The offseason can sneak up quickly when you play in the Super Bowl. “We’re already five weeks behind” Bill Belichick famously said after winning Super Bowl LI. With 30 other teams getting a jump-start on planning for 2019, the Patriots must turn their focus to their priorities ahead of free agency and the approaching NFL Draft.
The first major date on the calendar for the Patriots (if you chose to ignore the CFL signing eligibility opening) is the franchise tag window, which opens on February 19th and closes on March 5th. In past years, the Patriots have been relatively inactive during this window. They last used their tag in 2015 (Stephen Gostkowski) and have only used it 4 times since 2010 (Vince Wilfork ‘10, Logan Mankins ‘11, Wes Welker ‘12). In most of these cases, Bill Belichick has used the tag simply as a tool to extend the negotiating process, with only one of those four players (Welker) not reaching a multi-year extension while under the tag.
Because the franchise tag is a near-set dollar value, it can be useful to teams dealing with multiple high-priced, high-valued free agents in the same year. The Patriots are set to undergo this process with left tackle Trent Brown and defensive end Trey Flowers. In his offseason game-plan earlier this week, Evan Lazar broke down what the Patriots overall strategy should be regarding retaining Brown and/or Flowers, and I recommend checking that out for the bigger picture. This is specifically a look at IF the Patriots use the franchise tag, who would be the better option to apply it to…
1The Case For Trent Brown
PRO-Protecting Tom Brady: Brown did an outstanding job stepping in as Tom Brady’s blind side protector in 2018, allowing just 3.5 sacks in the regular season before pitching a shutout in the playoffs. If Brown leaves, the Patriots options become Isaiah Wynn, who is coming off of a serious ankle injury and has never played an NFL snap, spending a second-consecutive high draft pick on a tackle, or finding a free agent for Dante Scarnecchia to groom. Any of the three is a risk.
CON-Limited Sample Size: While Brown put together an outstanding season for the Patriots 2018, it was just that…one season. Even at the end of the regular season, Brown showed signs of regression, much like he did in San Francisco. Can he duplicate the success he had in 2018? If the Patriots sink a $14 million tag into Brown with their already limited cap space, it could severely limit the rest of their roster next season.
2The Case For Trey Flowers
PRO-Known Commodity: Like Evan noted in his plan, Flowers is a home-grown Patriots product. Drafted in the fourth round in 2015 (with the pick acquired when the team traded away Logan Mankins), the Patriots defensive coaching staff built Flowers into a three-down pass rusher and run stopper that can play anywhere on the defensive line. He is rarely seen out of position and rarely commits penalties. With that kind of versatility and discipline, it would be hard for Bill Belichick to let him just walk right out the door. The familiarity with the organization could also mean that, if the tag is used as a tool to buy time for an extension, Flowers may be easier to negotiate with and more willing to strike a deal that keeps him in New England.
CON-Depth: So this con isn’t so much a knock on Flowers as it is a fact about the Patriots current roster. While retaining Flowers would certainly help the defense, the fact of the matter is they may have the pieces in place to replace him. Bill Belichick used multiple day two draft picks on pass rushers in 2017, taking Derek Rivers in the third round before drafting Deatrich Wise in the fourth. Wise has been a situational pass rusher for the team the last two years, while Rivers missed his rookie season with a torn ACL before spending most of 2018 inactive. True, both players are still a work in progress, but so was Trey Flowers in 2016, when the Patriots traded Chandler Jones (who was in the last year of his contract) and gave Flowers a bigger role. This strikes me as a similar situation, with Flowers the budding superstar on his way out and Wise and Rivers the younger players looking to impress with more playing time. If the Patriots feel that one of those guys, or somebody else on the roster (Ufomba Kamalu?) can step into that role, is it the best asset allocation to apply a $17 million tag to Flowers?
3The Case For Not Using The Tag
PRO-Money: The fact of the matter is franchise tags are expensive. The Patriots are already expected to be up against the cap as it is, with just a little over $18 million in cap space at the start of the process (s/o @PatsCap). The defensive end franchise tag is projected to be valued at $18.6 million, which exceeds the current Patriots cap number. Trent Brown’s number is a little lower, given the NFL groups offensive linemen under one tag, estimated to be around $15.2 million for 2019 (no doubt a solo left tackle tag would be bigger). While odds are the Patriots will pick up some cap room with retirements and contract extensions/re-negotiations, using a franchise tag without signing the player to an extension would leave the Patriots very little room to operate in free agency.
CON-Roster Construction: Outside of Flowers and Brown, the Patriots have a lot to handle this offseason (again, s/o @PatsCap). As Evan mentioned in his game-plan, the Patriots have a number of players who are due for extensions, plus the team needs to start looking for young prospects to replace an aging core, specifically on defense. That’s a lot of moving pieces already before you add on replacing a blind-side blocker and arguably the best player on a Super Bowl winning defensive front. A franchise tag would be a quick, albeit expensive way to check something off of Bill Belichick’s to-do list.