Most observers view the New England Patriots as a team capable of challenging for the Super Bowl without major alterations.
Consequently, there is an onus to retain the primary core of the 2013 roster. It seems reasonable that, with a few tweaks and healthy returns for the defensive stalwarts, the 2014 Patriots could reach their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game, and perhaps advance to the Super Bowl.
But retaining that core is not a simple task, as it appears the Patriots have a pair of tough decisions to make with unrestricted free-agents Aqib Talib and Julian Edelman. On a depleted roster, Talib and Edelman were two of the more consistent performers and probably among the five most important contributors of the 2013 squad.
The franchise tag looms as a potential short-term solution for one of those players. This week marks the beginning of the period in which teams can slap the tag on a free agent, which would result in a one-year guaranteed contract that pays the five-year average cap percentage for the position. Both cornerback and wide receiver are slotted at just a tad over $11 million for 2014, per NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal.
So, what are the odds that the Pats would use the tag on either Talib or Edelman before the March 3 deadline? Here's a full breakdown of the pros and cons, along with a prediction for each player's fate.
Why Would the Patriots Tag?
Before we look at the individual circumstances surrounding Talib and Edelman, it's helpful to first take a look back to see how the Patriots have utilized the franchise tag. During the Bill Belichick era, the Pats have used the tag eight times:
|Patriots' Franchise Tag History Under Bill Belichick|
|2002||Adam Vinatieri||K||Signed multi-year extension|
|2003||Tebucky Jones||S||Traded to NO for 3 draft picks|
|2005||Adam Vinatieri||K||Played out tag, departed in offseason for IND|
|2007||Asante Samuel||CB||Played out tag, departed in offseason for PHI|
|2009||Matt Cassel||QB||Traded w/Mike Vrabel to KC for 2nd round pick|
|2010||Vince Wilfork||DT||Signed multi-year extension|
|2011||Logan Mankins||OG||Signed multi-year extension after holdout|
|2012||Wes Welker||WR||Played out tag, departed in offseason for DEN|
Most often, especially in the past three seasons, New England has used the tag as a means of buying more time for contract extension negotiations. And while talks became contentious with Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins and Wes Welker, it did succeed in securing two of the three.
It's also worth noting that timing matters with the tag. As WEEI's Christopher Price illustrates, how early the Patriots decide to tag their players often dictates their future destination:
Two things seem to emerge: one, in the case of Samuel and Cassel, they were out of there sooner rather than later, and so it wasn't a surprise they were tagged so early in the process. And two, in 2010, the team and Wilfork were continuing to talk through the process, and they utilized the tag as a way to continue the dialogue between the two teams.
That past tells us the Patriots will probably try to negotiate with Talib and Edelman first, then utilize the tag only if they are confident an extension is possible. All indications are that the Pats want to keep both on the roster at a lower long-term rate, a goal the tag can buy them more time to accomplish.
The case of Asante Samuel, a player Price alluded to above, is especially interesting in relation to Talib. Like Talib, Samuel was the undisputed top corner and seen as a vital piece to a potential championship contender. While the price for Talib is higher than it was for Samuel, the former is probably more important in a league that requires teams to play extra defensive backs on over half the snaps.
Indeed, the Patriots played 67.0 percent of their regular-season snaps in sub packages, according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. The Pats have already adjusted for this change in philosophy by opting for lighter, more athletic front-seven players like Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, but the real trump card lies in having a big corner like Talib who can stick with the league's best outside receivers.
Talib's 2013 season can essentially be divided into two distinct segments—Weeks 1-6, when he was healthy and dominant, and Week 7 on, when he was either injured or compromised by lingering hip issues. Here are the Patriots' passing defense stats from each segment:
|Patriots Pass Defense Stats by Segments|
|Segment||Cmp||Att||Cmp %||Yds/Att||TD||INT||20+ yd. passes|
That's not all due to Talib, obviously. The loss of three-down coverage linebacker Jerod Mayo in the same Week 6 game was crippling, and cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington played through nagging knee and groin injuries, respectively, all season.
However, it's reasonable to assert that a healthy Talib had a bigger impact on the Patriots defense than any other individual player. The Patriots are quite literally a different defense with No. 31, able to effectively play press-man coverage and send more creative blitzes because of the security blanket on the back end.
Of course, the reciprocal of pass defense is pass offense, a unit that may have totally collapsed in 2013 without Edelman. And as NESN.com's Doug Kyed opines, letting Edelman leave could bring about the collapse of the 2014 offense:
If Danny Amendola was guaranteed to have better chemistry with Brady next season, and if his health was guaranteed, the Patriots wouldn’t need to bring back Edelman. But the Patriots need at least one sure thing for Brady to target. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has his injury concerns, wide receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins must get on the same page with Brady, and Amendola still seemed a bit lost at times when the Patriots hit the playoffs.
