You don't need to be Bill Belichick or Nick Caserio to see that if money were no object, retaining Trey Flowers for the foreseeable future would be in New England's best interests.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2015, Flowers has been arguably the team's best defensive player since 2016, serving as a key component to two Super Bowl-winning defenses. He doesn't have eye-popping sack numbers (21.0 in three seasons), but he plays the edge just as the Patriots like: He's a more-than-effective run-stuffer when asked; he can maneuver up and down the line of scrimmage in passing situations to win one-on-ones with tight ends, tackles or interior linemen; and he can impact opposing offenses by running two or three-man games up front to generate pressure. He's also established himself as a leader in the locker room and handles himself off the field with the kind of quiet demeanor the Patriots seem to value.
But, of course, money matters, and as Flowers is set to hit unrestricted free agency, there's only one card the Patriots can pull to truly ensure that he's back for 2019: the franchise tag.
The window to tag players begins on Tuesday and ends at 4 p.m. on March 5. Based on a $190 million salary cap -- the league projected in December it would fall in that range -- the franchise tag number for a defensive end would be about $17.3 million.
Would the Patriots ever go to those lengths to keep Flowers for next season?
If you look at the team's history of the tag, it's not something to which they've typically resorted. Since 2002, they've used it just nine times, and only three times did players play out the season on their one-year guarantee: Adam Vinatieri in 2005 (departed as a free agent the following year), Asante Samuel in 2007 (departed as a free agent the following year) and Wes Welker in 2012 (departed as a free agent the following year). The last time the Patriots used the tag was in 2015 on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who signed an extension thereafter.
Keeping Flowers on a one-year guarantee for $17.3 million (and a $17.3 million cap hit), would give him the second-highest cap hit on the team behind only Tom Brady ($27 million), who could agree to an extension this offseason that would reduce his figure.
The Patriots might like the idea of locking up their most consistent front-seven player for one more year to make another title run. Or the tag might be an effective way for the team to buy itself more time to eventually come to a long-term extension. But based on that $17.3 million amount -- the second-highest tag number behind only quarterbacks -- it's not unreasonable to assume the Patriots wouldn't go there, especially since the Patriots have only about $18 million in cap space at the moment. While contract restructures, releases and potential retirements would boost New England's cap space, keeping Flowers on the tag might limit what the Patriots can do to address other needs.
Even if the Patriots don't act during the tag window, what transpires around the league with the franchise tag could impact the team's ability to sign Flowers long-term.
For instance, the defensive end free agent class is scheduled to be one of the most star-studded in recent memory. Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark, Dee Ford, Demarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler, Brandon Graham and Ziggy Ansah are all at the ends of their deals. Should a handful of those players end up getting the tag to remain with their teams, that could leave Flowers as the most attractive free agent in the class when the new league year begins.
If the Patriots approach negotiations with Flowers in a fashion similar to those they had with Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty -- allowing him to go to the market to see his value, then taking the opportunity to make an offer of their own -- they may find that he's been offered something exorbitant that would be difficult to match.
The opposite could be true as well, no doubt. If all of those ends mentioned above end up not being tagged, saturating the market with talent at that position, then Flowers' price tag could become more manageable.
That's why what happens in the two-week tag window, starting Tuesday, is so critical to the future outlook for the Patriots defense. Even if Belichick and Caserio sit it out, if others don't, that could factor into whether or not Flowers is back.
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