Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer were all considered candidates to receive the franchise tag, with varying degrees of likelihood for each, but for the first time since 2008, the Patriots will not use the tag on any player.
There's a gamble involved, to be sure. On the one hand, all three players could find lucrative deals waiting for them on the open market. On the other hand, any combination of the players may find a market that's less welcoming than they envisioned.
Let's not forget that two of the players we're talking about all come with baggage of some kind.
- Sebastian Vollmer has dealt with repeated back problems dating back to his sophomore season at the University of Houston. His back was part of what kept him out of action for much of the 2011 season, and he had surgery on his back during the 2012 offseason. He also had surgery to repair a knee problem earlier this offseason.
- Aqib Talib came to the Patriots during a four-game suspension for drug use and has had repeated problems with the law and with teammates since joining the league. He has dealt with hip and hamstring injuries several times throughout his career, and he has yet to play a full 16-game season. He has also been handed the "pied piper" label a la Randy Moss.
There is a chance that Vollmer could be offered a contract to play left tackle elsewhere, but the team that does so would be taking a chance that a) he can make the transition smoothly after playing right tackle almost his entire career, and b) he can stay healthy and be reliable week in and week out at left tackle, where health should be considered far more valuable.
There is also a chance that Talib could get an offer in line with the top cornerbacks of last year (Cortland Finnegan and Jason McCourty both earned around $10 million per year), but with a checkered past both on and off the field, Talib may find that teams are hesitant to pay him handsomely based on seven weeks of good behavior in New England.
So, the Patriots could end up with both back on smaller deals, or could lose both in free agency. It's a risk they're willing to take, but is it one they'll be wise to make?
Those questions will not be answered until free agency opens.
Of those two, the wise one to franchise would have been Talib. His tag ($10.66 million) is the closest to what his actual market value would have been. Then, the Patriots could have either let him play out the year to prove himself worthy of a long-term deal, or used the extra time to find a common ground on a long-term deal. There's no guarantee it would have worked out that way, though.
As far as allowing the free agents to hit the market and test their value, the Patriots may be trying to accomplish exactly that with Wes Welker.
Most importantly is not what he is, but what he will be three or four years into his contract. Will he still be one of the most statistically dominant receivers in the game?
Chances are good that if Welker hit the open market, he would find at least one team willing to pay him what he wants.
That being said, it may never get to that point.
The Patriots went from making progress (via CSNNE.com) to Welker showing "mild disdain" for the Patriots (via Yahoo! Sports) to "closing in" on a multi-year deal (via CSNNE.com) all in the span of about 24 hours.
The latest CSNNE report indicates, "the two sides have come to the understanding that they are far better with one another than without." If that's the case, the Patriots should be relieved that things have worked out the way they have. So should Welker.
Which of the three free agents is most important?
The Patriots could be saying goodbye to Welker, if the gamble pays off, as it has in the past:
- Defensive end Mark Anderson was offered a contract to stay with the Patriots in the 2011 offseason, but signed a lucrative deal with the Bills and was not the same player he was in New England.
- Cornerback Asante Samuel was offered a deal to stay with the Patriots in the 2008 offseason, but took more money to play in Philadelphia. He was traded before that contract expired, and restructured his deal once joining the Falcons.
So, in a sense, the gamble panned out, in that those players did not (or, in Anderson's case, haven't yet) live up to the contract.
It's all part of the gamble.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.