Monday marks the first day that NFL teams can assign the franchise tag to players, and for the New England Patriots, there is only one player who could be affected -- receiver Wes Welker.
The sides have discussed a long-term contract that they say is their mutual goal, but to this point, they haven't found a middle ground. If they can't by March 5, the deadline for teams to assign the franchise tag, the expectation is that Welker will get tagged ($9.4 million).
The dynamic of the negotiation has been examined, but since the Patriots don't publicly discuss contract negotiations, and Welker's camp has remained silent, perhaps the past is the best guide when forecasting where things may lead between the sides.
With that in mind, here is a breakdown of the Patriots' past usage of the franchise tag:
Player: Guard Logan Mankins
Tagged: Feb. 14
Deadline to tag: Feb. 24
Summary: One of the most publicly contentious negotiations the Patriots have had in Bill Belichick's tenure as coach (2000-present) ended in August with both sides happy, as Mankins signed a six-year, $51 million deal. At the time of the tagging period, the sides were in a cooling-off period negotiation-wise. When the Patriots assigned the tag, they sent out a news release with the following comment: "Logan Mankins is a tremendous player. He has been a fixture on our offensive line since we drafted him in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft and he remains an important part of our future plans. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reach a long-term agreement, despite many attempts and proposals by both sides. That remains our objective in utilizing the franchise designation and we are hopeful that Logan will be a Patriot for many years to come."
Player: Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork
Tagged: Feb. 22
Deadline to tag: Feb. 25
Summary: The sides had generated momentum on a long-term deal when the Patriots assigned the franchise tag on Wilfork, who had previously said such a move would be a slap in the face. So this was a case where the tag served its intended purpose -- giving the sides more time to finalize a long-term deal. They ended up doing so about two weeks later. At the time of the tag, the Patriots released a statement that read: "A long-term agreement with Vince Wilfork has been the team's top contractual priority for some time. Unfortunately, despite numerous conversations and proposals, the goal has not yet been realized. Vince is a tremendous player for our team and remains a significant part of our future plans. It is because of Vince's importance to this organization that we have assigned the franchise designation as we continue to work toward a long-term agreement. We are hopeful that Vince will remain a Patriot for many years to come."
Player: Quarterback Matt Cassel
Tagged: Feb. 5
Deadline to tag: Feb. 19
Summary: This was a unique case in which the Patriots tagged Cassel with the intention of trading him, and thus, they assigned the tag to him on the first possible day. That set up a scenario in which the faster Cassel signed the tag, the faster the team could consummate a trade (a player can't be traded without a signed contract). Yet there was risk in doing so, because it wasn't certain there would be a trade suitor and the Patriots could have been on the hook for a guaranteed $14.65 million to Cassel. The Patriots, who were projecting Tom Brady would return from a torn ACL and be ready for the start of the 2009 season, ultimately traded Cassel to the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 28. At the time of the tag, coach Bill Belichick said: "Matt has been a pleasure to coach his entire career and last season in particular, when his years of hard work and commitment resulted in a most impressive performance. We look forward to working with Matt again in 2009."
Link: News story
Player: Cornerback Asante Samuel
Tagged: Feb. 16
Deadline: Feb. 22
Summary: The sides weren't close on a long-term deal at the time of the tag. Said Belichick in a statement at the time: "Asante Samuel is an outstanding player who has been a consistent contributor for us for several years. We hope Asante remains a Patriot for many seasons to come." But a contentious situation ensued, with Samuel holding out of training camp. He ultimately signed a $7.79 million franchise-tag tender near the end of August and gained an important concession from the team that would allow him to experience unrestricted free agency the following year if he hit a playtime incentive or the club won a specific number of games. The criteria were met and Samuel signed a megabucks deal with the Eagles in 2008.
Link: News story
Player: Kicker Adam Vinatieri
Tagged: Feb. 22
Deadline: Feb. 22
Summary: Assigned the franchise tag a second time with the Patriots, Vinatieri played out the season on the one-year tender. In 2006, the Patriots elected to forgo the franchise tag for a third time on Vinatieri, and he signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
Player: Safety Tebucky Jones
Tagged: Feb. 20
Deadline: Feb. 20
Summary: The Patriots knew they had an asset in Jones and, similar to the Cassel situation years later, they used the tag as a vehicle to trade Jones. The deal came in mid-April, with Jones shipped to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for third-, fourth- and seventh-round draft choices.
Tagged: Feb. 21
Deadline: Feb. 21
Summary: This was a case similar to Wilfork years later, in which the sides just needed a little more time. The Patriots and Vinatieri finalized a contract extension three weeks later.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.