Without Edelman, the Patriots offense will be boom or bust. The 2013 season showed how bad Brady can be when he doesn’t have enough trusted targets.
There's certainly no overstating how excellent Edelman was last season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tom Brady had a 103.0 quarterback rating when throwing to the reliable slot receiver. He also targeted Edelman a whopping 146 times, nearly twice as many as Danny Amendola, who was next highest with 82 targets.
Edelman was not only the Patriots' most reliable target, but also one of the most reliable targets in the entire league. PFF notes that Edelman caught 74.0 percent of targets from the slot, which was fourth-best in the league, a rate even more significant when considering that only Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson were targeted more frequently from the slot.
All the evidence suggests that Edelman provided the type of consistency and durability the Patriots look for in a receiver. So, why would the Pats risk allowing a team to outbid them for his services on the open market?
...Or Not to Tag
Kyed's aforementioned argument stated that Edelman was essential to the 2013 offense, and his absence could throw the 2014 offense into disarray. While there is no arguing how valuable Edelman was last season, that certainly does not mean he will be equally essential to next season's offense.
Think about the Pats receiver to whom Edelman is most often compared, Danny Amendola. In arguing for tagging Edelman, most cite Amendola's lengthy injury history as a justification. If Amendola cannot stay healthy, they argue: then Brady will be without a reliable slot target for the first time since the Reche Caldwell-led 2006 receiving corps.
The problem with that logic is that it ignores Edelman's own spotty injury history. In five seasons, both Edelman and Amendola have played 16 games exactly once. Amendola has averaged 10.8 games per season while Edelman has averaged 12.8, which seems to say more about the timing of injuries than anything else.
|Danny Amendola Injury History|
|2011||1||1||Yes (elbow, Week 1)|
|Julian Edelman Injury History|
|2012||9||3||Yes (foot, Week 13)|
Take a look at the KFFL.com injury histories for Edelman and Amendola (click all years). Neither is particularly comforting. Any argument suggesting Edelman is more likely to stay healthy going forward is simply a product of recency bias.
Thus, Edelman is no "sure-thing" target for Brady in 2014, as Kyed and others have suggested. There is certainly no discrediting how well Edelman played in 2013, and his familiarity with the Patriots' system must be accounted for. But as he himself proved, the Pats could probably replicate a reasonable amount of his production at a fraction of the $11 million tag, whether with a healthy Amendola, Josh Boyce or a free-agent signing (Emmanuel Sanders?).
The argument against franchising Talib is less about his on-field importance than it is about pure economics. As things are, the Patriots are likely to be right at the projected cap, with $128.2 million in 2014 salary commitments, per ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates.
To fit Talib's $11.3 million tag, New England would have to perform some tricky cap gymnastics. While cost-saving cuts like Isaac Sopoaga and Adrian Wilson are probably a given, accommodating such a big number might require a tough decision or two.
That might involve the Pats handing down an ultimatum to Vince Wilfork to either restructure his contract or cut him, which would save the team $8 million, per Spotrac.com. Similarly, starters like Dan Connolly and Steve Gregory might get cut loose, as the two would save a shade under $6 million combined.
It's hard to say if the Patriots are better with Talib but without as much depth. It's also worth noting that unlike when they tagged Samuel, New England has a couple promising young corners in Dennard and Logan Ryan. Neither figures to provide the shutdown potential Talib does in 2014, but the cupboard is not totally barren.
When differentiating between Talib and Edelman, there is one important distinction to make—Talib altered the Patriots' fundamental defensive scheme, while Edelman simply fulfilled a role within an established offensive scheme, albeit extremely well.
Nevertheless, that should all but rules out a franchise tag for Edelman. For all the complexities of the New England passing game, a reliable slot receiver has been a near-constant in the offense, from Edelman to Wes Welker to Deion Branch to Troy Brown.
That's not to say anyone can develop that kind of chemistry with Brady, but history suggests that the Patriots are more likely to find a capable replacement at the position than at corner. In order for Edelman to provide a worthy return on his $11.6 million investment, he would essentially have to replicate his 2013 season, one that may have been his best-case scenario.
The same injury logic applies to Talib, as the Pats do not want to be stuck paying big money to someone who is no sure bet to play the majority of the season. Ideally, New England would extend Talib for multiple years, while also implanting some contract language that protects them against his chronic hip (perhaps a bonus based on games active instead of an immediate signing bonus).
And yet, Talib is so vital to the Pats defense that it makes sense to tag him late in the window if the two sides are making progress on an extension. It's a risky strategy, but it's one that protects the team against losing their top corner and needing to reshape a promising defense.
It's nearly impossible to predict what the tight-lipped Pats are planning. And to clarify, in a vacuum, there is no doubt that retaining both Edelman and Talib makes New England a better team. But when considering economics and the dynamics of roster construction, the best guess here is that the Patriots tag Talib if they need more time on extension talks and let Edelman test the open market.