With the New England Patriots not using the franchise tag this year, all 17 members of their 2019 free agency class are now scheduled to hit the market once it opens on March 13 — a group that includes the team’s top pass rusher and consensus number one free agent, Trey Flowers. And while there is a chance that New England reaches an extension with him over the next few days, the most realistic scenario is Flowers entering free agency next week.
From the Patriots’ perspective, this is familiar territory. Over the years, the club has not shied away from letting their top players test the waters while simultaneously keeping an open line of communication — an approach that served them well the last two times core defenders saw their contracts come to an end. Safety Devin McCourty entered free agency in 2015, two years before linebacker Dont’a Hightower did the same. Both men were retained by the Patriots.
McCourty entering the open market was sealed after New England decided to use the franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski instead of him. However, the defensive back’s experience on the open market was still a short one: while he received interest from multiple teams during the NFL’s legal tampering period, New England brought him back via a five-year, $47.5 million contract on the first official day of free agency.
The Patriots were able to do that despite McCourty receiving competitive offers from three clubs, the Philadelphia Eagles with the best among them. However, McCourty gave the club that drafted him in the first round in 2010 an opportunity to come up with a counter-offer — and it did. “Financially, they stepped up and hit all the numbers I wanted,” the team captain told reporters shortly after agreeing to the new deal with New England.
Two years later, coincidentally also coming off a world championship, the Patriots faced a similar situation with Dont’a Hightower and took the same approach: they did not use the franchise tag to keep him from the open market, and instead allowed him to find out his value. Hightower did just that over a comparatively long period of time, as eleven days passed between the start of the legal tampering period and the linebacker re-signing in New England.
Hightower’s market developed more slowly than McCourty’s two years earlier, in part because the veteran defender took his time to visit the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers. Throughout the process, however, his team kept an open line of communication with the Patriots’ front office — which ultimately contributed to him signing a four-year, $35.5 million deal with the club on March 15.
Now, New England has to hope for Trey Flowers to take the same route as McCourty and Hightower before him. That being said, the situation for the 25-year old is still a bit different: Flowers is arguably the top defensive edge on a market that was depleted by four teams using the franchise tag on the position. Then again, the draft offers plenty of cheap talent along the edge as well which might play in the Patriots’ hands one way or the other.
Ultimately, the Patriots’ approach was risky one in 2015 and 2017 — and it is again in 2019; but one that could ultimately prove to be successful nevertheless.