First things first. Nobody outside of Gillette Stadium knows exactly what the New England Patriots’ motivations are behind a decision. The best we can do is take educated guesses and work with the information that is available either through sources or historical precedent.
With that in mind, let’s try to answer the question posted above: Why did the Patriots not use the franchise tag to keep Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson from entering free agency next week?
The Patriots were not among the eight teams applying the tag before Tuesday’s deadline, thus allowing Jackson to hit the market once it opens on March 16. And once that happens, a departure appears to be a realistic outcome: Jackson, rightfully so, wants to get paid, while New England is in a difficult salary cap situation and therefore probably unlikely to win any bidding war that will likely come along.
From that perspective, the franchise tag would have made sense. It would have allowed New England to keep Jackson in the fold for at least one more season, while simultaneously buying themselves time to work on the contract extension the 26-year-old is looking for.
And yet, the team declined to apply it. The Patriots have now exposed themselves to possibly losing their number one cornerback and significantly weakening a secondary that was among the best in the NFL in 2021.
Why — to paraphrase head coach Bill Belichick — is that the best decision for the team?
It appears two factors played a key role: value and financial flexibility.
The Patriots approached Jackson with an extension offer during the 2021 season, but contract talks went nowhere. After the season had come to an end, he openly complained about a lack of progress (in an interview that also saw him mention that he would be open to playing under the tag).
For better or worse, there is arguably no team in the NFL as focused on making value-based decisions as the Patriots. That does not necessarily mean they are inflexible when it comes to negotiations, but they will stick to their valuations and rarely if ever leave their comfort zone.
It therefore seems entirely possible that the Patriots’ valuation of Jackson and his own simply were too far apart; we know he is looking to be paid around $20 million per year. Do Belichick and company, who have a holistic picture of him by seeing him every day on the practice field and in the meeting room, view him as a player worthy of that kind of financial commitment? If not, using the $17.3 million tag would not have fixed this.
If anything, it would have just kicked the can down the road — something easier said than done when comparing the cost of the cornerback tag to New England’s available resources. And therein lies another important aspect.
Even after releasing linebacker Kyle Van Not on Monday, the Patriots are currently only $9.5 million under the cap, according to Miguel Benzan. There are ways of increasing that number, but placing the cap on Jackson would have limited New England’s fiscal flexibility quite a bit.
Given their long list of fellow free agents-to-be — one that includes two starters along the offensive line as well as four captains — the Patriots would have faced a lot of either/or decisions. With Jackson untagged, the chance of retaining a larger share of that free agents list has increased.
So, why not go with the tag-and-trade, something the Patriots have done in the past?
There are multiple reasons why this was no realistic option to begin with. The finances are part of this, but also the fact that finding a trade partner would not have been easy despite Jackson’s qualities as a player: every team knew that Jackson was interested in a long-term deal at a considerable rate. Paying him that plus giving up assets to acquire him would have created a quiet trade market.
And if not trading him, the Patriots would have been stuck with Jackson on a one-year, $17.3 million deal and the same lack of flexibility mentioned above.
So, where does all of this leave the team and its star cornerback? They still could reach an agreement on an extension between now and March 16; or meet a common ground after he had tested the legal tampering waters.
Most likely, however, the two sides appear to be headed for a breakup after four highly successful seasons together.