I, Wilfork, Mankins, Gostkowski). Given how expensive the tag is this year in comparison to the club’s rather limited financial resources, seeing them go the latter way appears to be most realistic in Gostkowski’s case.
That being said, if the Patriots feel confident in their abilities to a) create more cap space before the start of the new league year, and b) reaching a long-term agreement with either Flowers or Brown, they could very well opt to go down the same route they went with Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins in 2010 and 2011.