Barely two weeks have passed since Super Bowl LIII, but the NFL is already in 2019 mode. Coming off the long holiday weekend, today marks the first day of a two-week window in which NFL teams can apply franchise or transition tags to players who are scheduled to become free agents next month.
More on that in a moment, but first, some news regarding the futures of a couple of Patriots...
In Super Bowl post-game comments to reporters, tight end Rob Gronkowski predicted he’d need “a week or two to… make a decision” about whether to return to New England or retire altogether from pro football. Gronkowski is under contract with the Patriots through this coming 2019 season, but you may recall that he spent a considerable chunk of the 2018 offseason mulling whether or not he wanted to continue playing football.
Speaking to ESPN’s NFL Live program earlier this afternoon, agent Drew Rosenhaus, who represents Gronkowski, offered this update on his client’s mindset.
“I checked in with Gronk a couple of days ago. I talked with the Patriots about it,” said Rosenhaus. “He’s thinking it through, he’s giving it a lot of thought… I don’t want to put any pressure on him and give him a time-frame, but I imagine [his decision] will be sometime in the next couple of weeks.”
Stay tuned. Meantime, Rosenhaus also represents left tackle Trent Brown, who is scheduled to become a free agent next month after just one season in Foxborough. After arriving in a trade with San Francisco last offseason, Brown completed a healthy and successful season with the Patriots, which led Rosenhaus to express excitement over Brown’s prospects for an active foray in free agency.
Though he didn’t entirely rule out Brown's eventual return to New England, Rosenhaus seemed to suggest that it would be a competitive market for his services. This is assuming, of course, that the Patriots don’t elect to tag Brown to keep him employed in Foxborough. Between now and 4 p.m. Eastern on March 5, NFL teams can try to keep one of their own potential free agents by assigning either the franchise or transition tag to that player.
Since becoming head coach of the Patriots in 2000, Bill Belichick has used the tag option nine times, or roughly half the time he’s been in charge. That’s tied for second-most in the NFL with Kansas City over that span. Only the Seahawks have used it more (10 times).
Reminder, the franchise tag comes in two tiers: exclusive-rights and non-exclusive. The former virtually assures that a player can only suit up for his current club in the upcoming season, while the latter allows for the player to seek a better deal elsewhere. If another team makes an offer that the current club chooses not to match, the new club must compensate the old one with two first-round draft choices.
Exclusive rights franchise tag contracts are valued at the average of the top five salary cap figures league-wide at the tagged player’s position for the coming year (or 120 percent of that player’s previous year’s salary, whichever number is larger). For offensive linemen such as Brown, that number expects to calculate to approximately $15 million in 2019. Precise numbers are generally released by the league later in the spring.
If a player stays with his club under the non-exclusive tag, his guaranteed salary equals either the average salary cap number of that player’s position over the past five years, or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary (again, whichever figure is greater).
A transition tag is less frequently used by NFL teams, likely because the current team only gets the right to match another offer. It receives no compensation if a player chooses to sign elsewhere. If the tagged player elects to stay put with his current team, he receives a guaranteed, one-year salary that is the average of the top 10 contracts at his position, a slightly lower figure than the franchise tags provide, yet still a lucrative number.
Teams can continue negotiating with a tagged player until mid-July, in hopes of reaching a longer-term contract. After that point, players can only sign the one-year tag contract for the upcoming season. Teams can also rescind a tag at any point before a player actually signs the contract, or trade the tagged player if a willing partner is found, but if a tag is rescinded, it cannot be reapplied to another player in the same offseason.
The Patriots last used the franchise tag in 2015, when kicker Stephen Gostkowski was the choice. He later signed a long-term deal which will expire next month. He, of course, is another potential option for whom the team could use this year’s franchise or transition tag, as is defensive end Trey Flowers.
Technically, any unrestricted free agent is a candidate for a tag, but Flowers and Brown are considered by many analysts to be the most likely for the Patriots this year. It’s just as likely, though, given history as a guide, that New England will choose not to use a tag on any free agent this year.