The Patriots’ front office did it again. Everyone thought the Patriots would zig, and then they zagged.
This time, it was over the use of the franchise tag. Most of the NFL world expected it to go to impending free agent safety Devin McCourty. Instead on Monday, it went to kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who now will be locked in for 2015 at a $4.59 million salary — more than every kicker in the league last year other than Dallas’s Dan Bailey, but still a modest number in light of the $143 million salary cap that was announced Monday.
The latest Super Bowl victory is barely a month old, and already you can hear the panic from Patriots fans about the offseason plan. The Patriots had an opportunity to keep McCourty off the market, and they declined. And they haven’t made much headway on redoing Darrelle Revis’s deal, either.
In a week, McCourty and Revis will become unrestricted free agents (assuming the Patriots decline Revis’s $20 million option). There’s genuine worry that the Patriots will lose at least one member from the NFL’s best secondary in 2014.
I guess it’s possible that the Patriots could go cheap this offseason after winning their fourth Super Bowl ring last month. They don’t necessarily have the same urgency that they did the previous nine championship-less offseasons. Both Revis and McCourty are going to get paid, one way or another.
This isn’t like last year, when Julian Edelman was allowed to test the market, and then returned to the Patriots. Revis and McCourty are the unquestioned top players at their positions in free agency. Letting them hit the open market would be risky, to say the least.
But this is where that phrase “In Bill We Trust” gets invoked. Bill Belichick knocked pretty much every single free agent decision out of the park last year en route to a championship, and we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here. He knows what he’s doing in regards to his elite cornerback and elite free safety.
With Revis, there’s still a whole week to work something out. Revis’s option kicks in on the first day of the new league year, which is March 10 at 4 p.m. A week is plenty of time for the Patriots and Revis to pound out a new deal.
And there really is no Plan B if Revis moves on. The top free agent cornerbacks are Byron Maxwell, Brandon Flowers, Tramon Williams, and Antonio Cromartie — no one close to Revis’s skill level. If the Patriots are serious about winning a fifth championship next year, Revis will be back.
With McCourty, it just didn’t really make much sense to use the franchise tag, despite the many assumptions that he was a prime candidate for it (including from this writer).
The franchise tag for a safety — the average of the top five salaries at the position — is $9.6 million for this year. Using the handy resources at OverTheCap.com, we see that that’s more cash than any safety is currently scheduled to make this year (Jairus Byrd is the current leader at $8.1 million). In 2014, only Earl Thomas, Donte Whitner, and Dashon Goldson made more than $9.6 million in cash, and that was because they signed new deals with large signing bonuses.
It’s why McCourty was borderline giddy last week at the prospect of receiving the franchise tag. No, the tag wouldn’t have given him long-term contract security, but it would have paid him a heck of a lot of money — certainly a lot more than the $3.92 million he made last year.
“The franchise tag is player-friendly now. It’s a good number,” he told reporters.
So the Patriots correctly held off. But that doesn’t mean he’s out of the plans, either.
McCourty wants to return to New England but is smartly keeping his options open. His twin brother, Jason, is going to recruit him hard to Tennessee.
“Sitting here looking at the clock, waiting for 4 p.m. to come and putting my recruiting packet together,” Jason McCourty jokingly tweeted on Monday.
Devin McCourty will have plenty of teams gunning for him. He’ll be 28 in August, the prime of his athletic career. ProFootballFocus.com rated him as the eighth-best safety in the NFL out of 87 last season. On top of it, he’s incredibly smart (football-wise and book-wise), a great leader in the locker room, and a willing participant in community endeavors. He’s everything you want in an NFL player.
And, as with Revis, there is no Plan B if the Patriots lose McCourty. Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, and Patrick Chung are nice players, but they can’t play center field and line up the defense like McCourty can. The top free agent safeties — Rahim Moore, Tyvon Branch, and Antrel Rolle — are not suitable replacements, either.
Which is why Monday’s non-announcement doesn’t leave me panicked. The Patriots love having McCourty, and he has loved being a Patriot. There hasn’t been much communication between the sides, but they will speak this week in advance of next Tuesday’s deadline.
The Patriots are playing hardball with McCourty and Revis now, but there’s still an entire week to hammer out these deals. The Patriots know how important these players are, and how tough they will be to replace.
And they need to meet spending requirements as set forth in the new collective bargaining agreement. They’ve spent only 82 percent of the salary cap the last two years, and need to get that number up to 89 percent by 2016. And if the Patriots have to spend money, they might as well spend it on two of the key pieces of last season’s Super Bowl run, who also happen to be the best players at their positions.
So don’t be too upset that McCourty and Revis appear headed to free agency. There’s still a week left to figure it all out. The Patriots are just playing the game and keeping everyone guessing.