AFC East: franchise tag

In exactly two weeks we will know the immediate futures of two Pro Bowl players in the AFC East. July 15 is the deadline for teams that used the one-year franchise tag to work out long-term extensions.

The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins used the tag in March to retain safety Jairus Byrd and defensive tackle Randy Starks, respectively. However, neither player has been able to work out a long-term contract over the past four months.

Byrd's situation with Buffalo is the more unstable of the two. He finished his rookie contract last season and is unhappy that the Bills haven't provided long-term security. Byrd skipped all organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. The Bills could not fine Byrd because he hasn’t signed his franchise tender.

Byrd, 26, is a playmaker entering his prime and Buffalo has plenty of cap room. It would make sense for both sides to reach a resolution. However, it’s been eerily quiet from both sides lately and this could go down to the wire.

Miami's situation, on the other hand, is easier to predict. The Dolphins already spent more than $200 million this offseason in free-agent contracts, which includes $117 million in guaranteed money. It is unlikely the Dolphins want to further tie up their salary cap with a big extension for Starks. He is one of Miami’s best defensive players, but Starks also will be 30 in December.

The Dolphins appear comfortable paying the one-year, $8.45 franchise tag and letting this season play out. Starks held out of voluntary practices this spring but showed up for mandatory minicamp. Starks already signed his tag and doesn't appear willing to hold out of training camp if he doesn't get an extension, as expected.

But anything can happen in the NFL. So keep an eye on the situations of Byrd and Starks over the next two weeks.

AFC East Offseason Stock Watch

June, 20, 2013
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With training camp about five weeks away, let’s take a look at whose stock is up and whose stock is down in the AFC East.

Falling

1. Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots tight end: For the past three seasons, it's been injury issues that bothered Hernandez. Now, New England’s star tight end has two off-the-field issues that came up this week. Hernandez recently had his home and rental vehicle searched by Massachusetts police during a homicide investigation. Hernandez is reportedly not a suspect in the case. But Hernandez was cited in a lawsuit Wednesday that claims he allegedly shot Alexander S. Bradley in the arm in February after an argument in Miami. The bullet allegedly traveled from Bradley’s arm to his head and injured his eye, according to the lawsuit. Both legal issues combined is not good for Hernandez with training camp right around the corner.

2. Buffalo Bills, Jairus Byrd talks: Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com reported this week that there hasn’t been much movement in talks between the Bills and Byrd, a Pro Bowl safety. Both deserve some of the blame. The Bills have plenty of cap room remaining and can afford to pay arguably their best defensive playmaker. On the other hand, Byrd probably could have gone about things better and not skipped all of mandatory minicamp and organized team activities. The longer this situation goes, the more contentious it will become. Byrd has yet to even sign his franchise tag.

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
Mike Reiss/ESPNJake Ballard could stand to benefit from the questions surrounding New England's top tight ends.
3. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: Although you have to appreciate Christie's honesty, it’s also easy to question his fandom. Christie, the leader of the state of New Jersey, admitted this week that his favorite NFL team is not the New York Jets or New York Giants -- it’s the Dallas Cowboys. “I was a big fan of Roger Staubach, who was the quarterback for the Cowboys back then,” Christie said during a public appearance this week. “The Giants and the Jets pretty much stunk when I was a kid and my father was a Giants fan.” Ouch!

Rising

1. Jake Ballard, Patriots tight end: Considering the various issues with New England tight ends, it’s looking more like Ballard could get extensive playing time, particularly early in the season. Ballard played well for the Giants’ Super Bowl team in 2011, but sat out all of last year with a knee injury. Patriots coach Bill Belichick claimed Ballard off waivers a year ago when he was still injured. Now that move is looking very wise. Ballard has starting experience and should be able to step in if Patriots starter Rob Gronkowski can’t make it back from back surgery or Hernandez still needs to sort through his legal issues.

2. Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins defensive end: Vernon capped off a solid offseason with Miami during mandatory minicamp. After moving 2012 starting defensive end Jared Odrick inside to defensive tackle, Vernon is now the early favorite to start at defensive end heading into training camp. The 2012 third-round pick received an additional boost up the depth chart due to 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan's absence. Jordan could not participate with the Dolphins this offseason due to the quarter system at the University of Oregon. He also is recovering from shoulder surgery in February. Therefore, Vernon got a lot of valuable reps with the first-team defense and showed many of the flashes he displayed his rookie year. It’s no secret that Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick last April, will eventually supplant Vernon in the starting lineup. But Vernon did all he could to hold his spot and may be in the starting lineup for Miami in Week 1.

3. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback: Sanchez doesn’t get a lot of good publicity in the AFC East blog. It’s expected when you lead the NFL in turnovers the past two years. However, Sanchez does deserve a pat on the back for holding off Jets rookie Geno Smith thus far in offseason workouts. Sanchez came out the early winner in New York’s quarterback competition after OTAs and minicamp. There is still training camp remaining. But Sanchez is now the early favorite to be under center when the Jets host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the regular-season opener. Sanchez is definitely not the best long-term option for the Jets. But Sanchez may get the call this season until Smith is ready. Jets coaches say Smith still has things to learn about adjusting to the NFL game.


The 2013 offseason is nearly over for the Buffalo Bills. But there are two business items left to complete before teams get ready for training camp.

First, Buffalo must get a contract complete with rookie first-round pick EJ Manuel. Second, the Bills will continue negotiating a contract extension with Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, who has the franchise tag.

I look into Buffalo's chances of reaching a long-term agreement with Byrd in the above Blogger Blitz.
We have some good news to pass along to Buffalo Bills fans: The team gained an additional $7 million in salary-cap relief over the weekend for the previous release of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Teams were allowed to use a June designation on players previously cut. The Bills did so with Fitzpatrick, who carried a bloated $10 million cap hit this year. By using the designation, Buffalo was able to split the cap charge into $3 million this season and $7 million in 2014.

The Bills already had solid cap room, but the move essentially frees up another $7 million this year for Buffalo to use in other areas. For example, the cap savings should definitely increase the chances of Buffalo working out a long-term extension with Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd this summer. Byrd is unhappy with the one-year franchise tag and is seeking long-term security. He's Buffalo's best defensive player and the Bills have plenty of cap room. It makes a lot of sense for both parties to work out an extension.
The good news Monday is the up-and-coming Miami Dolphins had nearly perfect attendance at the start of offseason workouts. The bad news is the one player who didn't show was starting defensive tackle Randy Starks, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Miami slapped Starks with the one-year franchise tag this offseason. He was coming off a solid season and wanted long-term security. The Dolphins entered the offseason with more than $40 million in cap room and handed out sizable extensions to players such as receiver Mike Wallace, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and in-house free agents Brian Hartline and Matt Moore. Starks probably feels left out.

Starks and Paul Soliai make up one of the top defensive tackle tandems in the NFL. Miami wants to keep the pair together for at least one more year.

If the Dolphins do not extend Starks by August, you have to wonder about a potential holdout situation this summer. Starks skipping voluntary workouts certainly leads to speculation about his unhappiness and whether this situation could get worse.

In other Dolphins news, Joe Philbin was one of four head coaches chosen Monday as new members of the Competition Committee. The group was chosen by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC East:
  • According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd will not show up for voluntary workouts and wants a long-term contract.
Morning take: Byrd received the franchise tag this offseason and doesn't appear too pleased about it. Both sides have until the summer to continue to negotiate and possibly provide Byrd with long-term security.
  • Mike Klis of the Denver Post reports the New York Jets must pay the Broncos $1.53 million if backup quarterback Tim Tebow is released.
Morning take: This explains why the Jets are holding out to trade Tebow. Still, I think chances are slim anyone will ship a draft pick to New York to acquire the struggling quarterback.
  • Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reports the New England Patriots have discussed trading running back Jeff Demps.
Morning take: I can’t see how Demps has much trade value. He is already expressing the desire to run track and could miss the start of the season.
Morning take: Aponte manages the salary cap for the Dolphins and is partly responsible for Miami having more than $40 million available this year. Aponte and general manager Jeff Ireland worked well together behind the scenes to put Miami in position to contend in 2013.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC East: Morning take: It's pretty non-existent. Buffalo has made one signing so far, linebacker Manny Lawson. The Bills were big spenders last year and it didn’t get the team anywhere. Let’s see if the opposite approach works.
  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick discusses his cornerbacks.
Morning take: It’s not a deep group, but the Patriots wisely brought back Aqib Talib in free agency. Alfonzo Dennard has legal issues to work through and Kyle Arrington is better suited as a backup.
Morning take: The Jets must trade Revis soon if they want to get draft picks to improve the team this year. But they also can trade him later this summer for future considerations.
Morning take: There will be no protest from Starks, who will make more this year than any of his career. Starks is a good player, but he’s being paid like a top-five defensive tackle.
Several interesting developments took place while I was away last week leading up to free agency.

