The Patriots still may re-sign their top two free agents, cornerback Aqib Talib and receiver Julian Edelman.
But they don’t view either as must-haves, either.
That became clear Monday when the 4 p.m. deadline for assigning the franchise tag to a player for the 2014 season came and went, with the Patriots not using it on Talib, Edelman, or any other impending free agent.
If Edelman or Talib were so essential to the team’s 2014 plans, the Patriots could have slapped the franchise tag on one of them and taken him off the free agent market, which opens March 11.
But the magic word in the Patriots’ management of their roster and salary cap is “value,” and the franchise tag with Talib or Edelman didn’t have much of it, at least in the Patriots’ eyes.
The franchise tag is a one-year binding contract with a fully guaranteed salary equal to the average of the top five salaries at a player’s position. The Patriots have used the tag eight times since 2002, including four years in a row from 2009-12. Kicker Adam Vinatieri received it twice, and Wes Welker was the last Patriots player to get the tag, in 2012.
But using the tag on Edelman ($12.3 million salary) or Talib ($11.8 million) wasn’t worth the price — not with the Patriots currently only $12.7 million under their 2014 adjusted salary cap number of $137.1 million, according to NFL Players Association records.
The Patriots are likely to create more cap space by releasing a few pricy veterans or extending the contracts of players such as Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty, and Stephen Gostkowski, but they have been quiet on that front, as well.
Talib and Edelman still can sign a new contract with the Patriots at any time, can officially start talking with other teams March 8, and can sign with another team at 4 p.m. March 11. Both played the 2013 season for relatively low salaries — Edelman on a minimum $715,000 deal with incentives after barely getting a sniff on the free agent market, and Talib for $5 million after gambling on a one-year deal instead of a long-term, below-market contract.
But both proved to be valuable pieces. Edelman came out of nowhere to lead the team with a career-high 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, overtaking Danny Amendola as Welker’s replacement. Amendola signed a five-year, $28 million deal with $10 million guaranteed last offseason, which Edelman could possibly match or surpass this offseason.
There has been speculation that the Patriots could cut Amendola — who missed four games with injury and was barely targeted by Tom Brady at the end of the season — and use the cap savings to sign Edelman. That makes sense only if the Patriots designate Amendola as a post-June 1 cut, which allows them to spread his remaining cap money over two seasons.
It actually would cost the Patriots more cap money to outright cut Amendola instead of keeping him ($4.8 million compared with $4.6 million). If they designate him as a June 1 cut, Amendola would count only $1.2 million in 2014 and $3.6 million in 2015.
Talib, meanwhile, has the skill set and body type the Patriots covet, standing at a lanky 6 feet 1 inch. He shut down several top receivers last year, including Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green, and Roddy White. But the decision not to franchise him means that they view the $11.8 million price tag as far too high, or perhaps they have other plans in the defensive backfield.
If they still try to re-sign Talib, the market was set Monday by Miami cornerback Brent Grimes, who signed a four-year, $32 million deal with $16 million guaranteed. Talib, 28, is younger than Grimes (30) and 3 inches taller, and could possibly fetch an even larger contract in free agency.
Talib also has a history of off-field problems, a lingering hip injury from several years ago that cost him three games in 2013, and he left each of the last two AFC Championship games with injuries.
The Patriots have options if they don’t re-sign Talib. One could be a trade for Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, who would be a significant upgrade over Talib but also has five years and $80 million left on his contract ($16 million annually). The Bucs are rumored to be open to trading Revis, whom they acquired from the Jets for a first-round pick before last season and signed to a massive new contract.
The Patriots could look at other free agent cornerbacks, including Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner, Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Chicago’s Charles Tillman.
Or they could bolster the safety position and sign Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd or Cleveland’s T.J. Ward to pair with McCourty and give the Patriots two Pro Bowl-caliber players on the back line, and go with Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan, and Kyle Arrington at cornerback, though that would leave them thin at the position.
Leaguewide, most teams agreed with the Patriots that the franchise tag wasn’t much of a value; only four teams used it this year (Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, and Jets kicker Nick Folk). Compare that with eight players tagged in 2013, 19 in 2012, and 13 in 2011.
Two other teams used the transition tag (Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds, Cleveland center Alex Mack), which allows them five days to match any free agent offer their player receives while also guaranteeing the player a one-year contract.