Logan Mankins in franchise tag limbo

DALLAS -- Logan Mankins likes a good fight on the field. Now he finds himself in the middle of an off-the-field brawl, with owners and the NFL Players Association verbally sparring over the use of the franchise tag.

How it unfolds will determine Mankins' future in New England.

On Wednesday, the NFL informed teams of its belief that they can use the franchise tag starting Feb. 10, and Mankins -- the Patriots' seventh-year offensive lineman -- is a prime candidate to receive it. Mankins said last week that he wouldn't be happy about the tag, which would restrict his ability to fully experience the unrestricted free-agent market and land a lucrative long-term contract.

The NFLPA fired back on Thursday, sending a letter to all player agents stating they have a different view of the franchise tag.

"Our position is that you can franchise [tag] anyone you want by whatever date you want, but if there is no CBA, the franchise tags are meaningless," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said.

The collective bargaining agreement expires March 4, so what does it all mean if Mankins is assigned the franchise tag between Feb. 10-24?

One of the key considerations with all tagged players is what owners decide when the CBA expires March 4.

If owners lock players out, Mankins could pursue the matter legally by arguing that he can't be restricted with the tag when players are locked out. The NFLPA believes Mankins would have a strong case in that scenario.

If owners don't lock players out, Mankins would remain in limbo until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

It's possible that teams will eventually be allowed to assign players the franchise tag as part of a new collective bargaining agreement. There is also the possibility that Mankins becomes a free agent if the franchise tag is not part of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Those answers will come in time, but for now, it's just a battle of words.

Mankins had fired some strong words toward the Patriots last summer, saying he hoped to be traded because of the slow pace of negotiations on a contract extension. He was a restricted free agent at the time -- a result of the NFL's going from a salary-cap system to an uncapped year -- but did not sign his $3.26 million tender.

That led to an extended standoff, with Mankins not reporting until the eighth game of the season, Nov. 7 at Cleveland. The Patriots also sliced his tender to $1.54 million.

"After the 2008 season, me and my agent approached the Patriots about an extension and I was told that Mr. Kraft did not want to do an extension because of the [uncertain collective bargaining agreement]," Mankins said last June. "I was asked to play '09 out, and that they would address the contract during the uncapped year. I'm a team player, I took them at their word, and I felt I played out an undervalued contract.

"That's the big thing. Right now, this is about principle with me and keeping your word and how you treat people. This is what I thought the foundation of the Patriots was built on. Apparently, I was wrong. Growing up, I was taught a man's word is his bond. Obviously this isn't the case with the Patriots."

As for the NFLPA's stance on the franchise tag this year, one of its arguments is that the collective bargaining agreement states each team can place the franchise tag on a player "each season during the term of this Agreement." Because the CBA ends March 4, the NFLPA believes that the 2011 season is not a "season during the term of this Agreement."

The NFL views it differently, which isn't surprising. The sides are having trouble finding middle ground on a lot of key issues when it comes to a new collective bargaining agreement.

The franchise tag is the latest, and it puts Mankins right in the middle of a situation he's accustomed to being: a spirited fight.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.