Here are my thoughts on the most recent moves in the AFC East:

1. Wes Welker to test free agency

Thoughts: Even with added cap room thanks to quarterback Tom Brady, you knew the negotiations between Welker and the New England Patriots would not be easy. The Patriots rarely overpay for anyone, and that includes a player as successful and productive as Welker. New England has a number in mind for Welker and will stick as close to that number as possible. Welker, who has never been a free agent in his career, believes his five, 100-catch seasons can land a lucrative contract. Both sides are playing poker and appear willing to risk losing each other. This should be one of the most compelling storylines of free agency this week.

2. Miami Dolphins keep three key players

Thoughts: The Dolphins entered this offseason with more than $40 million of cap room, and I like Miami's moves to spend some to keep its own talent. The Dolphins paid receiver Brian Hartline a five-year, $30.775 million contract and backup quarterback Matt Moore $8 million over two years. This plugs two holes on offense. Giving Randy Starks the franchise tag is the only move I question. Starks is a good player, but he's not a top-five defensive tackle and will be paid that way in 2013 unless the Dolphins work out a long-term extension. Starks will make $8.45 million in salary next season. That’s also a big number against the cap.

3. Buffalo Bills re-sign cornerback Leodis McKelvin

Thoughts: The Bills re-signed McKelvin to a four-year, $20 million contract. I thought the Bills overpaid for a former first-round pick who underachieved as a cornerback and was a backup. The biggest asset is that McKelvin remains one of the NFL's best kick returners. But an average of $5 million per season seemed steep for a special teamer. Perhaps McKelvin will improve his coverage skills and develop into a better nickel corner under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

4. New York Jets continue search for quarterback

Thoughts: The Jets are still looking for a quarterback to challenge incumbent Mark Sanchez this season and are quickly running out of options. The latest name is former Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami quarterback David Garrard. He provided stiff competition in Miami last year before injuring his knee and getting released. Garrard is 35, injury-prone and in the twilight of his career. It’s unclear how much he has left in the tank.
The Buffalo Bills are a struggling organization trying to move forward. That is why it was important to place the franchise tag on starting safety Jairus Byrd.

Byrd is one Buffalo’s few franchise building blocks. Players like Byrd, tailback C.J. Spiller, receiver Steve Johnson and possibly defensive end Mario Williams (if he plays to his potential) provide Buffalo a foundation of players to build around. The Bills couldn't afford to lose any of those key players.

Byrd, who made the Pro Bowl this past season, is Buffalo’s most consistent defensive playmaker. He has recorded 18 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles in his four-year career. He’s also durable, missing just two games in his career.

Buffalo cut its other starting safety, George Wilson, earlier this offseason. Losing Byrd would have been devastating to the Bills’ secondary.

The Bills are wise to protect their investment. Byrd might not be happy with the tag, but it doesn't mean the Bills won't continue to negotiate a long-term extension this offseason.

But the franchise tag promises Byrd will be a Bill one way or another in 2013. That is great news for Buffalo fans.

AFC East offseason Stock Watch

February, 19, 2013
2/19/13
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The offseason is underway and the NFL combine will begin later this week.

Let’s take a look at whose stock is up and whose stock is down in the AFC East.

Falling

1. Bills quarterback situation: Ryan Fitzpatrick versus Tarvaris Jackson in training camp? That is not the quarterback competition many Buffalo Bills fans expected under new head coach Doug Marrone. But Buffalo signed Jackson to a one-year contract despite not playing one game for the Bills last season. That kind of money is nothing to sniff at. It appears the Bills are serious about giving Jackson a legitimate chance to win the starting job. That signing essentially rules out any chance of Buffalo going after Alex Smith or another significant veteran quarterback this offseason. It’s still possible the Bills will cut Fitzpatrick before his $3 million roster bonus is due next month. However, that has not been the indication. Buffalo could have Jackson, Fitzpatrick and a drafted rookie on board next season like Ryan Nassib of Syracuse. With these quarterback options, Buffalo won’t be in position to challenge the New England Patriots in 2013.

2. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end: It’s perfectly fine for Gronkowski to have a good time. I've never been critical of Gronkowski’s adventures before. But Gronkowski’s wrestling and dangerously landing on his twice surgically-repaired arm while in Las Vegas was silly and unnecessary. Gronkowski recently sent a shot back to critics by wearing a “Sorry for partying” T-shirt. But Gronkowski should be sorry for reckless partying and putting his health at risk. That is the difference Gronkowski needs to understand.

3. Reggie Bush, Dolphins tailback: Bush is finding out that the NFL is a tough business. Bush really wants to return to Miami. He’s done everything right the past two years, such as being as leader in the locker room and rushing for more than 2,000 yards in that span. But the Dolphins aren’t as fond to Bush returning. They have two running backs who are cheaper and younger in Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas. The Dolphins feel they can handle the load. Miami may offer Bush a team-friendly contract. But unless Bush is willing to take something below market value, he may have to find a new team.

Rising

1. Greg Jennings to Dolphins: If I had to predict a safe free-agent pairing, Jennings to Miami would be my first choice. The Dolphins have all the resources to acquire Jennings, including more than $40 million in cap room and a familiar face in head coach Joe Philbin. Jennings played under Philbin in Green Bay. Jennings also has made public statements about his desire to play in Miami. The Dolphins have rightfully stayed quiet to avoid tampering charges, but they appear primed to make a move for Jennings next March. Jennings would fill the No. 1 receiver role Miami is desperately looking for.

2. Mark Sanchez, Jets quarterback: Perhaps no AFC East player had a tougher 2012 season than Sanchez. First, there was the Tim Tebow pressure. Then, Sanchez underperformed and regressed as a player. But things are surprisingly looking up for Sanchez. The rookie quarterback class is getting awful reviews and the veteran market for quarterbacks continues to shrink. The Jets also lack the cap room to acquire a big name like Alex Smith. The best chance New York has of adding respectable veteran competition is trading for Matt Flynn of the Seattle Seahawks. But Sanchez probably likes his chances against Flynn or any rookie in 2013 to keep his job.

3. Jairus Byrd, Bills safety: Byrd is at a good point in his career. He just finished his rookie contract and enters free agency in his prime. Byrd and Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens are the two best safeties in free agency. Many teams would prefer Byrd, because he’s much younger and more affordable. The Bills will look to lock up Byrd for the long term. But if not, the franchise tag is a strong possibility. Either way, Byrd will be paid like a top safety in 2013.

Morning take: No tag for Wes Welker?

February, 18, 2013
2/18/13
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Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC East:
  • The New England Patriots reportedly have no interest in using the franchise tag on receiver Wes Welker.
Morning take: We've said for weeks that it's most likely extension or bust for Welker. This year's tag rises to $11.4 million for Welker, and that's too much strain on New England's cap.
  • Miami Dolphins backup quarterback Matt Moore is looking for a chance to start in free agency.
Morning take: Moore is one of the top backups in the NFL, but he won't get a chance to start in Miami. Moore will have to look elsewhere for a better opportunity.
Morning take: This year’s quarterback class is wide open. Geno Smith is considered the best college prospect, but I’m not sure he fits best in Buffalo. I don’t expect the Bills to take a quarterback in the first round at No. 8 overall.
Morning take: That’s not going to happen. Tight end Dustin Keller could receive some consideration. But paying any free agent top-five money will be rough considering New York’s cap situation.

Examining the Welker-Edelman dilemma

January, 28, 2013
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New England Patriots Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker is an unrestricted free agent. The same can be said for Welker's less expensive and less experienced backup: Julian Edelman.

Should the Patriots re-sign one of these in-house receivers or both? That will be one of the biggest topics of discussion behind closed doors at One Patriots Place the next few weeks.

Welker's production has been tremendous. He recorded five seasons of 100 receptions or more in New England and had 118 receptions for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns this season. Welker, 31, played on a one-year franchise tag of $9.5 million in 2012. The Patriots are unlikely to do that again with the franchise tag jumping to $11.4 million for Welker in 2013. It appears to be long-term extension or bust for the Patriots and Welker this offseason.

Meanwhile, New England has been high on the unproven Edelman, 26. He ended last season on injured reserve with a foot injury and will be much cheaper to re-sign than Welker. The Patriots rotated Edelman and Welker early in the season to see how Edelman fits in the offense. That was the first sign that New England was thinking about life without Welker after this season. Edelman had 21 receptions and is a beast on special teams.

