The NFL’s franchise tag window came to a close yesterday, and the New England Patriots did not use it to keep one of their players from hitting the open market. Consequently, 17 members of the team’s 2018 championship squad are now scheduled to become unrestricted free agents once the new league year starts next week — a group that includes Trey Flowers and Trent Brown, New England’s top-two free agents.
Let’s take a look ahead at what this means for the two standouts and the Patriots, and what some of the next steps are.
Patriots’ cap space doesn’t change
Placing the tag on either of the two players would have been tied to a massive financial burden: the non-exclusive franchise tag for Trey Flowers would have cost the club $17.128 million, in Brown’s case it would still have hit the team’s books with $14.067 million. Considering that New England has around $24.3 million available right now, opting to not use the tag is not that surprising a move from the franchise’s perspective.
Extension before free agency
While New England did not use the franchise or transition tags to keep Flowers and Brown from hitting unrestricted free agency, there is a chance — albeit a small one — that they won’t do just that after all. With the market not opening until March 13, 4:00 pm ET, the Patriots are still in a position to potentially reach an agreement with one or both of the two starters until then. Furthermore, for the next four days, the world champions still have exclusive negotiating rights with Flowers’ and Brown’s camps.
Legal tampering period
After those four days, the NFL’s legal tampering period begins. At that point, teams’ exclusive negotiating rights get lifted as all 32 clubs can start talking to pending free agents. While no new contracts can be signed just yet — except by the organization still holding a player’s rights — the basic outlines of a potential deal can already be discussed and formally agreed to.
If the Patriots have not yet re-signed their top free agents by then, the duo and the club should get a clearer picture of how the market might develop. Flowers and Brown are not the first core players to travel down this road: in the past, the club allowed Devin McCourty (2015), Dont’a Hightower (2017) and Nate Solder (2018) to test the waters, with the first two ultimately returning to New England after keeping an open line of communication with the team throughout the process.
If New England and their two priority free agents have not agreed to new contracts by the time free agency starts on March 13, the duo will be free to sign wherever it wants to. This means that there are three realistic scenarios in play:
1. Both test the market, both leave the Patriots: Flowers and Brown receive offers by other teams that New England — if even asked to do so in the first place — is unable to match for one reason or the other. Consequently, the two standouts accept the deals and leave Foxboro to play elsewhere in the future. Given how highly regarded both are expected to be, the contracts they would sign likely will result in the Patriots receiving high compensatory draft picks in 2020.
2. Both test the market, one re-signs with the Patriots: With New England currently $24.3 million under the salary cap, it will not be able to retain both Flowers and Brown unless the club creates additional financial space. In this case, the knowledge of the market will likely be a determining factor which of the two is prioritized moving forward. Flowers is clearly the superior player, but Brown will presumably be the cheaper option.
3. Both test the market, both re-sign with the Patriots: While this would be the ideal scenario for New England, it is also the least likely one. Why? The combination of the club’s limited financial resources at the moment and the likely price it will take to fit both Flowers and Brown under the cap without sacrificing the middle class of the roster. Unless initial projections about their value turn out to be drastically wrong, seeing both return to the Patriots is a pipe dream.
The Patriots not placing the tag on Flowers and Brown is no definitive sign either way if they stays with the world champions or not. It simply is one less way to keep them next season, but as can be seen there are other avenues to ensure that one of them — anything else seems unrealistic — returns. Things might start to heat up once the legal tampering window opens next week, so don’t expect any movement before that.