franchise tag

NFL goes tag-crazy ahead of deadline, Trey Flowers about to get paid

NFL goes tag-crazy ahead of deadline, Trey Flowers about to get paid

We're more than a week away from the start of the NFL's new year, more than a week away from free agents having the ability to hit the market and accept new contracts. We're more than a week away from pursestrings loosening across the league, yet the market is already smiling on Trey Flowers.

We saw this coming, but now that we're just hours away from the deadline to apply the franchise tag, teams have finally caved and tagged some of the league's top edge defenders. 

Demarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys, Jadeveon Clowney of the Texans, Frank Clark of the Seahawks and Dee Ford of the Chiefs will all been tagged by their respective teams, giving them guaranteed one-year contracts. All can re-negotiate new deals with their teams, but they'll be kept from the market.

With the supply of available pass-rushers suddenly dwindling, and edge-needy teams remaining edge-needy going into free agency, Flowers is looking like he could receive the biggest deal of those untethered. 

His competition? Dante Fowler, Ziggy Ansah, Clay Matthews, Cameron Wake, Terrell Suggs, Shane Ray and Alex Okafor. Justin Houston is reportedly going to be released by the Chiefs, and he'll likely command as much or more than anyone from that list as a pass-rush specialist. 

While Flowers doesn't necessarily fit the profile of the twitched-up, bendy, corner-cutters that come in atop the highest-paid players at the position, he is much more than an edge-setter.

"He didn't have the sack numbers that [other pass-rushers on expiring deals] did, but I don't really look at sacks as indicative of pass-rush ability," former NFL agent Joel Corry told us on The Next Pats Podcast. "He had 64 quarterback pressures during the regular season. That was tied with Frank Clark and one more than Lawrence had and five more than Clowney had."

Not only is Flowers looking like the premier player at his position in free agency, but he could see the offers thrown his way climb quickly because two of his former coaches are now running teams of their own -- Matt Patricia in Detroit and Brian Flores in Miami -- and it only takes two to drive up the asking price. For those teams, Flowers could serve an on-the-field technician and an off-the-field example for locker rooms with nascent cultures.

He was always going to be in demand, but after big names at the position have been franchised around the league, Flowers is looking like he's about to be the richest of the bunch.

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As franchise tag window opens, potential Patriots-Flowers marriage about to get complicated?

As franchise tag window opens, potential Patriots-Flowers marriage about to get complicated?

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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No franchise tag was preferred news for Hightower

No franchise tag was preferred news for Hightower

Dont'a Hightower wouldn’t have turned his nose up to a $15 million salary in 2017 if the Patriots decided to use the franchise tag on him.

But it wasn’t what the Patriots linebacker preferred.

The music has started and the dance has begun between Hightower and the Patriots. His agents revealed on Tuesday that the team would not use the tag on him. That means Hightower will hit the free agent market next week where he’s likely going to get plenty of interest.

He’s going to seek the security of knowing where he’ll be for the next four or five seasons and the financial windfall a 27-year-old who’s won two Super Bowls in three seasons – and made game-altering and game-saving plays in each – will command.

Had he been tagged, the process for that would have been delayed a year and that security – albeit at a handsome price – would have stayed out of reach.

Not using the tag shouldn’t be read as a sign of non-interest by New England. More like an act of good faith.

Hightower’s going to start entertaining contract offers next week that could reach as high as $60M (remember, the cap is going to be between $166M and $169M). The Patriots – who are either miserly or value-conscious depending on your viewpoint – will hope that Hightower will give them a shot to match those offers or find tweaks to get Hightower to settle for less. For instance, guaranteed money and the amount Hightower will be paid in the first three years should be of primary importance. The professional lifespan of inside linebackers isn’t great.

The Patriots may not want to commit to Hightower into his 30s, but with $60M in cap space available this year and a very good roster sealed up through 2019, a shorter but more concrete contract could be their selling point.

It will be a process. But the opening riff is over.