Would the Patriots consider using the franchise tag to retain wide receiver Randy Moss?
The answer will become known over the next two weeks because today marks the start of the 15-day period in which teams can assign the tag to players. The Patriots have 13 players scheduled for unrestricted free agency, a group headlined by Moss and cornerback Asante Samuel.
The Patriots cannot use the tag to retain Samuel, per an agreement between the sides last year. So that leaves Moss as the next likely possibility.
If the Patriots place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Moss, it would strongly increase the likelihood of his return to New England in 2008. Other teams could still sign Moss to an offer sheet, but would have to forfeit two first-round draft choices if the offer isn't matched by the Patriots. Because of that steep price, it is unlikely another team would submit an offer sheet to any franchise player.
The franchise-tag figure for receivers is $7.84 million for one year, which represents the average salary cap charge of the highest-paid five receivers in 2007.
Moss has stated he would like to return to New England, although it is not known if he would be amenable to the franchise tag. Players generally loathe the tag because it restricts their ability to fully benefit from unrestricted free agency, and receive the large up-front bonus that generally comes with longer-term contracts.
Prior to the Super Bowl, owner Robert Kraft touched on how he enjoyed having Moss as part of the Patriots this season.
"When I sat with him at the beginning of the year, he said he wasn't coming here for the money, he was coming here to win," said Kraft. "Everything he's done has shown that he wants to win, and he's a real competitor and someone I've developed an affection for.
"I'm really happy that he's been part of our team this year and I hope he continues to be."
The Patriots are expected to undergo changes at receiver in 2008.
Donte' Stallworth is due $8 million in option bonuses this month, and if the team elects not to pay that amount - which is likely - he would become a free agent. Also, Jabar Gaffney and Troy Brown are free agents, and Kelley Washington has a $4 million option bonus due this month that if not picked up would make him a free agent.
Lost in the Patriots' 17-14 defeat to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII was the valiant effort of cornerback Randall Gay. Gay, who is a free agent, hyperextended his left elbow on the sixth play of the Giants' first drive, but risking reinjury and possibly his free agent value, he returned and finished with two passes defended.
Gay had an MRI yesterday and appeared to be fine, according to his agent, Albert Elias. The cornerback, who intercepted a career-high three passes this season, tying him for second on the Patriots, should draw interest on the free agent market. Last year, the Jets and coach Eric Mangini, who coached Gay in New England, made overtures.
Elias said Gay, who made $1.3 million this season, is open to re-signing with New England, but would like more than a one-year deal.
"We want to stay there," said Elias. "I think what they have to decide as a team is are they going to find a starter opposite Ellis Hobbs in free agency or sign Asante Samuel? Randall is a starter in this league, no question. He is going to get a lot of play in free agency."
The contract signed by defensive lineman Santonio Thomas Saturday extends through the 2008 season . . . Free agency begins Feb. 29 . . . The salary cap will rise to $116 million for 2008.
Christopher L. Gasper of the Globe staff contributed to this report.