With less than a month to go before the start of the 2021 free agency period, the first noteworthy date on the NFL’s offseason calendar has arrived: beginning today and through March 9, teams are able to use the franchise or transition tags to keep one of their unrestricted free agents in the fold for the upcoming season.
When it comes to the process of tagging players, however, there are plenty of unknowns at this point in time. After all, no official salary cap number has been communicated to the league’s 32 clubs yet.
The expectation is that the NFL will set its salary cap for the 2021 season significantly below last year’s $198.2 million due to the economic fallout of the Coronavirus pandemic — most teams did not have fans in their stadiums throughout 2020, for example. The league-wide cap is therefore expected to decrease quite a bit, even though a floor has recently been set at $180 million by the league and the players union.
Where the cap will eventually end up will also determine the value of the franchise tag numbers. Either way, the belief is that teams will not use it at quite the same rate they did last year: 14 teams applied the franchise tag in 2020 — including the New England Patriots.
Last offseason, the Patriots decided to keep starting left guard Joe Thuney from the open market by assigning the one-year, $14.78 million tender on him. Thuney is again a candidate for the tag this year, but the expectation is that New England will refrain from again applying it on him or on any other player.
All in all, 23 members of the Patriots’ 2020 roster are currently headed for some form of free agency. Thuney is joined on that list by other long-time cornerstones such as center David Andrews, running back James White, defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, and cornerback Jason McCourty. Also among the free-agents-to-be is New England’s starting quarterback of the 2020 season, Cam Newton.
All of them, as well as the other 16 unrestricted free agents, are theoretical candidates to receive the franchise tag. Not all of them are in the same boat, though, for obvious reasons.
With that said, there are a few candidates to be tagged this year — all while keeping in mind that a club can only designate one of its free agents as a franchise player per year (franchise tag projections based on Joel Corry’s latest calculations against a $185 million cap):
DT Adam Butler: $14.1 million. Adam Butler has been a starter-level defensive tackle for the Patriots the last two years, and as such could be highly regarded in free agency. While $14.1 million is a considerable sum invested in him, the tag could simply be used as a vessel to buy both sides more time to work out a long-term deal.
K Nick Folk: $4.5 million. Arguably the most realistic candidate to be tagged this year, Nick Folk played on a $1.05 million base salary in 2020. The increase would be significant, but the veteran proved himself one of New England’s most reliable players last year. That said, a cap hit of $4.5 million would make him the fourth highest paid kicker in the NFL next season.
DT Lawrence Guy: $14.1 million. Lawrence Guy is in the same basic situation as Adam Butler, not just because he is playing the same position: he too is in need of a new contract, and has been a highly valuable member of New England’s defensive line in years past. $14.1 million is a lot of money to invest in a soon-to-be 31-year-old, but it again could serve as a foundation if no new deal is reached by the end of the tagging period on March 9.
QB Cam Newton: $25.4 million. Even though he is coming off a disappointing first season as New England’s starter, Cam Newton is a candidate to be brought back as a potential bridge quarterback into the future. As such, he too appears to be a candidate for the franchise tag despite a $25.4 million salary making him the 10th highest paid QB in the league in 2021. The chances of that happening are more theoretical in nature than anything else, though.
G Joe Thuney: $17.7 million. After already getting tagged last season, Joe Thuney’s situation differs from other players on the Patriots’ roster. His franchise tag figure would go up to correlate with the Collective Bargaining Agreement: the tag number is either the calculated average of franchise tags at a position for the last five years, or 120 percent of a player’s salary the previous year depending on which sum is greater. Thuney would fall under the 120 percent rule, and thus become the highest paid guard in football in 2021 if playing under the tag again.
At this point in time, there is no telling what the Patriots will do and whether or not they will apply the franchise tag for a second year in a row. But even if they do, it seems as if only Folk is truly a realistic candidate to get it based on positional need in combination with past performance and financial impact.
It is more likely, however, that the team opts to forgo the franchise tag this year in favor of more traditional modes of negotiation. Despite New England being in a comfortable financial situation — the team is projected to be around $64 million under the cap, fourth most in the NFL — applying the tag makes little fiscal sense. The only exception would be if it is used strictly to buy some additional time heading towards free agency, and even that is unlikely.