The NFL’s franchise tag window is open, and the New England Patriots might just take advantage of it this year. The team, after all, currently has 15 players set to enter unrestricted free agency on Mar. 16. While not all of them are realistic candidates to be tagged, the full list shows that there is some potential for the tag to be employed.
Pending UFAs Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower or Trent Brown are all big names who might have been candidates to receive the franchise tag at one point during their careers. However, neither they nor most of the other players listed will get tagged.
The lone exception appears to be cornerback J.C. Jackson.
The Patriots’ premier free agent this year, there is no question that Jackson will get paid this offseason. The question is which team will invest in the Pro Bowler, who leads the NFL in interceptions since his arrival as an undrafted rookie in 2018: New England or a cornerback-needy team with the proper resources to bring him in?
The franchise tag gives the Patriots a clear advantage over other clubs competing for his services. Over the next 15 days they can negotiate with Jackson’s camp, but even if no extension is reached simply use the tag to keep him from entering the open market.
That way, New England would push the deadline to reach a new deal back while also likely keeping Jackson under contract for at least one more season. Given the current state of their cornerback position — the team is in serious need of improved depth behind its starters — that might just be the best course of action if the Patriots and Jackson fail to come to an agreement on a multi-year extension.
Money is a key factor in all of those decisions, though, and New England does not have a lot of it available at the moment: according to Miguel Benzan, the team is $4.9 million under the cap three weeks before the start of free agency. For comparison, using the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson would cost the Patriots an estimated $17.3 million.
The franchise tag tender — essentially a fully-guaranteed one-year contract — enters the books as soon as it is used. However, NFL teams do not need to be under the cap until 4 p.m. on Mar. 16. The Patriots therefore would have some time between the tag deadline on Mar. 8 and the start of the new league year to readjust their salary cap position and free up space for their number one cornerback.
An extension obviously might make this situation a bit easier for the team. It would allow the Patriots to keep Jackson’s 2022 cap number below the $17.3 million associated with the cap (which would be the sixth highest cornerback cap hit in the league), and also keep him signed beyond the upcoming season.
But even if no such deal is reached, the tag presents the team with another option to buy some time and at the very least one more year of J.C. Jackson as CB1. And as a look at their franchise tag history shows, they have successfully used this tactic before:
2002: K Adam Vinatieri signed a three-year, $5.4 million contract extension.
2003: S 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: K Adam Vinatieri played the 2005 season on the $2.51 million franchise tag before signing with the Indianapolis Colts the following offseason.
2007: CB 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: QB 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: DT Vince Wilfork signed a five-year, $40.0 million contract extension.
2011: G Logan Mankins signed a six-year, $51.0 million contract extension.
2012: WR Wes Welker played the 2012 season on the $9.5 million franchise tag before signing with the Denver Broncos the following offseason.
2015: K Stephen Gostkowski signed a four-year, $17.2 million contract extension.
2020: G Joe Thuney played the 2020 season on the $14.78 million franchise tag before signing with the Kansas City Chiefs he following offseason.
The Patriots used the franchise tag with different outcomes in the past. Some players were tagged and traded, while others left after one year on the tag. However, in four cases so far the use of the tag eventually led to some long-term deals being reached: Adam Vinatieri, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, and Stephen Gostkowski were all kept after receiving the franchise tag.
Will J.C. Jackson follow their example, or eventually go the same route as Wes Welker or Joe Thuney before him? Will he get the tag at all? All of that remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the option of using the franchise tag does give the Patriots some leverage to keep their top cornerback in the fold.
It might just come in quite handy for New England this yeare.