Starting on February 19th, NFL teams have the option to franchise tag or transition tag one of their unrestricted free agents. According to Adam Schefter, this could be be used by at least ten teams, which would be the most since 2012 when 19 (!) teams tagged a free agent.
A player on the franchise tag or transition tag has their one-year salary guaranteed as soon as they sign their contract. The formula to calculate salaries is complicated and the exact values haven’t been released for the 2019 season yet (via ESPN’s Kevin Seifert):
The exclusive-rights tag is calculated by taking the average of the top five players’ cap percentage at the position for the current season, or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. It has the highest value among the tags, and its specific value isn’t determined until late April to account for current-year deals.
The non-exclusive franchise tag is determined by calculating the average cap percentage at the player’s position during the past five years, or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, whichever is greater.
The transition-tag value is calculated by taking the average of the top 10 players at a position during the past five years.
On the New England Patriots, three players have been discussed as options for some form of the tag: Trent Brown, Trey Flowers, and Stephen Gostkowski.
The argument for Trent Brown
Trent Brown brought much needed stability to an offensive line that lost Nate Solder to free agency last March. Having only played right tackle in his 49ers career, he entered training camp as the starter on the left side and never relinquished that spot on the depth chart. After a solid season protecting Tom Brady’s blind side, he’s poised to score a multi-year deal worth over $10 million annually.
There are several red flags that come with giving Brown his market value deal, which leads credence to the idea that a franchise tag would be the best way to keep him. While he had no such problems in New England, finally within a blocking scheme that fit to his strengths, Brown had both effort and weight issues throughout his career in San Francisco. After balling out in his contract year, there could be concerns that a big pay day would lead to decreased effort and play, a similar concern the Houston Texans share with Jadaveon Clowney.
The non-exclusive franchise tag for offensive linemen (includes all five positions) last season was $14.077 million which was actually slightly down from the 2017 value. With Nate Solder, Andrew Norwell, and Taylor Lewan all receiving huge contracts last offseason, it’s expected to rise past $15 million this year. That’s a hefty commitment to a tackle that was merely average to above average last season, but I have no doubts in my mind that the Patriots would have tagged a similar performer in Nate Solder last year if his contract didn’t have the stipulation that he couldn’t be tagged. With Isaiah Wynn’s health a complete mystery, can the Patriots afford to neglect the most important spot on the offensive line as Brady enters uncharted territories at his age?
The difference this year is that the Patriots have two other worthy candidates. Is using the tag on Brown worth letting two superior players in Trey Flowers and Stephen Gostkowski hit the open market? I would argue that it is not worth it, but I would understand the logic behind keeping the starting offensive line together, a unit that probably peaked as the best in the NFL.
The argument for Trey Flowers
Trey Flowers is the anti-Chandler Jones in many ways. Jones is obviously an elite edge rusher, but he struggled mightily to adapt to the hybrid 3-4 defense and with defensive alignment versatility. Meanwhile, Flowers might have a ceiling of 10 sacks per year, but he can line up anywhere in any technique, while also playing the run equally well. A former fourth-round pick that spent most of his rookie year inactive and didn’t even start until halfway through his sophomore season, it would be a shame to lose him after only 2.5 years of starting production.
It’s hard to calculate how much the tag would really be because 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends are in ambiguous categories, but it should hover around the $18.5 million range — a solid increase from the $17.143 million in 2018. The Chiefs releasing Justin Houston ($16.83 million average per year) and Khalil Mack ($23.5 million AV) being classified as a defensive end and not an outside linebacker could change the equation, but the bottom line is that Flowers’ tag value would be expensive.
It’s already been mentioned how the Patriots could free up salary cap space with several moves, including the release of Dwayne Allen and extensions for Tom Brady or Kyle Van Noy, but tagging Trey Flowers would sap the Patriots of the vast majority of their ~$18 million in cap space. The Patriots still need room to sign their draft class, where they will have six picks in the top 100.
I would still give serious consideration to tagging Trey Flowers for a number of reasons. First off, tagging Flowers will keep him off of the open market, at least for the first week or so. There’s no doubt in my mind that if he’s allowed to test the market, an EDGE-needy team with cap space like the Colts, 49ers, or Jets would have him signed almost immediately. The Patriots may be willing to tie up their cap space for the first week in hopes that the other teams with cap space use most of it to sign other players.
From that point, Flowers can choose to either sign the tag or refuse. If he refuses, the Patriots can rescind the tag and put him back on the open market, except that teams will have less cap space available and the Patriots may be able to match offers. Worst case scenario, the Patriots still get a third round compensation pick, a scenario that many Patriots fans are already resigned to.
If Flowers signs the tag and immediately claims his guarantee, the Patriots can then exclusively negotiate with Flowers for the next month on a long-term deal to reduce his 2019 cap hit. If all else fails, they can still shop him. While Flowers wouldn’t get back the return that a tagged Jared Allen got in 2008 (a first-round pick and two third-round picks), it would most certainly be more valuable than a 2020 compensatory third round selection. Look for a return that ranges from Matt Cassel (34th overall pick) to Corey Williams (56th overall pick).
Bill Belichick has never franchise tagged a defensive end; he traded Richard Seymour for a first-rounder before it even got to that. And for that reason, I’m extremely skeptical that he would actually entertain this idea; but it could serve as a Hail Mary option if New England is hellbent on keeping Flowers in a Patriots uniform.
The argument for Stephen Gostkowski
Despite some patches of inconsistency over the duration of his last long-term contract, Stephen Gostkowski remains an elite kicker. Anyone that’s clamoring for a replacement just needs to look at kickers around the league to see how bad the depth is. The two teams that thought they had franchise kickers and signed them to deals with multi-year guarantees will probably have to release them and just take the loss. You never know just how good your kicking situation is until you have to withstand a full season of Chris Boswell or Cody Parkey.
The Patriots have essentially only needed two kickers since 1996 and I fully expect that continuity to remain. Franchise tagging Gostkowski for about $5 million and then negotiating a long-term deal seems like the most likely option for the Patriots — one that would leave them with enough cap space to be able to retain one of the Brown/Flowers duo.
Belichick has been aggressive in using the franchise tag on his kickers in the past, tagging Vinatieri twice and Gostkowski once back in 2012. Gostkowski turned 35 in January and is already older than Vinatieri when the Patriots let him walk when he was 34, but there’s really no evidence that the Patriots would rely on the draft to replace Gostkowski. The 2019 NFL Draft is not expected to be especially good for kickers.
All in all, tagging Gostkowski seems like the most probable and the safest option for the Patriots, especially when factoring in cap situation and Bill Belichick’s previous history. But as New England’s championship window comes to a close, aggressively making moves to retain their best defensive player would make sense.
They’ve already made several significant upgrades and upgrade attempts over the last couple years, especially at the wide receiver spot. Can the Patriots afford to lose their best defensive player and the only guy on the defensive line that can generate the pressure needed for their aggressive press-man scheme?
So while I wouldn’t expect a scenario where Flowers is tagged, I firmly believe that tagging him is the only chance the Patriots have at keeping him. As always, in Belichick we trust.