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Pats not playing tag

The 4 p.m. deadline came and went Thursday afternoon and the Patriots chose not use their franchise or transition designations on anyone. That decision means, barring some last minute negotiations, that Adam Vinatieri, David Givens, Stephen Neal and the rest of the team's 16 unrestricted free agents will hit the open market when free agency begins March 3 at the start of the new league year.

Vinatieri was tagged with the franchise label last season and earned $2.51 million in 2005. As the highest paid player at his position, the 33-year-old kicker would have earned roughly $3.01 million (which is 120 percent of his previous salary) this season if New England tagged him again.

Evidently Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli felt that was too steep a price to pay for a kicker, even one as valuable as Vinatieri. With the pending labor agreement still not resolved, there has been speculation that teams will be less likely to use the tags in 2006 with cash and cap concerns weighing heavily into those decisions. As of Thursday afternoon, only three players – the Jets John Abraham, the Lions Jeff Backus and Buffalo's Nate Clements – had been slapped with the franchise tag.

The labor problems also could lead to a delay in the start of free agency. Several reports have indicated that if a new collective bargaining agreement is close, the sides may opt to push back the start of the league year to complete it while also getting all parties concerned up to speed on any new aspects that would be imperative in future negotiations.

Franchise players earn the average of the top five players at their respective positions, or 120 percent of their previous salary, whichever is greater. An opposing team that signs a franchise player has to surrender a pair of first-round picks as compensation, plus the original team has the right to match the offer.

Transition players receive the average of the top 10 players at their respective positions. Like with franchise players, their old team has a right of first refusal but the difference is there is no compensation if the team chooses not to match any deal.

The agreement for both is for one year with no signing bonus, which is the main reason why players don't necessarily like the arrangement. But for a player like Vinatieri, who as a kicker doesn't run nearly the same risk of being injured as positional players, or have the cache of commanding an eight-figure signing bonus on the open market, the scenario has been beneficial.

He was tagged briefly in 2002 before he agreed to a three-year deal less than a month later. He was tagged again last year and became the first player in team history to play under the designation. By comparison, Arizona's Neil Rackers, the next highest-paid kicker according to the NFLPA website, signed a four-year, $6.4 million extension last November with a $3 million signing bonus. Had Vinatieri been franchised again he would have earned more than $5.5 million from 2005-06 in half the time it will take Rackers to make his $6.4 million.

Vinatieri indicated during the season that there had been little progress made toward reaching a long-term agreement that would allow him to likely end his career in New England. With the safety of the franchise tag no longer present, perhaps the incentive to get a deal completed now exists.

Givens, 25, is set to enter free agency for the first time. He has firmly entrenched himself as a solid receiver, likely in the No. 2 mold. He caught a career-high 59 passes for 738 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2005 and could draw some attention in rather weak corps of free agent receivers that was depleted even further by Indianapolis' re-signing of Reggie Wayne on Wednesday.

Neal also could generate interest on the open market after starting every game at right guard for the Patriots last season. His athletic, powerful style could be attractive to a team looking for help up front.

Despite the risk of losing either player, the franchise numbers are simply too steep to be legitimate options. Wide receivers will earn $6.172 million (franchise) and $5.160 million (transition) in 2006. Because offensive linemen are considered the same regardless of position, and left tackles command much higher salaries than guards, the numbers for Neal also would be out of range at $6.983 million and $6.391 million, respectively.

Other Patriots set to hit the market on March 3 include: tackle Tom Ashworth, wide receivers Troy Brown, Andre' Davis and Tim Dwight, linebacker Matt Chatham, running back Heath Evans, tight end Christian Fauria, quarterback Doug Flutie, defensive backs Artrell Hawkins, Hank Poteat, Chad Scott and Michael Stone and offensive lineman Ross Tucker.

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