Pay That Man: Vince Wilfork Franchised by New England Patriots

T.J. DoneganCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2010

FOXBORO, MA - AUGUST 20:  Vince Wilfork  #75 of the New England Patriots  chats on the side line during preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Gillette Stadium on August 20, 2009 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The inevitable happened today as the New England Patriots filed the paperwork with the NFL's offices to designate Vince Wilfork as a non-exclusive franchise player.

The designation means that any NFL team can offer Wilfork a contract, though if the Patriots do not match that offer the team that signs Wilfork must surrender two first-round picks to the Patriots.

As a result, Wilfork will make the franchise tender of a little over $7 million if he signs the tender and no long-term agreement is made between the player and any NFL club.

The obvious question now is, where do the two sides go from here?

Answering that question is not as simple as simply saying, "Well, work out a deal," largely because the franchise tag is viewed with distrust by so many players, while the mammoth one-year deal is viewed by fans as such an incredible bonus.

Wilfork himself made that point, essentially saying that to be tagged by the team after putting in six years of service would be an insult to the player he has become in New England.

In some ways, he's correct. The franchise designation is used by teams in one of three ways: as a way to simply keep other teams out of the picture while a team works on the finer points of a long-term contract, as a way to string another year out of an elite player without having to commit long-term, or as a way to secure a player's rights only to trade those rights to another club.

With New England and Wilfork seemingly a long way from agreeing on the terms of a long-term contract, Vince should be wary about the team's motivation for using the designation.

The problem, as with so many things in the NFL, is time.

Time dictates everything in the NFL because, as I wrote about this subject last month, a player's value is a ticking clock, an ephemeral windfall disintegrating by the day.

Before they pay the players a dime, teams invest millions of dollars just discovering and nurturing players who have the talent to become elite performers in the NFL. They have a desperate need to maintain control over that talent, on and off the field.

The players are always fighting a losing battle of public perception, however, because their salaries for playing a game seem so incredibly inflated compared to what people make at other jobs.

An NFL career is like a lottery ticket on fire, though: Cash it in quick because it'll be gone in the blink of an eye. Players know this; agents know this; teams know this. An elite NFL player is an incredibly valuable commodity, but they have to make a career's living in a few years.

If you go to college, perform at a high level, and get hired out of school, you might have 40 or 50 years to make your living. An NFL player might get one-tenth that, and their talents are, generally speaking, of a more rare variety.

Every contract negotiation, then, is a subtle dance between players desiring security and teams not wanting to extend too much of a guarantee in a sport bereft of them.

For the Patriots, the time has come to front the cash, though. If this were the NFL of five or six years ago, they'd easily have the upper hand in these negotiations. The league has changed, however, and there are no shortage of teams—many run by former Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells pupils—who would break the bank to sign a 3-4 nose tackle of Wilfork's proportions and talent.

In fact, given the preponderance of teams who have switched to the system that depends on a linchpin middle defensive lineman to soak up double teams, it's not a stretch to say that Wilfork is the most desirable unrestricted free agent on the market.

Hence the decision by the Patriots to tag him. However, the next steps are crucial for the Patriots. They've already developed a reputation, even within the locker room, as being a team that "doesn't pay," according to star wideout Randy Moss.

New England are hardly cheapskates. They pay as much, if not more, money to their players than most other NFL clubs. They just spread the money out more evenly. They routinely pay practice squad players well above the minimum to entice them to stay in New England, for example.

The difference is the Patriots have not been keen to extend the largest contracts to their biggest performers, opting to go with younger talent and veterans whose price tags have dropped considerably.

Every player comes with a unique set of risks and benefits for a team, but the Patriots have shown a consistent desire to avoid paying large guaranteed contracts to even their best players. We can only guess at the logic, but there are a variety of opinions on the matter around the league.

Large contracts do bring an inflated sense of worth to any player and can seriously skew the perception of a leader in the locker room.

A perfect example of that might be the comments by Clinton Portis made towards former Washington Redskin LaVar Arrington, in which Portis saw that Arrington's attitude as a leader changed when other guys in the room began making more money.

Arrington emphatically shot down Portis' argument on his radio show, but that doesn't change the fact that Portis, and we can logically assume others in that locker room, took that view of the matter.

The Patriots are a different organization with a different philosophy, but money is, in many ways, a barometer for a player's worth to a team to the players around him.

This highlights the difficult proposition those negotiating the new CBA have to face: How do you allow franchises a fair shot of keeping their players without restricting player movement to a degree that teams are allowed to do what they wish?

To my eyes, it's clear the franchise designation needs to change. You can't just allow a free-for-all every time a player finishes a contract because it's important, both from a competitive and brand-management perspective, for teams to keep their best players when possible. 

That may hurt individual players from time to time, especially guys who get hurt during their franchise-designated year, but it helps build the league's brand by associating players with teams, growing revenue as a whole.

On the same token, if a player commits to four years of service and completes those years, he should have the right to make his fair market value.

For Wilfork and the Patriots, that's something they're going to have to hammer out at the negotiating table.

But if the Patriots are going to commit long-term dollars to anyone on the team not wearing No. 12, there's not a more secure bet than Vince Wilfork.

You just don't get the change to sign 28-year-old athletes in their physical primes with little or no injury history who do everything their coaches ask of them and more.

Just ask the Red Sox RE: Mark Teixeira.

Learn the lesson, New England. Pay that man.


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