But has Edelman showed enough that he can replace Welker's immense production full time? That is a tough decision Bill Belichick & Co. has to make. Edelman appears ready for a bigger role, but inexperience and durability are concerns. The Patriots also must consider that players like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd would get an increase in opportunities with Welker out of the lineup.

This is arguably the biggest decision the Patriots have to make this offseason. If you are running New England's front office, how would you handle this situation?

Is this it for Jake Long in Miami?

December, 4, 2012
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The Miami Dolphins put four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long on injured reserve Tuesday evening. Long tore his tricep muscle in the first half of Sunday’s 23-16 loss to the New England Patriots.

Long
But here is the multi-million dollar question: Did Long just play his last game in Miami? The former No. 1 overall pick will be an unrestricted free agent in March after wrapping up his rookie contract.

Whether to re-sign Long or let him walk is the biggest decision Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland will make this offseason. It’s a complex situation with many layers.

Long was once considered the top left tackle in the NFL. But he’s been plagued by injuries and inconsistency the past two seasons. This is the second consecutive year Long ended his season on injured reserve. Can Miami make Long one of the NFL’s highest-paid linemen based on his play the past two seasons?

Long plays the premium position of left tackle, and good left tackles are hard to find. Long is no longer elite, but still a top-10 player at his position. The development of rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill also depends on good pass protection on the blindside.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the franchise tag is not an option for Long. Therefore, the Dolphins have narrowed their choices to a long-term extension or letting Long sign elsewhere.

The Dolphins (5-7) will start rookie Jonathan Martin at left tackle for the remainder of the season. Martin’s performance over the final four games could determine if Long returns to Miami next season.

AFC East draft primer: Patriots

November, 29, 2012
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With the 2012 regular season nearing its conclusion, the AFC East blog decided to take an early glance at the draft and 2013 offseason. We conclude our first look around the division with the reigning AFC East champions.

New England Patriots (8-3)

Key free agents: WR Wes Welker, CB Aqib Talib, S Patrick Chung

Needs: S, CB, WR

Analysis: The Patriots will be drafting toward the end of the first round, because they are a quality team heading to the playoffs. New England doesn’t have a lot of holes to fill, but pass defense is the biggest issue. Expect the Patriots to stock up on good safeties and cornerbacks. Talib and Chung are both free agents and may not return. Receiver depth also will be an issue. Welker is playing on a one-year franchise tag and the Patriots are not expected to pay Welker market value for his immense production. The emergence of Julian Edelman this season would ease that blow. But depth will be needed on the outside.

Early targets: CB Johnthan Banks, Miss St.; S Kenny Vaccaro, Texas; WR Robert Woods, USC
I'm not a fan of conspiracy theories. In fact, I mostly ignore them.

But I was particularly intrigued by one theory this week from veteran CBSSports.com columnist Mike Freeman. He suggests the mysterious reduction in playing time for Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker could be a sign that the New England Patriots are preparing for a trade.

Welker
"What might be happening here. ...is that the Patriots aren't phasing Welker out. They are preparing to trade him. Several league sources said this is more than some remote possibility. This might actually be a probability and the team is seeing if Edelman could fit into Welker's shoes should the team trade him.

"This is more the Patriots Way than a phasing out. A sort of stashing of Welker -- and by trading Welker, they would have total control of his destination city. The Patriots traded Randy Moss, and trading Welker before the Oct. 30 deadline would be very Bill Belichick."

Hmmmm. This is an interesting thought, to say the least.

For starters, Welker has one year left on his contract. I've written several times that extensions for tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are strong indicators Welker is not coming back in 2013. There's only so much cap room to spend on offensive skill players, and Gronkowski, Hernandez and Tom Brady are taking up most of the pie. If this is Welker's last year in New England, why not get value instead of letting him walk in the offseason?

Also, as Freeman mentioned, the Patriots traded Moss when it was unexpected. New England traded Richard Seymour when it was unexpected. Would they be above trading Welker if the price is right?

Finally, playing Julian Edelman could be an early test to see if Edelman can fill Welker's role for a lot less money, Freeman writes. Welker is making $9.5 million this season. If Edelman struggles, the Patriots don't have to make the Welker trade and can always go back to the way it was.

Keep in mind that these are just conspiracy theories. On the surface, it would be surprising if New England traded Welker. But this has been a strange saga from the beginning where you cannot completely rule anything out.

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