NFL teams can start using the franchise and/or transition tags on their upcoming class of unrestricted free agents today, and the New England Patriots have plenty of players to choose from: a total of 15 Patriots are currently scheduled to hit the market when it opens on March 18. Not all of them are realistic options to be tagged by the club, however, either due to contractual reasons (Tom Brady) or simply due to the value of the tag relative to their roles.
Accordingly, only three players come to mind as candidates to receive one of the three tags this year: guard Joe Thuney, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and safety Devin McCourty.
The question, however, is whether or not the team would be willing to tag one or maybe even two of the three men. Judged by the Patriots’ own recent history either outcome appears to be rather unlikely: while New England used the franchise tag a combined eight times between 2002 and 2012 under head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick, it has been applied only once over the last seven offseasons.
The full breakdown illustrates the Patriots’ past franchise tag usage:
- 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). Will this year add another chapter to this history? It seems unlikely, not just based on the recent stretch of New England not using the tag.
Historical precedent aside, there is a big reason why the team should not be counted on to use the available tags in 2020: money.
After all, tagging a player either with the franchise or transition tag is an expensive endeavor as a look at the projected numbers illustrates this. If you then add the fact that New England is currently projected to have only $29.07 million in salary cap space available, you see why the tags are not really realistic options to be applied by the Patriots before the window closes again on March 12.
OG Joe Thuney
Since getting drafted in the third round in 2016, Thuney has developed into one of the best young guards in football. A reliable blocker who was New England’s best offensive lineman last season, he is hitting free agency at just the right time. That being said, the Patriots paying $16.1 million (franchise tag) or $14.7 million (transition tag) to keep him for one year seems unlikely given the team’s projected salary cap situation and list of free agents-to-be
LB Kyle Van Noy
Van Noy was a playmaker for the Patriots ever since they acquired him from the Detroit Lions at the 2016 trade deadline. However, his tag numbers — $16.3 million (franchise tag) and $14.1 million (transition tag) — are in no relation to his actual contributions to the franchise: the 28-year-old has been a very good player in New England’s system, but not one to be paid like a top-six linebacker in the NFL.
FS Devin McCourty
Despite coming off arguably the best season of his career and the tag numbers being comparatively reasonable at the safety position — $12.7 million (franchise tag) and $10.8 million (transition tag) — the Patriots will likely shy away from using one of the two on McCourty. As is the case with Thuney and Van Noy, the financial burden is too big to carry for a team with a long list of free agents and limited financial wiggle room.
Given how expensive the tags are in comparison to the club’s rather limited financial resources, seeing them forgo them therefore seems to be the most realistic outcome. The streak of tag-less offseasons will likely continue.