What we learn from tag projection

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
2:10
PM ET
NFL.com "Around the League" editor Gregg Rosenthal put together a "franchise tag primer" today in which he assessed teams/candidates in the NFL and split them into four categories:

1. No-brainers
2. Voting 'yes'
3. Close, but not quite
4. Teams with no realistic candidate

Rosenthal puts Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib (and to a lesser degree, receiver Julian Edelman) in the "close, but not quite category."

"Talib was the single toughest name to leave off the list of tags above because he's so integral to what the Patriots do," he writes. "Still, it's a lot more likely he signs a long-term deal to stay rather than getting tagged."

A few things stood out to me from Rosenthal's list:

1. Best way to find big safety -- the draft: One of the topics that seems to have picked up some momentum, sparked by Rodney Harrison, is how a bigger, hard-hitting safety could help the Patriots. A player like Browns free-agent-to-be T.J. Ward would be ideal and his inclusion at the top of Rosenthal's "voting yes" list had me looking back on how he entered the NFL. Ward was a second-round draft pick in 2010 when Eric Mangini was coach. The player right after Ward on the list was Bills safety Jairus Byrd, a Pro Bowler who is more of a coverage player. He was a second-round pick in 2009. When thinking back to the Patriots' safety draft picks in that area of the draft in recent years -- Patrick Chung (2nd round, 2009) and Tavon Wilson (2nd round, 2012) -- it shows how the club hasn't maximized its opportunities in this area of the draft. That shines a bit of a brighter spotlight on safety Duron Harmon, the Patriots' third-round pick in 2013.

2. McCourty factor in play: If Ward or Byrd ever made it to the market, they would likely command a long-term extension at top-of-the-market prices. Assuming the Patriots have plans at some point to also extend the contract of safety Devin McCourty, which will also be on the high side, it makes it unlikely that the Patriots would be in the bidding for Ward and Byrd should they not be assigned the franchise tag. McCourty's contract expires after the 2014 season.

3. Tight end tag is most reasonable: With the Saints' Jimmy Graham (no-brainer) and the Ravens' Dennis Pitta (voting 'yes') among the top players listed, it reflects how the franchise tag at the position (approximately $6.8 million) is not as restrictive as others. The Patriots were widely lauded for extending the contracts of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez prior to the 2012 season, but if they hadn't, this is the year the players would have been free agents. Considering how things might be different if that's the way it unfolded, Gronkowski still would have likely received the franchise tag (similar to Graham) and the Patriots wouldn't have a Hernandez-based $7.5 million dead charge on their salary cap. For those who have chided the team in past years about not being aggressive enough in locking up their young stars, this is an example of how sometimes going in early on contracts can backfire.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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